Combining music theory with piano lessons | How I approach music theory with young students

in sonicgroove •  9 months ago 


Music theory, in some unfortunate scenarios, is seen as a boring and unnecessary element of music making. Not only is it an unpleasant task, the retention of this information is sacrificed and a working theoretical knowledge of music is compromised. General knowledge and theory should be part of each lesson with your student.

In practical lessons, you can interject and state some facts about particular parts of a student’s piece to make it seem less of a formality. Young students are generally curious so it may be wise to overshoot the mark when explaining something on the page. This will encourage developed answers and explanations rather than by rote.

For example, let’s review the theory requirements for a popular preparatory music examination board and how we can explain them in a personable manner.

  • Name any letter names of notes and values (including numerical) using any correct terminology.

Extend the identification of a note by letter by also asking what type of note it is (e.g. crotchet). If they don’t know the answer to this, you can then ask it in a slightly different way such as “How long do you hold this note for?” (numerical value). Asking the student to play the note in the context of a bar or phrase will also assist in discovering the answer. Ask additional questions about different notes so that you cover all the requirements.

  • Recognise and name the treble and bass clefs and the staff.

Remind them that the treble clef plays the right-hand and the bass clef plays the left-hand (an assumption at the early levels). Explain that the treble clef is also called the ‘G clef’, because when you draw the clef it starts on a line that indicates where ‘G’ is on the staff. Consequently, the bass clef is called the ‘F clef’ because it starts on the line that indicates ‘F’ on the staff. Students will find this fascinating and it also serves as another way to identify notes on the staff without having to resort to acronyms and mnemonics.

  • Recognise and explain the time signature.

Get the student to count the number of beats in each bar from one of their pieces. It will add up to the top number of the time signature. Explain that the top number refers to the number of beats in a bar. An inquisitive learner will question what the bottom number is for. The simplest way to explain this is to say that it refers to the type of beat. If you take the bottom number and turn it into a fraction under ‘1’, it will refer to the type of beat. For example if the time signature is 4/4, the type of beat refers to a ¼ (quarter) note which is, of course, a crotchet. So 4/4 means four crotchet (quarter) beats per bar.


  • Recognise and explain the sharp, flat, natural, accent, slur and tie.

Take a piece that is already known to the student, which has a sharp or a flat, and ask them to play it on the piano. Demonstrate that this sharp or flat raises or lowers the note a semitone by playing the note without it. To explain what each accidental does, you could say that a flat refers to a flat tyre (so the note goes down a semitone!) and consequently that sharp would mean the opposite. A natural then becomes easy to explain — it just cancels out a sharp or a flat. It is also vital that you state that sharps and flats can correspond to either black or white keys. What matters is that you explain the right note.

Accents can be identified by “big crocodile jaws” and the sound they would make when they snap! (strong and loud). Slurs are lines that connect a group of notes and are to be played smoothly (legato). Slurs will make much more sense when you say that a tie is different to a slur because it joins two notes of the same pitch and the line connects the two “heads” of the notes. A tie means the notes are not to be repeated but to be held for the duration of both notes.


When a student understands the elementary rudiments of music, they will have a much greater understanding of the context in how they play their pieces. It also sets them up for independent learning and discovery of new or unseen music.

And remember...

If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.
(Albert Einstein)

Yours truly,

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I love your idea of flat being a symbol of flat tyre...


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I was probably not a typical piano student in that I've always been fascinated by music theory. And even as a kid I wantd to know as much as possible about. So I am probably not in the best position to talk about how to learn music theory to not interested students...
Analogy can be a great technique in explaining difficult concepts. And I think it often helps when the analogy comes as close as possible to the concept being explained. The sentence about sharp and flat was therefore intruiging. The idea of the tyre to explain the flat probably only works in English. And it comes close to the original meaning of flat and sharp. A tone that is raised to become a leading tone sounds more sharp then it's non raised variant. And a lowered tone sounds more flat,as can easily be heard when you play a dorian scale on d versus a minor scale on d (b versus b flat).
There are not many languages that are that precise in this musical terminology (German is another).

I wish, I would have more students like you! I think your knowledge of music theory adds a lot to your performance.

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I think understanding what you are playing is mandatory for a good performance. At least, it is for me. If I don't understand it, I can't really play it.

The same is for me.

Getting angry also helps...

Poor students... :-)

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