4 Painless Steps to Help You Learn Music Theory

5064195399_9f77ce9349_bSure, music theory is complex — but there’s no need to fear it! Here, Jamaica Plain, MA teacher Noaa R. shares four steps to get you started…

 

Many students tend to avoid studying music theory and harmony. This can stem from a fear of compromising one’s creativity with rules and numbers, a failure to connect concepts with application, or from feeling overwhelmed by the perceived volume of material to be learned. However, when you approach theory as an exploratory process that helps you grow, navigate your musical world, make creative choices faster, train your ears, and generate new ideas, it’s a total blast. Here are four steps to changing your perspective as you learn music theory.

1) Realize Why You’re Studying Theory

The Circle of Fifths, triads, intervals, modes with Greek names, and complicated sounding chords like C7(b9b13) can seem like a pointless jumble of terms and stock patterns to memorize — but the facts are:

  • Music theory is tools — it evolved as a way to explain, organize, and codify the felt experience of music. All these names correspond to textures or sonic events — which have special relationships to each other and provide you with a set of devices to be recognized in listening and used judiciously in composition and improvisation, just like rhetorical devices in writing or speech. When you understand what they are, what they sound like, and recognize the names for them, they’re at your disposal. You are thus freer to make music as opposed to groping blindly in the dark.
  • Yes, you’re studying patterns and devices that other people have used before. This means nothing – you will find your own voice regardless, using the same means to your own musical end. You didn’t invent a new language when you learned to speak, yet you express yourself fluently and uniquely using the same words, phrases, and syntax as other English speakers.

2) Get Curious

Make music theory a joyful exploration of new sounds. When you learn a new chord, scale, or progression, treat it like a strange and wonderful animal you are encountering for the first time.

This isn’t much of a stretch – say you are learning about minor 7th, major 7th, and dominant 7th chords. Play them on your instrument. What colors do they have? How do they differ? How do they make you feel? What is difference in the structure of these chord qualities that makes them so distinct? Do they remind you of sounds you’ve heard before?

Form a unique relationship with every sound through immersion and play — and I mean literal play. Mess around with these new musical building blocks. Create little grooves and ideas, and maybe you’ll even write a song. The goal is to create an experience connected with the concept — that is the key to retaining information, not rote memorization.

3) Make it Real

Bring concepts out of the intellectual ether into experiential reality immediately. The seven diatonic triads of the major scale should never be left as dots on a page. It’s important to be able to write and spell them, so that you can visualize and understand them. But they aren’t a math problem – they are seven textures relating to a tonal center with distinct relationships and near-infinite possibilities for creative combination. Not only that, the vast majority of popular western music uses just these seven chords.

Learn the triads on your instrument, then find them on another instrument (piano is a great tool for learning in this regard by virtue of its intuitive and linear organization). Sing them as well – often it takes changes of context and approach for something to sink in.

Mix and match different triads, one per measure, to create a four-bar progression. What sounded good? What didn’t? What grabbed your ear? Try writing a melody over it. Ask your teacher to help you analyze a tune you’ve always loved and compare it to your progression – you’ll be thrilled to recognize familiar patterns after a few of these analyses.

4) Stop Worrying

Music is vast. There’s a lot to memorize and keep track of. Understand that you can only process a certain amount at once, so work with bite-size chunks. Patiently trust the process, and you will find concepts become second nature over time. Keep in mind that you need only learn music theory as much as serves the fulfillment of your goals — whether you’re a singer-songwriter just looking to spice up the same old progressions or you’re interested in jazz improvisation. Find what’s relevant to you and don’t worry about the rest.

Theory only exists as an organized way for us to explore what is available, and to understand deeper what we’re already familiar with so that we can use it more intelligently and artistically. It’s there to serve you. So dive in and have fun!

NoaaR

Noaa R. teaches guitar, composition, ear training, and music theory in Jamaica Plain, MA.  He is currently working toward his Diploma in Professional Music from Berklee College of Music. Noaa has been teaching music as a private instructor since 2011. Learn more about Noaa R. here!

 

 

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Subdivision: The Easy Trick for Reading Rhythms Right

sheet music

As you’re learning to read music, you’ll come across complex rhythms at some point. Here, Saint Augustine, FL music teacher Heather L. offers some helpful tips to help you get through the tricky parts…

 

Have you ever found yourself sitting in a big concert hall, or in your room, listening to a soloist play a practically perfect rhythm? Almost all of us have, and almost all of us have asked ourselves, “How do they do that?” Their secret is subdivision.

You might be just beginning with learning to read music, or you might have been reading for decades. Either way, chances are that you agree with many musicians that reading pitches is one thing, but reading rhythms is quite another. Rhythm can be what separates some of us from believing in our sight reading abilities.

Learning Your Note Value Family Tree

As you learn to read music, subdivision is the key to understanding what every note means, rhythmically. You could think of subdivision as a sort of X-ray vision for rhythm, allowing you to see the inner structure of each note. You see, every single note is made up of smaller, or shorter notes.

Note Value Family TreeWhat you see here is a simple drawing of the hierarchy of notes, if you will. In a way, it’s kind of a note value family tree. At the top, you see a whole note. A whole note is made up of two half notes. Each half note is made up of two quarter notes. Every quarter note is made up of two eighth notes. Each of those eighth notes is made up of two sixteenth notes. If you were to count all of the sixteenth notes at the bottom, then you’d find sixteen of them. There are sixteen sixteenth notes in a whole note. Got that?

Writing Counts Into Your Music

Okay, below is first line of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, only underneath each note you’ll see that I’ve written a combination of numbers and plus signs. Each number and each plus sign represents an eighth note. Count out loud, saying, “One and two and three and four and…” If I were to sing this, then I’d sing the same thing on the appropriate pitches.

Ode to JoyBy steadily counting every eighth note as you read the music, you’re instantly more accurate. You’ll no longer be guessing at how long to hold each note. This is especially important when it comes to something like what you see in measure four above. Instead of thinking to yourself, “That dotted quarter note is one and a half beats,” you’ll think to yourself, “That dotted quarter note is three eighth notes.” Instead of thinking to yourself, “That half note is two beats long,” you’ll think to yourself, “That half note is four eighth notes long.”

When I have a really tough song to learn, I’ll write the counts underneath, just like I did in “Ode to Joy” above. What’s really cool about subdivision is that it can be used in music that has even sixteenth and thirty-second notes! Counting sixteenth notes means saying, “ONE-ee-and-uh-TWO-ee-and-uh…” Every note has a specific number of sixteenth notes “inside” it. Just count as many as you need.

Though all this may sound tedious, it actually makes learning to read music so much easier. Instead of a vague feeling or intuition about how long or short notes are, you’ve got a solid understanding of how every single note is constructed. The mystery of rhythm unravels, and suddenly, you’re no longer intimidated by it. You can see right through it.

HeatherLHeather L. teaches singing, piano, acting, and more in St. Augustine, FL, as well as through online lessons. She is a graduate of the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and has performed with the New York and Royal Philharmonics, the New Jersey and Virginia Symphonies, the American Boy Choir, and the internationally renowned opera star Andrea Bocelli. Learn more about Heather here!

 

 

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6 Fun and Unique Ways to Learn Music Theory

Orchestra-Performance-23Staring at the Circle of Fifths and memorizing key signatures isn’t the only way to learn music theory! Here, Brooklyn, NY teacher Liz T. shares some creative ideas to revive your learning…

 

Music theory is a very important part of your musicianship, whether it be mastering ear training, harmony, or sight reading. No matter what instrument you play or what styles you enjoy, those who learn music theory grow further as musicians. A solid knowledge can help you improve your performance, technique, composition, and analysis of music!

For some, learning music theory can be very dry, or perhaps even overwhelming at first. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be all about sitting down with a theory book and memorizing scales, chords, and key signatures. There are many other interesting ways you can improve your musicianship. Here are some ideas to try that incorporate both learning and having fun!

1. Learn to play other instruments
If you’re a singer, then learning the piano is vital to becoming a well-rounded vocalist. And if you’re a pianist, then being able to sing comfortably will improve your piano skills, believe it or not! The more instruments you know how to play and read the music for, the easier it will be for you! You can also try learning an instrument that plays in bass clef if you play an instrument in treble clef, to work on those transposing skills!

2. Listen to new material
I recommend attending many concerts of vocalists, choirs, orchestras, and big bands, to train your ear on what all the different voices and instruments sound like. The only way to really develop your musical ear, and to start working toward perfect pitch, is by listening to the different instruments.

3. Analyze your favorite songs
If you’re up for the challenge, find the sheet music for one of your favorite songs, and analyze it. For example, what are the tempo markings? What key signature is it in? Are the chords major or minor? Then, I dare you to sing the song only in solfege, not the lyrics, on the correct pitches. This is going to improve your theory and musicianship immensely! Even if you think it’s time consuming, it is very good practice. As a performer, knowing the music you’re singing or playing inside and out is key!

4) Find visuals
If you’re a visual learner like I am, consider placing music theory posters around your music room, or somewhere you can always see them. There are also clocks that represents the Circle of Fifths (like this one); every time you look at it, you will start to memorize the key signatures!

5) Incorporate movement
I encourage dancing and movement when learning music theory, especially with my younger students. This can really help you gain a sense of musicality and feel the rhythm in your body. Freeze dancing, ballet, tap, zumba, and yoga are all great ways to be lyrical with your body. And by dancing regularly, your body will begin to internalize the rhythm automatically, so that when it’s time for sight reading and performing rhythms it’s going to second nature for you!

6) Try composing a song
I also encourage you to try composing music on your instrument! Write your own chord progressions, melody, and rhythms without thinking too much about it, and remember that it’s okay to start simple and to make mistakes. Just write whatever comes to mind. Then start to analyze what you have just written, and you may be surprised with the masterpiece you have created!

I highly recommend trying out these ideas as you learn music theory — they are fun, creative, and much more hands-on than staring at a book!

LizTLiz T. teaches online singing, acting, and music lessons. She is a graduate of the Berklee College of Music with a B.M in Vocal performance and currently performs/teaches all styles of music including Musical Theater, Classical, Jazz, Rock, Pop, R&B, and Country. Learn more about Liz here!

 

 

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Why Learning Piano Theory is Important for All Musicians

2784995695_22c1d7ba7a_bStruggling to understand music theory? Try heading over to the piano — seeing a visual representation can help a ton! Here, Lowell, IN teacher Blake C. shares how to get started…

 

Many musicians avoid learning music theory altogether because it can feel much like learning a foreign language; as a result, many musicians enlist in the anti-music theory organization. I will admit it – I was a member of the anti-music theory organization in my early years, declaring that music theory corrupts the instinctiveness of musical ability and creativity.

In time, however, I’ve uncovered numerous reasons why music theory is a necessary evil. The three top reasons are: composition, improvisation, and rehearsals. The first two reasons came about because I was fed up with not understanding which notes worked with other notes when I was trying to write a song, and even more frustrated when I tried to improvise on the fly. The third reason I realized when I began to feel like a knucklehead during rehearsals when the keyboardist and bass player were discussing chord progressions, and I had no idea what the heck they were talking about.

Still, it can be difficult for some instrumentalists – especially guitar players – to comprehend music theory. One thing that helped me along the way, though, was putting down my guitar and taking my music theory books to the piano instead. Within minutes, my understanding of music theory began to expand rapidly.

No matter what instrument you play, if you’re struggling with learning music theory, take a step back and head to a piano for a quick lesson.

An Introduction to Piano Theory

To begin, take a look at the keyboard image below and notice the repeating notes in each octave.

figure 1

Music theory is a way to explain harmony, melody, and rhythm. Using the piano keyboard to learn simplifies it because of the instrument’s layout. A piano keyboard is divided up in half steps, octave after repeating octave, which instantly eliminates the guess work. There are no surprises found on a piano keyboard – each octave repeats the exact same format.

Piano Theory and Range

Another factor illustrating the importance of piano theory is the range of the instrument. Think about chord progressions, for example. As you develop your skill on your respective instrument, you’ll eventually be able to identify these chord patterns quickly. However, many instruments do not offer a range as great as the piano. You’ll be able to aurally appreciate chord progressions in a wide range of octaves with the piano.

Those chord progressions also represent harmony. The piano, unlike other instruments, offers you a chance to more completely understand the music theory behind harmony. A flautist, on the other hand, often begins with a more limited understanding of harmony than a pianist does, since the flute is a single-line melody instrument.

Using Piano Theory to Understand Enharmonic Notes

Similar to harmony, using a piano will help you understand how enharmonic notes – two note names with identical pitch – align in music. In the image below, one octave of the keyboard is provided and includes the note names for the white and black keys.

Figure 2

The keyboard notes on the piano are easily understood because they are repeated in the exact same pattern from one octave to the next. Having a visual representation of these enharmonic notes makes it much easier to understand (and then apply to your own instrument).

Using Piano Theory to Understand Key Signatures

The final point I will cover is how the piano simplifies learning the key signatures.  Early on in your music theory studies, you will learn the formulas to create scales. You read correctly – formulas. For instance, the formula for a major scale is whole-whole-half-whole-whole-whole-half. To visualize this, using the image below, begin on the first ‘C” on the left and then move up one whole step to the “D” note. Continue using the formula for a major scale to continue up the keyboard until you end on the next “C” note. If you correctly followed the formula, the only notes you would have landed on were natural notes, without accidentals (sharps or flats). The key of “C” has no sharps or flats in the key or the key signature.

C Major

Next, using this last image below, begin on the first “D” note and follow the same formula. If you followed the formula correctly, you would have landed on two black keys during your progression up the scale – F# and C#. For this reason, the key signature for the key of “D” has two sharps – F# and C#. Simple!

D Major

Taking into consideration the simple layout of the piano keyboard, the wonderfully large range, and the piano’s ability to produce harmony, you’ll see these are three big motives to learn piano theory. Best wishes in your musical endeavors, and remember – a quality TakeLessons.com music instructor can help you reach your musical goals more quickly and correctly.

BlakeCBlake C. teaches songwriting, singing, and guitar lessons in Lowell, IN. He specializes in classical guitar technique as well as modern rock and blues styles. Blake has been teaching for 20 years and he joined the TakeLessons team in July 2013. Learn more about Blake here! 

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How to Prepare for Sight Reading at an Audition | 3 Helpful Tips

sight reading audition

Nervous about the sight reading portion of an upcoming audition? Find out how to work sight reading practice into your routine in this guest post by Saddle Brook, NJ teacher Christian D...

 

“Be prepared to sight read.”

That dreaded requirement on all auditions that makes us all nervous. But the fact is, you shouldn’t be! Sight reading is a learned skill, just like everything else in music. Think of it as sight reading a passage from a book in front of an audience. With so many books available on the market today, it makes preparing even easier.

How Do I Prepare? I Have Never Seen the Music Before

First of all, stay calm! If you know you are going to have to sight read for an audition, go online or to your local music store and find a book of etudes or sight reading exercises at your playing level. It doesn’t even have to be for your instrument. Then, just like you practice your scales, you can practice sight reading. It is important to practice it regularly, just like everything else. For myself, I play one page a day, then put a hash mark on the top of the page to mark that I’ve done it. Then the next day, I play the next page. Often the books are long enough that by the time I get to the end of the book I have forgotten the first example, so I start the process over.

That being said, having a direct method of how to practice the sight reading examples is important, too. Practicing them like normal etudes defeats the purpose of sight reading. I treat each day like it’s an audition. I look at the key signature and time signature, identify the hardest sections, then set a reasonable tempo for myself if there is not a tempo indicated. If the tempo indicated is too fast, I choose a slower tempo, but still try to push myself to make it as realistic as possible.

If you do this every day, you will notice a dramatic increase in your ability to sight read. You will realize it is more an issue of relaxing and focusing rather than technical ability. This will also give you additional confidence when you actually have to sight read in an audition.

Selecting Your Sight Reading Material

Choosing sight reading material to practice with is also important. Even though any kind of sight reading practice is beneficial, you want to choose material appropriate for your situation to best prepare. Classical players should choose classically oriented etudes and pieces. Jazz players should choose jazz-oriented etudes and pieces. You don’t have to practice out of sight reading books, either. You can pick up any piece you haven’t studied extensively and treat it as sight reading practice. That means orchestral excerpts, solo repertoire, big band charts (scores are cheap), tunes, and anything else you can get your hands on is fair game.

I myself have multiple orchestral and solo repertoire books to practice from, as well as some big band charts. These are the most applicable for me, since sight reading is a required part of being a musician in the New York City area. I also use “Develop Sight Reading” by Gaston Dufresne, edited by Roger Voisin for classical sight-reading and an older version of “Modern Jazz Licks for Sight Reading” by Eddie Harris for jazz sight reading (both advanced level sight reading).

So, relax, find some sight reading material, practice different material every day, and I guarantee your next sight reading audition will go much better!

Christian DChristian D. teaches saxophone, trombone, tuba, music theory, and more in Saddle Brook, NJ. He just completed his BM in Music Education and Saxophone Performance at SUNY Fredonia, and is now pursuing his Masters in Jazz performance at New Jersey City University. Learn more about Christian here!

 

 

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How to Transition from Classical Pianist to Jazz Pianist

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Piano music doesn’t have to be all classical, all the time! Here’s what you need to know about getting started with jazz piano chord progressions, courtesy of St. Augustine, FL teacher Heather L...

 

Thelonius Monk, Herbie Hancock, and Duke Ellington are just a few of the great jazz piano players. What beautiful and fascinating sounds fill our ears when their names come to mind! The seemingly illusive progressions and spontaneous elements, like syncopation and improvisation, sound virtually like magic. To those of us who were trained in the classical tradition only, the journey from classical pianist to jazz pianist may seem like a long one. But it’s not be as difficult as it seems. By learning basic blues scales and jazz piano chord progressions, you’ll be taking the first important step in transitioning to jazz piano.

For those of us who’ve learned Hanon exercises, there’s an excellent resource called “Hanon to Jazz” (published by FJH Music Company Inc.). Specifically written for classically trained players, its fun and brilliant exercises and songs are a terrific introduction. They’ll have you playing the blues in no time. It’s a great map for your journey.

For those of you who’ve yet to learn Hanon exercises, Dariusz Terefenko’s created a great workbook, “Jazz Theory: From Basic to Advanced Study”, published by Routledge. I also recommend Tim Richards’ “Exploring Jazz Piano: Volume 1”, published by Schott.

One of the first stretches of road on your journey is learning jazz piano chord progressions.

The two, five, one, and six (ii-V-I-vi) chord progression, is one of the most famous and useful. An example is:

D minor-G major-C major-A minor

Here’s a video of how to play it:

The one, six, two, five, and one (I-VI-II-V-I) chord progression is another that could be tried with an improvised melody in the right hand. An example of the progression is:

C major-A minor-D minor-G major-C major

Here’s a video of how to play it:

Next, take a look at the chord chart below. It shows which keys to play together to create each chord. It’s fun to mix and match to make sounds that appeal to you.

chord chart

The second stretch of road is paved with learning jazz scales. Here’s a picture of several blues scales:

Blues Scale

As with the learning of any genre, listening is so utterly important. This is especially true for those of us who are adopting a new style. The best jazz musicians in the world listen to jazz all of the time. Think of yourself as a hungry traveler and that music is your sole nourishment. You won’t get very far without it.

HeatherLHeather L. teaches singing, piano, acting, and more in St. Augustine, FL, as well as through online lessons. She is a graduate of the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and has performed with the New York and Royal Philharmonics, the New Jersey and Virginia Symphonies, the American Boy Choir, and the internationally renowned opera star Andrea Bocelli. Learn more about Heather here!

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All in Order: Tricks for Identifying Key Signatures

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What are the “keys” to identifying different key signatures? Read on for some great tips from Tucson, AZ teacher Lourdes C

In reading music, there are a few things that give musicians the biggest headaches. One major migraine-maker is determining keys from the key signature and then remembering the order of sharps and flats. This chart gives musicians a quick way to help with identifying key signatures.

Key Signatures at a Glance

Major sharps: the name of the key can be found at 1 semitone above the last sharp.

Minor sharps: the name of the key can be found at 2 semitones below the last sharp.

C has no accidentals

A has no accidentals

G: F# + 1 semitone = G…

E: F# – 2 semitones = E…

D: F#, C#

B: F#, C#

A: F#, C#, G#

F#: F#, C#, G#

E: F#, C#, G#, D#

C#: F#, C#, G#, D#

B: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#

G#:  F#, C#, G#, D#, A#

F#: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#

D#: F#, C#, G#, D# A#, E#

C#: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#

A#: F#, C#, G#, D#, A#, E#, B#

Major flats: the name of the key can be found at 7 semitones above the last flat.

Minor flats: the name of the key can be found at 4 semitones above the last flat.

F: Bb + 7 semitones = F…

D: Bb + 4 semitones = D…

Bb: Bb, Eb

G: Bb, Eb

Eb: Bb, Eb, Ab

C: Bb, Eb, Ab

Ab: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db

F: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db

Db: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb

Bb: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb

Gb: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb

Eb: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb

Cb: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb

Ab: Bb, Eb, Ab, Db, Gb, Cb, Fb

Written Order of Accidentals and Example Key Signatures

Figure 1Let’s work on identifying key signatures by looking at the image above. The last flat in this case is F (Fb is E, in enharmonic spelling). From Fb, count up 7 semitones (half-steps) and keep the enharmonic spellings for E and B (Fb and Cb, respectively): Fb -F-Gb-G-Ab-A-Bb-Cb (B) – key of Cb major. Count four semitones up and you get Ab minor, the relative minor of Cb. Even if you don’t know the mode, either major or minor, by using this key signature method, you will always be able to find the major and relative minor for any signature you encounter.

Figure 2

This next key signature has one accidental. Avoid assuming that this is Bb major or minor. This is actually Fb major. Fb minor is actually E minor, which is a sharp key. This method will help you work through the Circle of Fifths and understand the relationship between tonal arrangements in keys.

Other Problems to Avoid

Accidentals (sharps and flats symbols) are written in descending order from top right to bottom left on the staff. So, knowing the last flat or sharp requires that you remember the order of sharps and flats, because on the staff, the last accidental may appear higher than the first, which can trick you into thinking it’s the first accidental. This is Bb major, as an example:

Figure 3

Mnemonic for the Order of Sharp and Flats

The order of flats is BEADGCF (“bead” – gcf). A good mnemonic is “bead the G clef from middle C to the F clef”. If you can remember that, just know that for sharps, it will be backwards: FCGDAEB. If you remember only that mnemonic and the counts in the chart above, you’ll always be in the right order and you can identify keys by their signatures alone with just a little practice. To practice, find any good graphic image for the Circle of Fifths and try this for yourself! Happy music-making!

LourdesLourdes C. teaches various music subjects and tutors in Tucson, AZ. Her doctorate is in Applied Linguistics and American Indian Studies. She has been an instructor and tutor for over 20 years for academics, research methods, languages and literature, and music as well. Book in-person or online lessons with Lourdes here!

 

 

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