V.com weekend vote: When and how did you start learning music theory?

November 20, 2022, 5:22 PM · When it comes to learning music theory, I was a very late bloomer.

music theory

I truly learned music on the violin, and while I did learn to read music right from the beginning, I learned in a very utilitarian way that was specific to playing the violin. I just needed to know how to make those notes happen on the violin - when it came to everything from the names of the notes to the details of how and why key signatures worked, I did not take in a lot of detail. And chords - what was a chord? I heard about all these things and picked up as much as I could, but I simply didn't have any formal education in theory until college.

Another hole in my learning came from the fact that I didn't take piano lessons until I was in my late teens, so I did not learn to relate the logic of key signatures and other musical constructs to the logic of the keyboard, which is where it makes the most sense. Looking for such patterns on the violin can be an exercise in futility!

When I spoke to Eugene Watanabe about his inspiration for starting the Gifted Music School in Salt Lake City (see our article from earlier in the week) - I definitely could relate to his lamentations about American music students lacking a solid foundation in theory when they reach college. Even though I was a music student, I still began my college education with barely any formal knowledge of music theory. I even had to take an additional class to help me along - remedial music theory, or as we called it, "Bonehead Music Theory."

Not a good feeling, to be in the "Bonehead Music Theory" class!

Having that formal training at a much younger age certainly would have helped, but it just wasn't available at any of my schools (except as an AP high school class - which was hard to fit in with all the required academics). And I don't blame my private teachers. It's pretty hard for a private teacher to go into the kind of detail that is possible in an actual theory class, while also teaching the fine details of playing.

When did you start learning music theory? Did you study piano, and did that help? Did you learn it as a child, or a little later? Or did you simply never really get any training in music theory? Please participate in the vote, picking the answer that fits best, and then tell us about how much music theory you learned, and when and how you learned it.

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Replies

November 21, 2022 at 12:17 AM · We had a surprisingly good class in high school. I say surprising because I had never heard of music theory before getting to high school and I still have not heard of another high school that offers it, other than AP, which this was not. It was there that I learned what solfege was, and what all the different modes were, and chords and inversions. And I learned how to listen for the different intervals. I still remember all the mnemonics she gave us for them, from Greensleeves to Maria to Love Story, to NBC to the theme from Star Trek. It was a cool class but unfortunately the teacher made me really nervous with stories about competitions and with having us do oral solfege sight singing exams. In hindsight I think those exams were valuable, but they didn't help my performance anxiety!

November 21, 2022 at 01:00 AM · I started private violin lessons at age 7 and fairly quickly started learning basic theory from my teacher (key signatures, major/minor, etc.). Starting piano lessons a few years later definitely helped with all the issues you noted in your article, Laurie. Learning theory early as simply a small, but important, part of each violin lesson helped me in that I didn't have any fear of it by the time I got to college.

November 21, 2022 at 01:22 AM · Music Theory after the second semester was my downfall as a music major in college. My school combined harmony, keyboard harmony, score reading at the keyboard and ear training in the same course, and since my piano skill was level zero my grades got knocked down. I mentally disqualified myself from things like conducting and composing. Years later, at a different school I had a piano class that emphasized the jazz-style chord notation; ignore the inversions and notate how they actually sound. That made a lot more sense to me. Then I discovered that I actually can do arrangements.

November 21, 2022 at 01:23 AM · I learn some basic music theory for my ABRSM Grade 5 exam. My parents signed me up for the class after my piano teacher decided I would be taking my Grade 6 piano exam in a year's time. This is virtually what ALL kids from Hong Kong who learn an instrument do - learn theory to pass an exam that allows you to take more exams on your chosen instrument.

November 21, 2022 at 02:43 AM · I voted high school, but got basics before that.

I started taking piano lessons when I was 5, and got basic music theory through piano lessons (what was necessary for ABRSM Grade 5). I didn't study more theory until high school, when I started to get interested in composing. It was mostly self-taught from books until my senior year of high school, when I took about four months of theory and musicianship lessons from my piano teacher's oldest son (who was just beginning his career as a conductor) in order to pass the Grade 8 theory exam and the DipABRSM piano exam. I also took the AP Music Theory exam -- it was approximately equivalent to ABRSM Grade 8. My high school didn't offer AP Music Theory, but I was one of four people in my high school class who took the exam anyway.

By the time I started self-teaching violin as a high school senior, I had already passed the ABRSM Grade 8 theory exam with distinction, so already had a solid grounding in music theory.

November 21, 2022 at 03:10 AM · When I was in middle school and high school I had two particularly good piano teachers -- David Marcum (now in Branson MO) and Jim Amend (now in Tallahassee FL). Both very different people but also good pianists with good heads for harmony, counterpoint, arranging, and that sort of stuff. I have kept in touch with both over the years. Jim especially wanted to teach me theory. He taught me the "Sonata Allegro" form, and we analyzed Bach fugues together, and he taught me some of the harmony that I found useful later in jazz. I really didn't need to be taught intervals, scales, triads, inversions, etc., because that stuff is kind of obvious on the piano because you can "see your theory" at the keyboard. But Jim taught me what all that stuff was called. It was all fresh in his head because he was only a few years out of college himself. Later I had a jazz piano teacher (Bart Polot, in Michigan) who taught me about chord alterations, substitutions, progressions, pedal points, and a whole bunch of other stuff that also appears in classical music, obviously. It was very eye opening but frankly I wish I had been a more attentive student.

November 21, 2022 at 03:36 AM · My brother and I went to a music school that required a year of solfège before anyone was allowed to take lessons on an instrument. So we had a weekly class, about 10 kids in a group where we were instructed in not reading (in the do re mi nomenclature; the teacher was French), rhythm, major and minor scales, keys, the logic of the piano keyboard and some limited amount of ear training. The class did not include any harmony beyond the triads.

This made the job of my violin teacher quite a bit easier and probably led to faster progress in the initial phases of learning the instrument.

November 21, 2022 at 07:04 AM · I’m surprised not to find my answer as a choice, so I didn’t vote.

My first theory instruction came from my childhood piano teacher. She was a thorough teacher in every way and even though my piano lessons stopped at age 12, enough theory stuck for me to test out of the first semester of the four-semester sequence when I got to Oberlin. (I also resumed secondary piano lessons there. Stopping piano at 12 was my parents’ idea, not mine.)

November 21, 2022 at 11:48 AM · I voted twice. If I'd known the figures beforehand, I would have voted "from a parent" the first time. This is because my first private teacher WAS my father, who got me through ABRSM Grade V and the theory exam required to progress (In the end, under my next teacher, I didn't take another ABRSM exam until I needed to get a distinction in Grade VII to get in somewhere - and then, on taking Grade VIII, promptly sunk to a mere pass).

That was the good thing about the ABRSM exams, which were frequently taken in the UK (and, apparently, also in British Colonies and Dominions). SERVE YOU LOT RIGHT FOR REBELLING AGAINST GEPRGE III.

November 21, 2022 at 03:17 PM · High School. after I transitioned over to Choir my teacher, Craig Jones, invited me to be part of the Music Theory class that he taught just before Choir class. I LOVED what I was learning. It gave me a jump start when I enrolled as a music major in J.R. College.

November 21, 2022 at 04:20 PM · Second Grade - Cello primary instrument, piano secondary instrument (required), weekly Music Theory class (solfège, dictation, interval/chord analysis, all four clefs, score analysis - quartet and orchestra, form, sight reading), weekly Large Ensemble class (Orchestra), weekly Small Ensemble (string quartet). Learned violin and viola later.

Music theory and aural training is “WAY too little, WAY too late, WAY too disorganized” in the US.

November 21, 2022 at 06:33 PM · Re ~ How/When Learned Theory? {#12}

I learned or better stated, absorbed Theory in many disguises from my Arnold Schoenberg Teaching Assistant & Pianist for Professor Arnold Schoenberg's UCLA Advancd Classes in

Theory; Form & Analysis plus Orchestral Structure and Extra Composition Mother beginning, one supposes around aged 2 Plus after 'Momma' sat down on a piano bench with a little self of now self to play my 1st composition, 'Momma Tie My Shoes' & composed at exactly aged Two Years!

She was so patient and loving making a game of her very kind suggestions for 'happier harmony' or as she termed it ~ 'Happy Underneath the Song"!! It all seemed Fun and I just followed all she told me but again, like a game to be won with cookies and milk as my reward to improve! {What 2 year old toddler wouldn't want to win a game fixing a 'Happy Underneath the Song' Contest!!?? As I was gifted my first Violin at age 3, my father, a superb violinist, Juilliard & his father trained {Mishel Piastro & later Ysaye Apostle, Eduoard Dethier} + Composer became involved by playing his violin to Momma's piano short accompaniments in little improvised pieces for my violin & also piano at home lessons ~ Knowing this was and remains a true 'Dream Teach Way' to study Music Theory and All the Way Up, yet it is not fair to others here to continue. Suffice to say, by my USC Entrance one's understanding & knowledge that Theory was vitally important was an asset in studies with Professors of Theory yet not as gifted at explaining many basic's as both or either of my parents together or individually ...

This Truth brings me to the virtual Subject of How do people Learn Music Theory?? I admire everyone here for learning and learning a Hard Way about Music Theory because in Theory

Classes in College, it was most confusing as proposed by the Professors calling themselves and I quote "Theorists" which further complicated the to-me simple & hearing it Process. It seems many and a huge number of Many Gifted Musicians went through agonies of Learning Theory and certainly with all Beginning Theory going through 'Advanced' Theory w/oodles of complex and confusing explanations which, in my personal experience teaching techniques of Bowing on a Violin & Fellow

String Cousins is due to those Never having learned Bowing Trajectory from Shoulder, et al from a Great Violinist who could Do All and Explain All minus Confusion! So in terms of Art also comparison, it was and still seems most confusing to many who then 'inner think' themselves 'stupid' or 'dumb' or I don't know What Else's yet This is Not Good and does Not bode well for a possible future LvB or a Mozart or Brahms!! Those with 'Andy Warhol' akin to composition beeps/boops Ideas will, IMHO, surely prosper using computers to "compose" in this crazed thus far, Twenty First whacked out sort of Century! Egads, Folks!!

My Colleague on here admits he actually finally 'found he { I } could do arrangements.' Brava, JQ {#3}!! Of course You Can!!! Each person with Something to Say will find a Pathway to exclaim in their own unique Voice/s via Music Notes & Clusters of Notes then becoming a fused Something they Title: 'Ode'; Poem; 'Poeme'; Salute; Salude; Memory; Piece; Cadenza; and so forth but it shall be All Yours!!

I read ~ "If you have an idea you must do it or follow beauty, for it is Important You Do It!" Quote ~ a Sage Unknown

~ Respectfully submitted for All Here ~

...... Elisabeth Matesky ......

Fwd ~ dmg

November 21, 2022 at 09:02 PM · I voted for in college. Unfortunately I had no music theory training before then. I was a late starter at age 14 anyway, and had no intention to go for a performance degree in music at all. But I fell into that as the only way in college to take the violin classes I wanted to, was to declare as a major. And the only way to be a major was to take entrance exams in theory, etc. I barely scraped in. And I played catch up for 2 very stressful years. I really wish I had learned earlier as a violin music teacher indicated.

November 22, 2022 at 01:27 PM · I answered 'never' - we could not afford private lessons so I didn't get it from a teacher.

I wish there was a 'taught yourself' option. I think my awareness is pretty good....

November 23, 2022 at 07:28 PM · continued-

Since I am a terrible pianist, many of my better harmony ideas come from random, fortunate accidents.

Most leading composers were pianists and had a thorough academic training in theory. Then when they were actively composing they would ignore the rules. Chopin and Debussy come to mind. A leading non-pianist composer would be Berlioz. I think he played guitar. His orchestration has a clarity not matched by his colleagues. Mussorgsky and Charles Ives might be considered primitive or "naive" in their harmonic rhetoric. Then, with the modern, avant-garde, you frequently can't tell whether or not they ever mastered theory. Unfortunately, many aspiring student composers think they get away without doing the theory technical training. Throughout music history the theory professors try to analyze after the fact the inventions of the composers. Only a minority of composers wrote theory textbooks; Rameau, Rimsky-Korsakov, Hindemith. I tried to read some "advanced" music theory books, like Schenker, Schillinger, but they were incomprehensible for me, unreal, like astrology or quantum physics.

For our local short-term student summer string school I teach a session in "Theory on your Instrument" Topics include intonation, intervals, finger patterns, scales, 3- and 4-note arpeggios. What I recommend is that they do their scales and arpeggios off-paper, with memorized standardized fingerings, in all keys. To the usual list from Flesch and Sevcik, I add the following common chords: Augmented, susp.4, Maj7, maj6, min-maj7, min7, min6, b5,7, -4,7 The goal is to make the knowledge of harmony instinctive, internal, automatic. That's what jazz improvisors can do. One test for that is to transpose a fiddle tune or vocal melody to different keys without mechanical thinking.

November 25, 2022 at 02:44 AM · In the private music school where I and my daughters have (had) lessons, the young violin and cello and guitar students are required to have Suzuki group classes. Violin and cello students who are advanced enough to join the school's small chamber orchestra are released from the group-class requirement. Piano students, on the other hand, are required to take a theory class once they're advanced and mature enough that it makes sense.

November 25, 2022 at 08:44 AM · Well, I started off learning the guitar, which had chords, of all sorts. (My secondary school had electives, and guitar was the one I chose.)

Then I picked up a number of Oak books - now Music Sales Corp - on instruments such as the banjo and pedal steel, and their authors went to a great deal of trouble to give theory as well as practical instruction.

I've never had formal training in music theory, it's been picked up from the likes of Pete Seeger's The 5 String Banjo, and the like. And ABRSM books as well.

November 27, 2022 at 08:48 PM · It was a combination of my first private teacher and music class at public school. Piano was my first instrument - I started at 7 y/o and got some basic theory then: key and time signatures, treble/bass, major/minor. I soon switched to violin, but by then I could already count time and read music. I was the geeky type and had a lot of curiosity, so acquiring theory wasn’t a big stretch for me.

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