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15 January, 2016 - 09:13
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Anything you do (or want to do) as a musician or listener can be connected to music theory, because music theory is the practice of talking about musical sounds, including the terms used to discuss them and the concepts used to classify, analyze, or explain the music.

What counts as "music theory" understanding?

  • Understanding the meanings of musical terms - This includes basic terms that you may already be using. For example, even if you can already play major scales, the question "what exactly is a major scale, anyway?" is a good theory question.
  • Connecting a term to the musical sound(s) that it refers to - For example, learning to recognize a series of sounds as a major scale is an exercise both in ear-training and in music theory.
  • Understanding the rules for notating the music - For example, major scales can be notated using either a key signature or sharp or flat signs in front of individual notes. Some scales may even feature double-sharps or double-flats, and it is the rules of music theory that call for and explain this unusual notation.
  • Analyzing notated or heard music - For example, if you can see (or hear) that a piece in a minor key is suddenly using the notes of a major scale, you have gained a music-theory-based insight into how the composer created the sound of that piece.
  • Recognizing patterns and understanding why rules-of-thumb work - For example, when you practice scales, you can memorize "rules of thumb" such as the order that flats are "added" in key signatures, but recognizing the pattern and understanding the reason why they are added in that order is even more useful.

You may not be able to find sources that simply tell you what music theory you will need to know and how to learn it, but there should be clues in many places that strongly suggest useful answers. For example, if as a beginning clarinet student, you are given a list of major scales to practice, then you can assume that understanding major scales would be useful. If you like to listen to gamelan music but whenever you try to read about it, you run across certain words that you do not understand, then it is reasonable to suspect that understanding those words might be very useful to you.

Remember, your goal for this inquiry is not to actually learn the theory (yet), it is simply to figure out what would be useful to learn and how you might learn it. In your investigation, try to find answers, or clues about answers, from at least 5 different sources. You can check different sources that are of the same type (for example, talk to two different musicians, look at two method books, and read one informational publication); but I recommend that you try to find different types of sources. (For example, do not simply look at five different method books.)

Types of Sources of Information:

  • Talk to a musician - Do you know someone who can do what you would like to be able to do and would not mind discussing it with you? Musicians may be able to give you a direct answer to your inquiry question; or you may get many clues and ideas from the way they talk about what they do.
  • Talk to a music teacher - One of the main things that distinguishes a professional music teacher from a good musician is that the music teacher makes a living explaining how to make music, using the terms, concepts, and notations that are correct for that music tradition. If you work with or know a music teacher, this may be your best source for a direct answer to your inquiry question. A music teacher who is unfamiliar with the musical practice or tradition that interests you may still be able to suggest useful resources or ways to approach the problem.
  • Informational publications - For example, books and online articles that describe an instrument or a music tradition may use terms and concepts that are unfamiliar to you.
  • Written music - For example, simply looking, carefully and thoughtfully, at notated music that you are expected to perform (or that does what you would like your compositions to do) may inspire music-theory questions that are very relevant to your goals.
  • Method books - Books that are designed to help you learn and practice a particular musical activity (such as playing an instrument, singing, or improvising) may feature explanations of useful terms and concepts. Even if they focus entirely on the activity, the types of activities introduced (such as learning to read a notation or practicing scales) give you clues as to what music-theory concepts would be useful. Because musical understanding is so closely connected to musical activity, such books will also be a particularly good source for practical activities that will help you learn and understand the theory.
  • Biographies, interviews, and reviews of musicians who can do what you would like to do may include unfamiliar terms and concepts. They also may include clues as to how the musician learned to understand and use the theory.