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How to drill basic music theory into complete beginners?


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This is stumping me really badly, as usually I'd simply sit down with my music theory book and simply learn it the hard way. I have also been decently musically minded so music theory isn't a massive scary thing to deal with.

 

But now I'm teaching a class of complete beginners, many of whom have never picked up a musical instrument in their lives.

 

I'm trying to keep the emphasis mostly on playing, but I'm still wanting to teach the absolute bare bones such as the difference between major and minor keys. Problem is that I've never taught anyone who is at this very basic level before. I have the additional problem in that I'm teaching a group of students of whom many play instruments I don't.

 

So, what's the best thing to do?

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I'm curious about this one too...!

First I'd teach them to read and count basic rhythms in simple meter

Then I'd get a keyboard and show them how the octave is divided in twelve, and how these divisions are the building blocks of music... what a scale is, what a chord is, half steps and whole steps, &c.

Next I'd dissect the staff, talk about note names, accidentals, time signatures and key signatures

Finally (and so soon!) I'd hit a wall

 

What've you done so far?

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I'm curious about this one too...!

First I'd teach them to read and count basic rhythms in simple meter

Then I'd get a keyboard and show them how the octave is divided in twelve, and how these divisions are the building blocks of music... what a scale is, what a chord is, half steps and whole steps, &c.

Next I'd dissect the staff, talk about note names, accidentals, time signatures and key signatures

Finally (and so soon!) I'd hit a wall


What've you done so far?

I havent done anything yet as the group has just been started this week.

 

And to be totally honest with you all you have said here is the sum total of what I want to teach in class. The emphasis is on playing and not theory and so any more is likely to confuse people in the beginning.

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I suppose starting VERY basic. This is called a musical note.... We give them letter names such as A, B, C... I can play the same note on a guitar, piano, bass, trumpet... When I play 3 or more different notes together, it is called a chord.

 

Stupid {censored} like that I suppose.

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My instinctive answer to the original question is: DON'T. The question is phrased in a scary and threatening way, as if you are prepared for it be difficult and for the students to find it baffling - and also that they MUST learn it regardless.

Teaching should never be about "drilling" stuff into people. It's about enabling them to understand.

 

Anyway, I would do much as speechless suggests. The emphasis to start with MUST be on the music itself: the SOUNDS. (Here you have a real advantage over anyone delivering the info via text, as in a book.)

The point of theory is to help one understand music better. That's all. So you begin by playing some music, say on a CD, MP3, whatever.

Then you talk about how we might analyse what's going on there.

First of all, how can we describe what we are hearing? (Theory begins with labels, giving names to the sounds.)

We hear sounds of different pitch: "notes";

There is a clear "rhythm": a series of beats with patterns of emphasis.

Those are the two essential "dimensions" of music (to introduce a useful spatial analogy): the "vertical" axis of pitch (high and low), and the "horizontal" axis of time.

 

You can then show how we represent these two dimensions in notation. Pitch is obviously up and down, while time is horizontal (measures, barlines) - although of course duration is not shown graphically, but by a series of symbols: the "note values" and "rest values".

(You don't have to start with a full 5-line staff; you could begin as notation historically did, with a single line and marks distributed above and below it; or two horizontal lines enclosing marks for the notes at various heights. IOW, to introduce the staff as a practical compromise, between simplicity and precision: one line or space is always the same note, but we only use 5 lines because any more gets very confusing to read. You could show piano-roll notation, which shows duration graphically, but is impractical to handwrite, while being suitable for mechanical representation (on both player-pianos and computers).)

 

Now - with the staff - you have a visual framework within which you can display the sounds as signs of various kinds. This is where music theory books begin, because of course they need a visual language to illustrate the concepts. But you can continue studying the sounds:

How can we determine the "beat", or the "metre"? Clap along to the pulse; is there a pattern of accents where it feels like you can count "one" and then secondary weaker beats? How does the pulse divide up? Into equal halves (8th notes)? Or triplets?

Where is the keynote? Can we sing the tonic, when it arrives?

Can we hear the chord changes? (hands up when you hear one)

Can we tell if the key is major or minor?

What about form: can we spot sections and repeats?

 

(A lot of theory involves ear training. We have to be able to hear properly before we can talk about what we're hearing.)

 

But the main point here is to use the music to demonstrate the basic concepts.

You can of course get them to play various things on their instruments, or sing - not just clap. That all helps internalise the sounds and the concepts. But always the theory has to be seen as a way of talking about the music(in the first place), and then a way of understanding the music, of hearing patterns and formulas (and of course naming those patterns and formulas).

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I'm a novice guitar player. Been taking lessons from a teacher for the last 5 months or so. The theory has been presented in bits and pieces all along, but we're discussing it a little more lately.

I would encourage you to go very, very slowly. Even a disucssion of simple chords can be overwhelming to a novice. It took me weeks to commit to memory 10 or so "cowboy" cords and the fingering associated with them. That's where my energy went. Discuss triads, root notes, tonics and or anything else just didn't stick very well.

Concepts that seem incredibly, incredibly easy and basic and fundamental to you are going to be challenging to most of your students.

Go slowly. Revisit the simple topics repeatedly.

Pay attention to your students. I work in Information Technology and recently took some technology courses at a community college. The teacher knew his stuff, but as he goes from Topic A in the first 15 minutes of the class, to B, then C, then D, then E, then F, 3 hours later, you could tell that most of us were struggling with B and C. People were staring out the window, surfing the Internet, playing with their phones....he didn't notice or care.

When your students look like they are lost, they are. People are reluctant to state they are lost. Pay attention to your students.

Get them engaged in simple things. Build on them.

Good luck.

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To me I see theory and playing as completely different entities... as far as learning it goes. I think it gets confusing for people when you start throwing application into the mix. That comes later. Once a student has a foundation and understands the supposed "rules" of music, then during their performance part you can point out this stuff they learned. "See here... the difference between AMaj and Amin is this one note here ... it's the 3rd"

 

I would follow a good text book. A series like this with text book and work books

http://www.amazon.ca/Keys-Music-Rudiments-Students-Workbook/dp/1551220199

 

This path has been laid out for you already. No point wasting time re-inventing the wheel.

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I'm confused. It's not a theory class? If not, how are you to teach playing of instruments you don't play?

 

I can technically understand the theory and arrange pieces of music for any instrument, which means playing stuff isn't a problem as long as the student themselves knows how to play to that level of music on whatever instrument they've chosen. But should they ask me a specific question on the actual technique of playing that instrument, I'm going to be screwed.

The way the class works is that the student themselves is teaching themselves to play whatever, and then comes into class to play pieces I've arranged for them, as well as learning music theory.

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I can technically understand the theory and arrange pieces of music for any instrument, which means playing stuff isn't a problem as long as the student themselves knows how to play to that level of music on whatever instrument they've chosen. But should they ask me a specific question on the actual technique of playing that instrument, I'm going to be screwed.

The way the class works is that the student themselves is teaching themselves to play whatever, and then comes into class to play pieces I've arranged for them, as well as learning music theory.

 

I see! Sounds cool BTW! In that case maybe take their song and discuss the theory behind it. And give examples of how their part may be different if the song was in a different key, and how and why what they DO play "fits"?

 

I am interested in all responses here as I have always loved theory but have many guitar students who don't share this interest. At all! Not even a little bit! And TBH, the ones that have seemed to be interested just haven't grasped what I'm selling. Much to my frustrate.

 

A few things that have worked are working on identifying Major/minor chords by ear, (many are quite good at this sometimes to my surprise), as well as scales...and for a few, intervals.

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I can technically understand the theory and arrange pieces of music for any instrument, which means playing stuff isn't a problem as long as the student themselves knows how to play to that level of music on whatever instrument they've chosen. But should they ask me a specific question on the actual technique of playing that instrument, I'm going to be screwed.

The way the class works is that the student themselves is teaching themselves to play whatever, and then comes into class to play pieces I've arranged for them, as well as learning music theory.

Presumably, if you are arranging for those instruments, you know enough about the technical basics, such as range and transposition. (I often arrange stuff for horns, and I can't get a note out of a trumpet to save my life...:rolleyes:)

If you face any technical question outside your expertise, it would be quite reasonable to refer the player to his teacher, or to some other expert source; that's not what you're there for, and I would hope they'd know and accept that.

 

But theory has no connection with the technical aspects of any instrument; it's the same for all instruments. Of course, you may need to constantly make transposition issues clear. Ie, if you're dealing in concert pitch all the time (which I'd recommend for theory lessons), they need to know that, and should know how to transpose for their instrument. If they don't - if they only ever play from transposed notation - that could be a side lesson for any horn players that need it.

 

However, if you've written something in an arrangement that they can't play, then that's another issue (nothing to do with theory). It could well be down to you, if it's due to some hole in your understanding of that instrument (rather than simple inexperience in the player). Eg, I've sometimes been picked up on things in my arrangements, like awkward passages in awkward registers, or phrases that can't be played in one breath. There are issues with all horns at the extremes of their range, where notes may be a little out of tune, or long or fast notes, or certain fingerings, are difficult. Beginners in particular have problems in those areas, and in the more remote keys (the sharp keys in particular).

 

Anyway, as I say, that's nothing to do with theory. As long as they understand it's a theory lesson (at least primarily) then you shouldn't feel embarrassed to be unable to answer technical questions.

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I've developed a method of teaching this using UI design and history. As you see a piano keyboard evolve out of the diatonic scale, the reason for things being called the way they are becomes more clear.

 

Basically modern music teaching has a C major bias that causes a lot of confusion. Like, why "C"? Why not "A"? Why does "Oct mean 8, but there are 12 notes in an octave"? History shows that the interface of the piano evolved as the requirements of playing music within a mathmatically derived system evolved. It wants to be diatonic, but it has to cover exceptions. The keyboard is consistent with the nomenclature of the system and its evolution, whereas something like a guitar is based on the evolution of usage by the masses over time.

 

This is why you can know next to no music theory and play the guitar, whereas you actually need to know what you are doing to play a piano.

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