Helpful tools for teaching music theory
Do your students groan or jump for joy when you say “It’s theory time”? Music theory can be a dreaded chore or the highlight of a lesson – it’s all up to you, the teacher! There are many excellent tools for teaching music theory available for your use these days, so prepare yourself to inspire your students with “theory time”!
First of all, you have to believe in the importance of music theory for a developing or professional musician. Perhaps you didn’t enjoy theory classes in college, and therefore don’t want to put your students through what you remember as torture. Perhaps you want your students to rely on their intuition, innate musicianship, and hours of intense practice. “There isn’t enough time for theory” is a common complaint.
Music is much more than just a learned skill, it’s a deep and powerful language with its own syntax and grammar and secret symbols.
When we were toddlers we learned to speak our native tongue by imitating those around us. We could easily engage in meaningful conversations without being able to read or write, just as we could play an instrument without knowing much music theory. But how much fun is that? How far could we go in the world without being able to read and write our spoken language? How deeply can we listen to music, or play music, or create music or discuss music if we haven’t delved into the exciting world of music theory?
For teachers who haven’t yet incorporated music theory into their teaching studios, here are some helpful tools to get started:
Young beginners love online theory games! Tonic Tutor has a wonderful collection of exciting games that help provide a solid foundation in theory. Many students say that the favorite part of their music lesson is the Tonic Tutor time! Teachers who teach 45 minute lessons, you might consider adding an extra 15 minutes at the end for the theory games. Even the five year olds do well and learn quickly with these excellent games.
Here are some examples of some of the games, which are all interactive, and accompanied by enjoyable sound effects.
Tonic Tutor online theory games (young beginners)
Seeds: For each note the student correctly identifies, a beautiful flower grows from the seed and opens to a blossom! If the student has identified an incorrect note, a weed springs up, accompanied by ominous music. The kids enjoy sometimes being wrong on purpose, just to see the weeds grow. Either way, they learn their notes on the staff while they are having fun. Other note-reading games include Lasers, Note Bird and others. There are a variety of games for reading notes, using different learning styles.
Jungle Journey is a favorite with the kindergarten and elementary school set. It starts with simple steps and skips, moves up to half steps and whole steps and then gradually moves them through simple and compound intervals, ending with all of the diminished, augmented, major and minor intervals. The “Jungle Jim” note character bounces up the scale until he reaches the note selected. If it’s correct the student continues to the next question. If it is incorrect, poor Jungle Jim falls into the water below where a bright green alligator is waiting to chase him. If Jungle Jim is on a black note, a shrieking buzzard swoops down to carry him away. The kids love getting wrong answers, but they also love winning the “jewel” by getting all the right answers. The jewel changes with each game, so part of the fun is to see how many different jewels they can win.
In addition to reading notes and intervals and other theory topics, Tonic Tutor has some great ear training games. One particularly fine game is Ice Cream. The student clicks the “ear” icon to hear the chord of reference, which is either a broken chord or a solid chord. The student then clicks on the single note icon to hear one note in the chord. S/he then has to identify which scoop of ice cream “matches” the note. Students intuitively understand that the chords are created from a stack of notes, just as an ice cream cone is created from scoops of ice cream, and they have great fun making the connection between sound and visual placement in the ice cream “chord”. Ice Cream starts with simple major or minor chords in root position and is a wonderful way for the younger students to hone their listening skills. By the time it gets to all the inversions of dominant sevenths or suspension chords, even the finest ears get a good workout. Some teachers like to play this one to keep their own listening skills in shape!
Eventually the young ones will tire of Tonic Tutor or graduate from all the levels. High school, college and adult students also need something more sophisticated. For those who are beyond the level of Tonic Tutor, Auralia/Musition music theory and ear training software is perfect, and can be a part of a musician’s toolkit for an entire lifetime. Many teachers practice the exercises in Auralia or Musition on a regular basis, much as athletes do their daily warmups.
Auralia is the ear training portion of this package, and includes a multitude of topics and levels:
Even adults and college students like a little bit of whimsy when they are learning complex topics, so the icons and special music are always welcome for any age.
The chord was played by the computer and the student correctly identified a dominant seventh in root position.
The computer played a simple two-measure melody and the student correctly transcribed it. These exercises continue in complexity until they reach college or professional level.
Musition is the theory portion of the software and includes exercises that the students identify by sight, as a complement to the Auralia exercises which are identified by ear.
Private students can purchase the Auralia/Musition student bundle for home use. Private teachers can also use the student bundle in their studio. There are other versions available for sharing files. It’s worth reading about all the choices!
In addition to online games and resources, many students still love filling out workbooks by hand. One of the best theory workbooks is the set entitled “Explorations in Music”, a progressive series of seven books by Joanne Haroutounian.
The Explorations books continue through to college level, and are helpful to 1st graders and high-schoolers alike. Explorations also uses a variety of instruments in the listening examples, so that students develop a knowledge of chamber and orchestra music, in addition to solo repertoire for their instrument. Explorations has frequently been cited as the best theory resource for students who become composers. Many of the keyboard-based theory methods are not particularly helpful for anyone who wants to compose or develop their ear.
Whatever teaching methods you choose, treat your students to a joyful, colorful and exciting journey into music theory!