Making it Through College Music Theory

This is the second in a two-part series on music theory by Dr. Joel Clifft, director of Keyboard Studies at Azusa Pacific University and adjunct professor at USC Thornton School of Music (see bio below), focusing on how to prepare yourself to be more successful when it comes to taking college music theory courses.

See Part 1: Music Theory for Music Majors: Why?

Music theory makes perfect sense. It’s like an entire universe where everything has its place and there is perfect harmony. So why is it that there is always one student who is like a deer in the headlights during my college Music Theory I class?

One problem is this: all of the concepts build on each other so if you miss one you can go downhill in a hurry. You can’t understand voice leading without first understanding harmony. You can’t grasp harmony without first understanding key signatures. You can’t become quick at identifying key signatures until you have a solid understanding of the staff.

The second problem is that first-year students in the music major come from vastly different backgrounds. The student who started studying violin when they were four-years-old and went to summer festivals and competitions all their life is in a completely different place than the self-taught guitarist who decided this year to major in music. Most music theory classes start at the beginning but move very quickly through the first steps. For many in the class, these basic steps are review, but for others it’s brand new and it moves by very fast. Like I said, theory concepts build on each other, so if you miss one now you’ll be in trouble down the road. Make sure you’ve got the basics down before you get to the first class – you’ll be glad you put in the work early.

How can music theory courses on the college level be less daunting?

Start preparing now! If you have a good teacher, they can help with music theory.  If you don’t have a good teacher, get one. There are also many great resources for self study – books, websites, apps for your phone. I’ve got some free educational videos on to get you started. Make sure you’ve got the basic building blocks in place –– the notes on the piano, the notes on the staff, and key signatures. Theory is like mental acrobatics. It’s not enough to simply know your key signatures, you’ve got to know them lightning-quick. So drill these concepts over and over and try to constantly improve your response time.

Also, spend some time with the piano. There is nothing like the piano for understanding music theory. I am a pianist so you might think I am biased on this point. However, my colleagues (whether they are guitarists, vocalists, or composers) all agree that the piano offers the best way to understand music theory from an auditory, tactile, and visual perspective. This is why all music majors are required to pass a piano proficiency – it’s not because we want to turn you all into the next Van Cliburn – it’s because in order to play through chord progressions on the piano you’ve got to understand the theory behind them.  Even if your major instrument is guitar, get your hands on the piano. Start playing scales and chords, read single melodic lines, try improvising or playing a song by ear. It will not only improve your theory knowledge, it will get you ready for the piano proficiency exam too!

Dr. Joel Clifft  is the director of Keyboard Studies at Azusa Pacific University. He also serves as an adjunct professor at USC Thornton School of Music. His iPhone app, Music Theory Pro, has received rave reviews from San Fransisco Classical Voice and the KTLA news in Los Angeles. He is also an active collaborative pianist and has performed with Midori and Ma Xiaohui, among others.


  1. Susan

    I was a double major in music history and music theory, and did an M.M. in music theory. It was taught as a branch of physics. Of the original seven liberal arts, the triduum and quadrivium, music is in the quadrivuum, grouped with astronomy, mathematics and geometry. I think students should understand that math is a big part of the major.

  2. Al Clifft

    This is a very good evaluation and overview of what happens in the music theory classroom. It also gives some practical advice to prospective music students. I have taught music theory since 1972 and highly recommend students have a working knowledge of the keyboard and be fluent in reading bass and treble clef. Having key signatures memorized is a worthy goal as well.

    Can a student succeed as a music major without the skills mentioned? Yes, but it is rare and possible. It will take a tremendous amount of dedication to the basics. There are so many tools available, some of which have been mentioned in Dr. Clifft’s article. I applaud the clarity in which the article is presented and will be presenting this to my classes.

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