Meeting the Challenges of Music Theory

Music theory is probably the most daunting and challenging class freshmen music majors face. Meeting the challenges is easiest for students who’ve taken AP Music Theory or who’ve had strong music theory training in summer music programs or with private teachers.

Tom Hynes, who teaches music theory, guitar, and jazz ensembles at Azusa Pacific University, shares his best tips for meeting the challenges of music theory head-on. His ideas work best when applied as soon as you start your first music theory class.

Use a Keyboard

In my first week as a music major, I was advised to do all my theory and musicianship
work at a piano.  This was one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given.  I camped out in a practice room for hours at a time, using the piano for both my theory and ear training assignments.

It’s so much easier now. You can sit down under a shade tree with a small portable keyboard and earbuds…yet, so few students do.  If you aren’t already doing so, use a keyboard as much as possible.  Even if you have little keyboard background, get in the habit of touching, seeing and hearing the notes to the same degree that you use your mind to learn them.

Work in Groups

Music theory is often easier and more fun to learn in pairs or small groups. Have one person be the ‘teacher’ (impersonations permitted!), doing pertinent drills and exercises.  Keeping things fun, light and social means you’ll be more likely to practice with others.

Utilize Resources

Sometimes an outside resource, beyond the immediate lecture, texts and tutorials, can help you register a fact or concept.  There are many out there: I am particularly fond of Music Theory Pro, developed by my friend and APU colleague Dr. Joel Clifft (see his Making It Through Music Theory Parts 1 & 2).

Discover Your Own Learning Style

In music theory, there are often several different routes to a correct answer. And everyone learns and connects differently. Sometimes teachers only offer the one approach they think is best, or the one that’s their personal favorite. I, for instance, am not a ‘step-counter’, i.e., one who determines intervals as accumulations of half-steps. But some of my students are (as is my wife and my department chair). I always cover step-counting as an option, even if it is not my favorite, because it may end up being a student’s favorite. Afterall, it’s about them, not me.

Maintain Self-awareness

Self-awareness is a huge aspect of being a successful student. But it’s not always recognized by a student who takes or has been forced to take a passive role in their own learning.

This includes awareness of music around you, and in your everyday life. I encourage students to look for examples of melody and harmony all around them, not just in the music they play and sing.

In addition to serving on the faculty at Azusa Pacific University, Tom Hynes is a performing guitarist, composer, and clinician. He also teaches jazz guitar at Idyllwild Arts Summer Program and Academy and guitar classes at St. Catherine’s Academy.


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