A Student's Guide to Preparing for the Study of Music Theory

Dr. Justin Henry Rubin © 2005

Music theory is sometimes likened to mathematics as it often deals with problem solving situations, and a different, but only alternate manner in which counting is involved in the process. However, although many mathematicians will argue, there isn't the question of aesthetics in the sciences as there is in the arts. As such, the study of music theory is better rationalized as the examination of historical models and, in so doing, forming stylistic premises and techniques for the handling of musical materials based on the observed underlying principles. Here are a few approaches that may be helpful in preparing for the study of music theory in general:

•  Be sure of your terminology - go back and write out all of the crucial terms covered in the classroom. Write your own definitions and then check for correctness:  regardless of how a teacher might explain something to you, or give his/her own specific words to describe it, in order to understand the concept, you need to be able to put in it in your own terms. Remember, understanding the correct usage of music terminology is crucial as it is the only common ground for musicians to clearly and effectively communicate with one another.

•  Do your homework assignments over again - perhaps just portions, but do it cleanly and from scratch. Then return to the original to see if the corrections you teacher gave you have been incorporated into this re-done assignment. An alternate to this would be to correct your own work if you do it from scratch. Try to think about what the instructor has been stressing, and go over the material point by point. This will develop a strong working ethic as well as allow you to study at a pace with which you are comfortable.  

•  Work with peers - Music is a communal function;  as such, learning together can be exceedingly rewarding and beneficial in understanding a concept from another's perspective. In class you will sometimes work in small groups in which commentary and input from your fellow students will prove invaluable in developing your writing and analytical skills. This will be constructive for when you need to study independently. Employ your creativity by producing original examples similar to the homework or class assignments outside of the classroom - then exchange and correct one another's. Starting to think critically about another's work is in effect putting yourself in the instructor's shoes.

One the core aspects pertinent to learning music theory is the manner in which it will separate the musician from the lay listener in hearing and comprehending music. The student must acquire the mental and aural abilities to adequately appreciate the aesthetic approach and compositional techniques employed by the composer as well as the general music principles of style in order to sufficiently comprehend every element of a work. It is the process through which the emotive and technical aspects of music fit together that allows the composer or performer, at whatever stage of development, to best express oneself through original writing or interpretation of the literature. The goal of the study of music theory is to eventually bring all of these cognitive elements from the conscious to the instinctual.

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