Music theory is important to the study of piano because it describes the language of music composition. It’s comparable to teaching English as a comprehensive subject versus just having a period of silent reading with no analysis.
The timing of this article is purposeful as I am preparing a number of my students for written theory and keyboard skills testing. It’s part of the testing process along with playing repertoire for the Arkansas State Music Teachers Association (ASMTA) Regional Festival. I introduce all of my students to music theory, however, whether or not they pursue this particular testing.
Learning the Language
Everything that’s on the page is somehow a part of music theory. Our modern system of reading music owes its beginnings to the development of the five-line music staff by Guido d’Arezzo in 1025. He based those lines and spaces on the human hand, a visual metaphor that teachers still use today.
The terminology of music owes to origins in Italy as well. It’s the country that was at the center of music as it evolved in both the church and in secular spaces. When we use terms like allegro, diminuendo, and poco ritardando, we are speaking the same language as Palestrina, Vivaldi, and Rossini.
The great philosophers have always debated what was first, the chicken or the egg. It’s clear that music began with melody. The human voice was the first instrument, and it could only sing one note at a time. However, when combined with other voices in a choir, harmony eventually emerged. The same evolution happened in instruments music later on.
Melody is often interdependent with harmony, but the relationship between the two has changed through time. During the Middle Ages, composers sometimes used parallel octaves and fifths, and at one time it was quite in vogue as a musical style.
As early as the beginning of the Renaissance, composers banned the use of parallel octaves and fifths. A more rigorous set of rules called Species Counterpoint came to be. That method of composition was so influential that its study is still part of music conservatory curriculum today.
However, over time, melody became so intricate and complex by the end of the Baroque period that a short period of simplification called the Rococo followed. That ushered in the Classical era and First Viennese School composers: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.
The harmonies that were formalized in the Classical era form the basics of much of the music we listen to today. All you need is four chords: tonic – subdominant – dominant – tonic progression, and you could have a simple classical composition, a Taylor Swift pop song, and so much in between. Studying harmony helps a student to understand the flow of the music that they are playing. It can also provide a way to learn improvisation and introduce students to composition, for those that are interested.
A Link Between the Eras
Once we have broken down music into its elements of melody, harmony, and rhythm, we can appreciate music as it evolved through the ages. (I have purposely omitted rhythm since it’s an entirely separate subject.) Most Classical music fans listen to several centuries of music, from the 17th century Baroque forward. However, we occasionally listen to music that goes back to the 12th century.
There are many commonalities to music of each era. One can further hone in on the style of specific composers of each era. A good listener can pick up subtle differences of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms. However, being able to identify just a period’s probably century of composition is a great first step!
Music theory is important because it encompasses everything about the music. It includes the beautiful terminology of Italian that became the lingua franca of music worldwide. It explains how beautiful melodies are written, and how harmony contributes to defining and guiding music through to the final cadence.
Sure, you could just enjoy music like you enjoy a chocolate chip cookie. However, wouldn’t you like to appreciate how the ingredients combine to create a melt-in-your-mouth sensation?