Making learning music theory more fun

Noel Chignell said: Nov 23, 2012
 8 posts

Has anyone some suggestions on books or other resources to make learning music theory less boring and confusing ?

Wendy Caron Zohar said: Nov 23, 2012
Wendy Caron Zohar
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
100 posts

Music theory? What exactly do you mean by that term? It sounds so dry and dreadful! I offer the following thoughts.

It is only confusing and boring if it is so also to the teacher. Hopefully it is not that way for well trained teachers with rich musical backgrounds. The student shouldn’t have to feel that they are being subjected to boring or deadly “music theory” but rather, they are gradually learning to enjoy and understand more fully the music they are playing; they are becoming musically literate. I don’t think one should need to use a special book for that, though there are many available on the market, of varying thicknesses, costs, and effectiveness.

I incorporate ear training, music theory, singing with solfege, musical analysis, and composition in my teaching from the earliest steps. In that way the tools of music feel relevant, fun, at the heart of music making, and can easily be incorporated into music games and the pieces the student is learning. I do not use special books, but tie it in to the Suzuki materials, other materials that I normally use for teaching, interactive group improvisation games, and other notes and materials that go into each student’s own notebook.

When I get myself organized I would like to post these ideas in a blog, but for the meantime until I get around to it, if you are wanting specific examples, please feel free to write.

W. Zohar

Wendy Caron Zohar

If we work hard, music may save the world.—S. Suzuki

Sue Hunt said: Nov 24, 2012
Sue HuntViola, Violin
403 posts

If you really want to get into it, the ABRSM series, Music Theory in Practice is first rate. There is a workbook for each of the 8 grades, trial exam papers with answers and wonderfully clear explanation books, including the famous First Steps in Music Theory.

It really is up to the teacher to make the materials enjoyable. My great friend, Penny Sewell has invented some amazing games to get her students through the exams with extraordinarily high marks.

We are looking for someone to help us make them into interactive computer games.

Noel Chignell said: Nov 24, 2012
 8 posts

Hi Wendy,

your approach sounds like the best approach with an integrated holistic style of teaching . Here in New Zealand ”theory” is usually based on the traditional British exam/route learning employed for ”Musical Theory Grade” exams even by Suzuki teachers . We do use stuff like ”Music mind games” etc. but the main emphasis is still based on the traditional British exam structures .

Is your approach standard practice amongst American Suzuki teachers ? I think we need to adopt your approach here and around the world , I find your ideas very exciting . I’m just a parent who has been learning along side my two boys , but I hope to become a Suzuki teacher myself eventually and I’d love to learn more and maybe pioneer this approach here .

Thanks for response Wendy

Noel Chignell

Orewa , New Zealand

Gloria said: Nov 24, 2012
Suzuki Association Member
75 posts

Theory is a subject I personally love. The way I was taught, though, was not interesting, more like the way Noel describes. I teach in the USA, trained at a Spanish conservatory, and at first I was surprised there was no common and accepted way or system to teach music here, (I guess that is one of the reasons I liked Suzuki from the beginning) . Theory has always stayed a big issue, though, since Dr Suzuki did not tell us how to teach it in a more “organic” way, just like we allow the students to learn music with the Mother Tongue approach, through the senses. I have experimented with different things, many of which would be familiar to most of you. But I finally hit the jack pot after a conversation I had with Doris Koppelman on her last visit to Colorado, and I made the decision to travel to see Caroline Fraser in action, introducing children to music literacy the same way we teach them to play by ear, through the senses. This is what I had always wanted, a way for kids to become familiar with the literacy aspect of music, not by addressing their intellect, but by experiencing the music in as many different ways as possible. From there, I find it is a lot easier to continue with the details of theory, taking them from the music they learn, but also having a master plan for the students so that they learn everything there is. There are zillions of fun games and activities, which kids always love. The problem might become to use them all! Like Wendy says, you can and should do a lot of different activities which address different aspects of music. There is literally room for everything.
Sorry for the thickly written post!

Wendy Caron Zohar said: Nov 24, 2012
Wendy Caron Zohar
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
100 posts

Thank you Noel for your response. To address your question, to my knowledge there is no established “system” to teach music theory or instrumental music in the United States, like the British grade system. However, many teachers use various methods which do have books that come in a series, though I do not.

I have a rather wide background upon which I draw in my teaching, and as i teach, the boundaries blur between the various approaches as each one informs the others. The glue among them is my love of music and its ennobling qualities and commitment to communicating and sharing that with my students. In my soup is the Suzuki Talent Education mother tongue approach, the technique of the Belgian approach to the study of violin, the kinesthetic Dalcroze approach to rhythm and motion, and extensive Kodaly work in singing, rhythm, pitch, motion, composition etc. For example, it feels right to have the children get used to singing right from the beginning, with solfege and movable doh, with each string starting its own doh. Such singing is not a separate skill. It IS the music. In this way, the student begins to be sensitive to hearing pitch, expecting excellent intonation, and hearing and understanding music in terms of intervals and rhythmic units. I have them marching or stepping to a beat while tapping and singing the rhythm.

Additionally, I encourage all my students to improvise and to compose, from the earliest stages, so that they learn to sing through their instrument, and make music directly from their heart. In my teaching the tools of music, I bend my approach to each student depending on their background, where they are, and what they need. Method books don’t do that so easily. Write to me if you are looking specifically for some good beginning materials for violin that incorporate theory and composition. The rest is up to the artistry of the teacher. Do let me know.

Wendy Caron Zohar

If we work hard, music may save the world.—S. Suzuki

Irene said: Nov 25, 2012
Irene Yeong160 posts

i found ng ying ying’s book wonderful , do a bit of coloring and stickers.

Carmen said: Dec 4, 2012
 13 posts

Have anyone tried the “Sound Advice” books? We just got ours this past week. It combines theory and ear training in nice “bites”, making it a little less “dry” and seems more comprehensive. Presentation is very clear and the pace is comfortable for my 8 yr old. Even though it is designed to correspond to exam levels, I think anybody could benefit from them. Pretty easy to use so far (sound track easily downloadable from the website with the password printed in the book) and it seems to go all the way up to level 8 (anyone can confirm if the theory level actually gets that far up? I think the ear training level is. I would love it if it does go up to theory level 8. I have been looking for something comparable to the ABRSM curriculum in the US but nothing fun so far.). Definitely would work for the average 7/8 year old and up. For a younger child, I would probably first start with the MMG and the Doctor Mozart series .

Of course, nothing compares to having a rich music environment at home.


P.S. Thanks Irene for suggesting the Ng Ying Ying book. I can’t wait to try it on my 4 yr old.
P.P.S. The text from my first post on the topic didn’t come through completely. Sorry about the incoherent message.

Gloria said: Dec 5, 2012
Suzuki Association Member
75 posts

Carmen, you will not find anything like the ABRSM in the US. I had also looked for a long time, but, specially living in the mountain West, I could never find anything comparable to what I had in Europe. The closest, I believe is the Royal Music Conservatory, form Canada, which of course would be related to the British institutions from which it is adapted.
I know some people who apply their programme, but very few. Maybe in other parts of the country they are more common.
They do have some excellent materials, which I use, and in my opinion as a rule they are very well put together. Of course, you always have to consider how it fits into our Suzuki world. But I have adopted several of they books they use, for different purposes, and I think they are very good.

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