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What is Music Theory?

What is Music Theory?

Music theory is the study of the fundamental principles of how composers and musicians make music.

Royal Conservatory of Music’s theory education starts off with teaching notation conventions such as:

  • time signatures

  • key signatures

  • rhythmic patterns

  • music terms and signs

Students become familiar with scales, different types of chords, and intervals. Once students have a grasp of the fundamentals of music, they are able to compose simple melodies and transpose a short piece of music between different keys.

As students advance to the intermediate RCM theory levels (RCM Level 5, 6, 7, 8), they continue to build their musical vocabulary and learn more complex chords and intervals. Harmony and analysis are added to the mix. Students study different composers and learn to identify the style traits of a piece, the era in which it was written, and the genre.

At the advanced RCM theory levels (RCM Level 9, 10, ARCT), students study music history, learn compositional techniques and their music vocabulary is at the highest level. Students analyze the structural elements and harmony for different types of music (fugues, sonatas…etc).

Music theory teachers that specialize in teaching advanced music theory, can prepare students for exams in harmony and counterpoint. Here is an example of an RCM Level 9 exam question with respect to melody writing, taken from the 2016 Theory Syllabus,

“Extend a given four-measure antecedent (question) phrase to create a sixteen-measure rounded binary form with four phrases in the style of an 18th-century dance. The composition should demonstrate motivic unity, and all four phrases should remain in the principal key. Students may be asked to mark the structural phrasing, provide a bass part at the cadences, indicate the implied harmony throughout the composition using either functional chord symbols or root/ quality chord symbols, name the cadences, and name the type of period used.”

The above sample question looks daunting but at this level, students should be able to understand the technical terms. The RCM program does a great job of ensuring that the learning curve is progressive, not steep, and the learning materials are comprehensive. Anecdotally most, if not all of our intermediate and advanced theory students achieved 80% or higher on their RCM theory exams in 2020/2021.

Why Should Music Students Learn Music Theory?

Music theory forms a common language between musicians. Musicians who use the same vocabulary can understand each other a lot quicker and on a more meaningful level. Being able to compose a piece using notation conventions and common musical vocabulary is similar to asking a software engineer to build an app. The software engineer needs to know the programming language and proper coding convention in order to discuss how to build the app with other programmers.

It is a handy skill. Inspiration to compose music can come from anywhere and at any time. Hearing the melody in one’s head and then putting it down on paper makes the musical creation concrete. Knowledge of harmony, structures, and styles can transform a simple tune into a stirring piece of music.

Did you know that Robert Schumann, one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era, was set on having a career as a virtuoso pianist? He had to give up on the dream due to a hand injury so he composed music instead. He made a career out of this handy skill, pun intended, and impacted well-known composers such as Brahms, Elgar, and Fauré. Imagine if he only knew how to play the piano beautifully but never learned music theory?

Studying music theory also allows students to form a deeper understanding of the pieces that they play. They will be able to recognize certain patterns or structures in the pieces. Students no longer have to rely on rote memory when they play a piece but can predict when a certain chord transition will happen, and the type of chord transition. This is particularly useful when learning new pieces or doing sight-reading.

Many of our music students will learn theory in tandem with their practical lessons in order to earn Ontario Secondary School Diploma music credits. A Grade 11 music credit is earned by passing the RCM Level 7 Practical exam and RCM Level 7 Theory exam. A Grade 12 music credit is earned by passing the RCM Level 8 Practical exam and RCM Level 8 Theory exam.

One can see that music theory provides many benefits to music students and that music theory complements practical studies.

Are you interested in learning music theory? Are you in need of an intermediate theory teacher? How about an advanced theory teacher? If you answered “YES” to any of these questions, please contact us and let us know how we can help you. You can also visit our theory page.


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