from the Summer 2001 issue

How do you teach theory so that it enhances your students' reading skills?


{To jump to the extra photographs, click here}

Introduction by Craig Sale

n elementary school, my grammar studies focused on rote learning with no practical application to my already functioning language skills. As I dutifully and successfully diagrammed sentence after sentence, I wondered, "Why am I doing this?" Later, when studying the German language, I realized that I knew nothing about grammar at all. In order to master this new language, I finally had to learn what my grade school teachers thought they had taught me years before.

Music theory is the "grammar" of the musical language and its study all too frequently suffers a similar fate. This issue's READING column offers examples of how to teach theory in practical ways so that our students actually become more musically literate. Gayle Kowalchyk, Julie Lovison and Nancy Davis each give us a look behind the scenes in their own studios to show how they successfully incorporate music theory into their lessons. Their articles illustrate how to effectively use functional skills, group settings, composition and popular music when teaching theory. The three authors all agree that when students have this type of training, music reading is enhanced only insofar as we apply it to the repertoire.

In my own studio I especially enjoy those lessons in which students use their theoretical knowledge to simplify learning a new piece. One of my favorite examples is the "Écossaise in G" by Beethoven (see example below). The left hand chords in the first two lines give textbook root position I and V7 chords. When dealing with the left hand in line 3, I ask students to name the notes of each broken octave (D-F#-A-D). They know this spells the D major chord, and that D is the V in this piece. By summarizing that the left hand spells out the V chord, we eliminate the reading difficulties of this spot. Most importantly, students experience the way in which music theory gives them the ability to understand new music. They are able to play a new piece in less time because their reading process utilizes their theory skills.

Ed. note: The print-magazine version of this Department has additional articles by Gayle Kowalchyk and Nancy Davis. Those articles do not contain any multimedia, so they are not included in the website version.

Article by Julie Lovison


3:30 p.m.
My new class of three 1st graders comes bounding in, eager to show off "Hot Cross Buns" which they had learned last week. They have been exploring many ways to play it: transposing from black keys to white keys; playing up high and down low; and playing it with a steady accompaniment. I suggest, "What would happen if 'Hot Cross Buns' went up instead of going down? Or stayed the same?" This exploration will lead us into many weeks of flashcard reinforcement using short melodic patterns made of repeated tones, steps, skips, 4ths and 5ths. We will experiment with combinations of patterns to make musical questions and answers, developing judgments about what sounds make a good tune. We will make 3/4 and 4/4 time songs, and also improvise.

The goal for these students is that they will recognize rhythm patterns (e.g. short-short-long) and melodic patterns (e.g. stepping down) as groups, rather than individual notes when reading pieces in their lesson book.

4:45 p.m.
Our 4th graders are getting in the holiday spirit. We decide to play "Jingle Bells" by ear, and then figure out the chords to use. We have learned to use the I chord when the melody notes are degrees 1, 3 and 5, and the V when degrees 2 and 4 are used. One student has brought her clarinet and plays "Jingle Bells", so we transpose our chords to the key of B-flat and accompany her.

Next week we'll learn how to change blocked chords to alberti, waltz, and broken chord styles (changing to 3/4 time as needed). We will try a minor key version as well. We'll do the same with "Ode to Joy" and discover passing tones and suspensions.

My hope is that when we open to "Down in the Valley" (Alfred Recital Book 3) their eyes will immediately recognize the waltz bass using I and V, and they will be able to read it easily. We finish the day with one of our favorite activities-improvising on the 12 bar blues. This activity helps students recognize this basic chord structure whenever it occurs in jazz or blues repertoire (e.g. "Jazz Cat" from The Best of Catherine Rollin, Book I, Alfred Publishing Co., or "Sweet Swing" from Jazz Starters II by Bill Boyd, Hal Leonard Co.)

6:00 p.m.
The 6th graders are working on the IV chord. We harmonize "Twinkle, Twinkle," transpose it, make it minor, change it into 3/4 time, apply an alberti bass, etc. "Let's try putting upper or lower neighbor tones between the repeated notes!" We explore Leopold Mozart's "Burlesque" and the first of W.A. Mozart's variations on "Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman," searching for upper and lower neighbor tones. Next we focus on our Sonatinas-Beethoven's G Major and Clementi's Op. 36 #l in C, and #2 in G. The students easily recognize the I, IV and V chords appearing in alberti, broken and waltz form, and strip away the embellishing upper and lower neighbors and passing tones to see the chords outlined in the melody. They will find the same patterns in their ragtime pieces, as well as Burgmüller's "Arabesque" and "Ballade."

7:15 p.m.
The 8th graders are in love with Pachelbel's "Canon," arranged by Faber and Faber in the key of C (published by FJH). After watching a few of them struggle through the left hand, I direct them over to the marker board. "Let's draw the notes of the bass line." I demonstrate drawing C down a fourth,up a step, down a fourth, etc. "Now try drawing it in another key." They then go to the pianos and play the line perfectly. Now I know they will have the bass line correct for the rest of the piece, because they will recognize the repetitions. While they were tackling this solo arrangement, I went to my files to retrieve Marion Verhaalen's great arrangement of the "Canon" for two pianos, 4 parts (published by Hal Leonard Co.). The students immediately spot the bass line, even though it is in the original key of D. We study how the chords over the bass line are presented, noticing the inversions and voice leading. When two parts combine to harmonize in 10ths and 3rds, we make note of this. Turning to other repertoire, we make short work of learning Kabalevsky's "Toccatina" by recognizing the repeating pattern of chord inversions, and Schumann's "Little Piece (Bagatelle)" by removing the repeating Gs and playing the parallel 10ths.

Our theory study comes directly from the repertoire we are playing. Students get the message that theory is what music is about - it is the game plan for how songs are constructed. The fun of exploring and manipulating melody, rhythm and chords, supplies a thorough working knowledge of musical construction. They become secure sight-readers because they learn to look for groupings of notes as they read. They become musical sight-readers because they understand the meaning of the notes and their relationships to each other.


JULIE LOVISON is founder and director of The Lake Shore Music Studio
(www. and Camp Allegro Piano Day Camp in Chicago. She holds a B.Mus. degree from Millikin University and has done graduate study at Teachers College/Columbia University and National College of Education. As a consultant to the International Piano Teaching Foundation, she conducts comprehensive musicianship teacher-training courses in the Robert Pace method. She has been a member of Chicago Area Music Teachers Association since 1980.


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