Question: I am a high school student planning to major in music. I have heard that college music theory can be difficult. What can I do to prepare myself, and why is studying theory important?
Answer: In my first flute lesson with Mark Sparks at the Aspen Music Festival in 1994, Mark let me play and play and play before finally stopping me. After one of his trademark long pauses, Mark said something to me that I will never forget. “You need to be less of a flutist (long pause) and more of a musician.”
Studying theory provides the tools music students need to become superb musicians. The knowledge acquired in the undergraduate theory and aural skills curriculum will enable you to analyze and think critically about the music you perform. It is good to read someone else’s analysis of a work you are preparing for performance. It is even better to understand it thoroughly, beyond your own part, and to arrive at that understanding and interpretation through your own careful thought about the piece. You will develop listening skills that will allow you to detect errors early and play precisely in tune, and you will learn to understand the function of each pitch and chord that you play. You will also likely learn to improvise and compose, which are important skills for all musicians in the 21st century.
In short, the study of music theory is the study of musicianship, and is vitally important to your success. It is also a core requirement of most undergraduate music programs, usually spanning four semesters of study. You must prove successful in these courses in order to continue into the third and fourth years of study in the degree program.
Unfortunately, music theory has gained a reputation as being dry, boring, and difficult. This perception is due in part to the way music is taught in the United States. Much of what is taught in a university first-semester theory course should ideally have been learned in the K-12 years. Unfortunately, due to increasing cuts in public school arts funding, many students arrive at their university having had little to no general music study. They may have performed in a band, choir, or orchestra, but it is possible they were taught by rote, and are not as musically literate as they believe themselves to be. Other students will have had a theory class and come from strong programs where they were taught to read and perform well.
Because of this increasingly wide skills gap, most schools of music require incoming students to take a music theory placement exam. It is not uncommon for students to place into a remedial theory course. This is not the end of the world, but it is problematic for several reasons. First, it can feel humiliating to students who may have been the strongest musicians at their high school. It is also quite difficult to become fluent in any language, including the language of music, in one semester. Fifteen weeks of remedial study is not a substitute for years of music fluency training.
Additionally, this added semester of theory study can cause scheduling issues with students’ primary area of study. This is particularly true for music education majors, who must progress through a dense and tightly-written curriculum. As these students move through the theory sequence, they may require more than one semester to pass some of the theory courses, exacerbating the issues of scheduling and self-esteem. It is small wonder that music theory is often seen as an annoyance rather than the opportunity it is.
There are several steps you can take to avoid this path and actually enjoy yourself with success in your college theory track.
Prepare for College Music Theory
Learn your scales. Become completely fluent in all major scales, all minor scales in all three forms, and arpeggios. In my home studio, I have a scale jar. During a scale drill for more advanced students, if I pull the paper from the jar that says C, I expect more than the C major scale. I expect the C major arpeggio and the relative minor scale in all three forms with its arpeggio. Often, when a student in a second-year theory or ear training class at Shenandoah Conservatory comes to me for help with a skill or concept, I find that the root of the problem is a fundamental issue, such as not being fast and fluent with scales and key signatures.
Learn to read vertically. Flutists are monophonic line readers. You should know bass clef too. If you have the time and the resources, invest in piano lessons. Play duets, trios, and quartets, as well as your flute and piano repertoire, from the score to practice reading other lines in addition to your own. Notice, in practice and rehearsal how your part fits into the larger form of the piece.
Take a music theory course. If your high school does not offer music theory, look to online options. The Eastman School of Music offers a well-respected online fundamentals course at a reasonable price. You may also want to take advantage of the free short lessons and drills at music
theory.net. Some high schools offer AP Music Theory courses. Be aware that while some schools of music allow students with high AP test scores to receive credit for early courses in their sequence, others do not. However, the point of taking a music theory course in high school is not to skip undergraduate theory. The goal is to arrive with the drier fundamentals securely under your belt. No matter how prepared you are, you are likely to encounter new information and perspectives in your first few weeks of college theory study. Having a solid foundation will allow you to more quickly absorb the new concepts.
Sing. Join the choir at your high school or church. Sing the flute parts to all the repertoire you study. Sing the other parts. Singing helps develop your musical brain, and you will be more prepared for aural skills and written theory courses.
Listen. Learn to sit still and listen critically to music. Listen to live music. Listen to recordings of music you are practicing and rehearsing. Listen to music you have never heard before. If you have a score available, listen while following the score.
These practices will enable you to enter an undergraduate theory program with more confidence and less fear.
What to Do if You Find Yourself Struggling in College Music Theory
If you do find yourself struggling in college theory or ear training, be sure to reach out and ask for help immediately. I tell my theory and ear training students, “Don’t wait until you are drowning. Ask for help the moment you have that deer in the headlights feeling.” Theory skills are building blocks, and if you allow yourself to remain weak on one concept, you will struggle with every new skill that follows.
Understand that the problem is likely not you. If you have been attending class, practicing aural skills, and doing written theory homework, then it is probably related to some weak area in your music fundamentals background. Don’t beat yourself up and don’t panic.
Make an appointment with your professor. Most full-time professors keep office hours, and many adjunct instructors will meet with you if you ask them. Additionally, many schools have free tutoring programs. Your instructor can also give you names of tutors they recommend. For my classes at Shenandoah Conservatory, I know which tutors have a proven track record of helping students improve. I also consider individual student and tutor personalities and learning styles when recommending tutors.
Many schools also have evening theory lab hours, where students can drop in and receive help from tutors. Additionally, many institutions, including my own, have implemented embedded tutor programs. These tutors attend the classes and are therefore more attuned to the current pace and demands of the course. In my ear training classes, which take place in a rehearsal hall, I ask the embedded tutor to sit in the back. Any student who needs help on a particular transcription or singing exercise may choose to sit with the tutor.
If you have a disability, consider disclosing it to your university’s Disabilities Services Coordinator, regardless of whether you anticipate needing accommodations. Aural Skills (sometimes called Ear Training or Musicianship), is a course that requires quick thinking, reading, and writing. Some students who have never before utilized classroom accommodations find themselves needing them in Aural Skills. With creativity and communication, you and the instructor can usually arrive at appropriate and innovative accommodations.
Finally, if you find that you will pass a class by a thin margin, consider repeating it voluntarily. It is better to repeat a lower-level course than to struggle and repeat a higher-level course multiple times. My own institution requires a C minimum to proceed in most courses in the sequence.
Prepare well and take advantage of the services your university offers as you need them. A student who struggled in my ear-training class wrote the following in her end-of-semester self-reflection: “If I’ve learned something from this semester, it is that if you persist in your effort, no matter the obstacle, you will begin to see results from your hard work. And surround yourself with the people who can help you with your work!”
Careful, creative, and engaging theory courses can turn a flutist into a musician. My hope is that you will find the study of music theory and musicianship rewarding and eternally useful, and as your confidence in the subject grows, you may even find it fun.