As someone who took piano lessons from an early age, I did not completely grasp the advantage that keyboardists have in music theory until I began teaching theory at Talladega College in the Fall of 2016. In this essay, I propose, based on my Talladega experience, that it is beneficial for non-keyboard music majors to complete two successful semesters of class piano prior to enrolling in the four-semester music theory sequence.
The typical Talladega College music major enters college facing several challenges in order to succeed in music theory courses. He or she is a member of the marching band and comes to college comprehending only either treble or bass clef, depending on one’s instrument. For percussionists who have no mallet percussion experience, it is possible that they arrive with no experience in reading bass or treble clef. The great majority of these students have not sung in a choir, and thus are not familiar with chorale-style voicing, nor are they accustomed to seeing any parts of the score beyond the part they are playing. Another challenge to these students’ success in music theory is a reliance on rote learning, which seems to have been prevalent in their pre-college music experiences.
These deficiencies concerned me as I became the sole music theory teacher at Talladega College in the Fall of 2016. A paramount consideration is the ability of our students to pass the Praxis Music Test. At the time, I was working with the education department to gain approval from the Alabama State Department of Education and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges for a new degree in instrumental music education. Prior to the student teaching internship semester, students in this program need to pass the Praxis Music exam.
Concern about music majors’ readiness for the collegiate music curriculum does not seem to be unique to our campus. Elizabeth West Marvin found in a recent study of music theory teachers “the increased need for remediation in their incoming freshmen theory classes” (West Marvin 2012). Anecdotally, colleagues in the music theory profession whom I met at the Music Theory Pedagogy Conference in June 2017 indicated experiences and concerns like mine.
Our music department had the opportunity to revamp our curriculum for the Fall 2016 catalog. One of our revisions was the requirement of Class Piano 1 and 2 prior to Music Theory 1. Our rationale was to provide our students with the opportunity to increase their knowledge of music fundamentals through active learning in this performance-based class setting. Our department noticed a significant increase in progress and achievement in theory courses since this requirement was put into place. We focused our initial class piano classes on the obvious fundamental musical elements such as scales, triads, time signatures, and key signatures.
During the Fall 2016 semester, I taught Music Theory 1 to students who were still on the previous academic catalog. These students were just beginning their class piano sequence, simultaneous with beginning the music theory sequence. I quickly discovered that most class members were not fluent in both bass and treble clefs. They had very limited knowledge, if any, of key signatures and scales. I needed to spend many more class sessions than I would have liked on basic music fundamentals. During this semester, we only completed the first three chapters of the Kostka-Payne Tonal Harmony text. During the Spring 2017 semester, we worked into the ninth chapter of the text. These students, currently taking Theory 4, are currently working on augmented sixth chords out of chapters 21 and 22 of Kostka-Payne.
I had a very different experience with Music Theory 1 in the Fall 2017 semester. These students had all passed two semesters of Class Piano 1 and 2. I was able to move much faster through the initial material in the Kostka-Payne text, and we completed the first five chapters of the text during this semester. By February 2018, these students were beginning chapter 9, Triads in Second Inversion, of the Kostka-Payne text. The pace of learning was noticeably faster with the theory students who had two semesters of class piano prior to their theory courses.
I have not performed any type of scientific research regarding my experiences with these theory students. It is certainly possible that other factors account for some of the differences between the music theory progress of our students who had class piano prior to theory versus those who did not. Naturally, there are other successful methods of music theory remediation available. My sense, however, is that the requirement of two semesters of class piano is very beneficial to our academic program. Students who have met this requirement come to Music Theory 1 with a foundation of music fundamentals which seems to enable faster progress in learning music theory. I welcome input from music theory-teaching colleagues regarding curriculum design and remediation which lead to increased student success in music theory courses, especially geared toward students who lack piano background.
1. This essay is based on a paper presented at the College Music Society Great Lakes Regional Conference, April 5, 2019.
West Marvin, Elizabeth. (2012) The Core Curricula in Music Theory – Development and Pedagogical Trends. Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, 26, 255-263.