Music theory is an area of music education that can easily get out of hand. We own much of our knowledge of music, particularly Western art music, to the scholarship of music theorists, and my study of music theory in college provided me with enough knowledge to enjoy listening to, performing, and even composing music in ways I would never have discovered otherwise. Music theory continues to be an area of interest to me. I say this as a sort of disclaimer before continuing, because I am about to be critical of how music theory is sometimes used in music education.
Analysis is an important part of the creative and performance activities of students. Through analysis, students learn how composers use musical elements to craft works into forms, and to be expressive. That said, it must be remembered that music theory is intended to be used to explain and understand musical works that have already been composed. It is not the same thing as a method of musical composition, nor is it a method for teaching music literacy, even though it is often misrepresented as both. Using only music theory to teach students how to read is putting the cart before the horse.
So where does music theory come in the sequence of classroom activities used to teach music reading? I will use the teaching of rhythms as an example. Suppose I want to teach a first grade class half notes, and whole notes. If I were to use music theory, I would show them each kind of note, perhaps on a flash card, or on the white board, tell them this is a half note and it gets two beats, that is a whole note and it gets four beats. I might then have the students chant the note kind they see as I go through flashcards or point to different notes or rhythms on the board. Using this method, I am generating a sound from theoretical knowledge.
Now, contrast that method with the following one. I tell the students that I am going to chant a note, and they are to tell me how many beats the note lasted. I have them patsch a steady beat, and then I sing either a half note or a whole note. If necessary, students can count beats out loud. After building competency at this, I then show them my flash card of a half note, or write a half note on the board, and tell them that the note that lasted two beats looks like this. I then show them a whole note, and tell them that the note that lasted four beats looks like this. I ask the class, how does the note that lasts two beats look different from the note that lasts four beats? They tell me the former has a line on it, and the latter doesn’t have a line on it. I summarize, “then a note that lasts four beats has no line, and a note that lasts two beats does have a line.” I then show them one of the flashcards or point to one of the notes on the board. “How many beats does this note last?” After several more of these, I then name the notes. “The one without the line, which lasts how many beats? …is called a whole note. What is the note which lasts four beats called…The one with the line, which lasts how many beats? … is called a half note. What is this note called? What is this note called?” I then write a rhythm on the board made up of just whole notes and half notes and have individual students chant them.
I also want the students to recognize whole notes and half notes in music to which they listen, so next I would play them music made up mostly of half notes and whole notes. I like to use “Ase’s Death” from Peer Gynt by Grieg. As they listen, they find the pattern of half and whole notes. I then give every child a card with either a whole note or a half note on it, and tell them to lift up their card when their type of note is heard. All of this goes well beyond computation and theory. Using this method, I am generating theoretical knowledge from sound, which is a more effective approach.