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Summary: Teaching Music Theory - The elements of music theory must be taught in the correct sequence

Correct sequence

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You have a student learning from scratch for say 3 months. They can strum through 3 or 4 songs and they have learnt a few scales and licks. Then one day they ask:

"How do I work out which chords go best with each other if I'm trying to write my own songs?"

You think:

'Great! a creative student who is really keen to learn theory!'

And proceed to give them the answer:

'Well in each key you have a series of chords harmonised by taking the notes of the major or harmonic minor scale and building upwards missing out every other note as you go. This gives you a series of chords of particular types like major, minor, seventh, ninth etc and putting these chords together in a sequence that accounts for cadences and key centres and in some cases key modulation ........"

You stop because your student has just slid off his chair and is lying in a semi-comatose state on the floor!

My Golden Rule Number 4 says:

Take care to teach the elements of music theory in the correct sequence

Some older, wiser and more experienced tutor might answer the same question like this:

"Well actually that's a very complicated question and you're nowhere near ready to learn that sort of thing yet!"

There's a whole lot of things wrong with an answer like that too: It invalidates the student, makes the subject sound hard and will put them off from asking questions in future.

I recommend this approach:

"That's a good question and it's great that you're already wanting to write your own songs"

Validates the student and encourages their creativity and their willingness to ask questions.

"To understand how chords fit together we will have to do a bit more basic music theory work first. I'll be happy to get you started on that today if you like"

Student nods enthusiastically

"Let me see, we've already covered the note names of each open string. We need to cover three more steps to get to the subject of chord sequence construction."

You're mapping out the size of the task for them. The idea is to harness their enthusiasm by putting it there that the goal they are interested in attaining (ability to write songs) is achievable, but that it will mean them applying themselves to learning a logical sequence of contributory subjects along the way.

"Okay. So the next step we need to cover is called the Chromatic Scale. Right, take a look at this piano keyboard....."

The chief point of this article is this: You can't really understand chord sequence unless you understand harmonisation. You can't really understand harmonisation unless you understand what a major scale is. You can't really understand the major scale without first understanding the chromatic scale. And this is what we mean by correct sequence.

Teach the chromatic scale first, then the major scale, then you can begin to talk about key signatures, chord construction and harmonisation.

Only then can you really begin to cover the subject of how chords fit together in sequences. The subject of music theory is tricky enough even when taught brilliantly. When taught out of sequence it becomes quite literally impossible to grasp.

I strongly recommend you sit down and write out a list of all the elements of music theory that you can think of and then arrange them in order of correct sequence from a teaching point of view.

That's quite a task in itself! Here's what I came up with when I tried it..

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Related Pages
 From the Bottom Up
 The Importance of the Major Scale
 Don't believe a word your student says
 Use it or Lose it
 Don't Waste Time Explaining
 The Importance of Repeated Use
 Defining Musical Terms
 Motivate before Mystifying
 Examine, Revise, Consolidate
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