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Teaching Music Theory

Are your students confusing their fermatas with their tenutos? Do you hear groans of dread when you utter the words "music theory"? Do you perhaps even cringe a little bit yourself when you think about teaching music theory?!

I got you. On this page you'll find everything you need to make note stems stimulating and ritenutos refreshing.

This is a heck of a hub page so feel free to jump straight to the topic you currently need the most help with:

Have fun!

RHYTHM

Students who have been with me for several years will know that when I ask them "What is the most important aspect of music?", the answer I want is "Rhythm". We can have wrong notes, we can miss dynamics, but if the rhythm is off...? Well, that's a problem. So let's find out how to fix it.

Building a Solid Rhythmic Foundation

BUILDING A SOLID RHYTHMIC FOUNDATION

Download these FREE rhythm vocab cards and start teaching rhythm systematically, before it comes up in pieces.

Note Values Demystified with Proportional Rhythm Cards

1 MINIM = 2 CROTCHETS = 4 QUAVERS . . .

Relative Rhythm Cards help students see how note values relate to each other, demystifying note values for good.

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TEACHING RHYTHM IN 5 JUST MINUTES

"Unjumble" is just one of a number of rhythm activities that you can do in just a few minutes of lesson time.

How to teach time signatures the fun way

HOW TO MAKE TIME SIGNATURES STICK

I teach time signatures almost right at the beginning of reading music using these videos, worksheets, and activities.

TIME SIGNATURE SNAPPEROO

This FREE game takes the dullness out of intermediate time signatures. Intermediate students should have fun, too!

Note value worksheets

FUN NOTE VALUES WORKSHEETS

Written theory doesn't have to be boring. Check out these fun worksheets, plus a link to a whole catalogue full of more.

NOTES & READING

Reading is one of the foundational aspects of music lessons, but the learning process doesn't always go as smoothly as we hope. In these articles, discover my tried-and-tested tactics for turning your students into fantastically fluent readers.

The 4 Stages of Teaching Music Reading facebook 1

4 STAGES OF TEACHING MUSIC READING

Regardless of repertoire or method books used, implement these 4 stages and your students will soon be confident readers.

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NO MORE MUSIC MNEMONICS!

Mnemonics might seem like a useful tool for teaching the grand staff. But in truth, it's probably more of a hinderance than a help.

Saying hello to the grand staff

GET EXCITED, BECAUSE IT'S GRAND STAFF DAY!

I love to celebrate wins with my students, so I've completely embraced Piano Safari's "Staff Day"... and then some!

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SOUND FIRST, NOTATION SECOND

If the music came before the notation, why do we insist on teaching notation first? Does rote teaching have any role to play?

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COLOUR CODING DONE RIGHT

Colour is not only fun; it can also be a tool to help struggling readers. And when done right, it doesn't have to become a crutch.

60 second note naming challenge

GAMIFY NOTE NAMES WITH THE 60-SEC CHALLENGE

This  is a great incentive to name the notes more quickly as it adds that competitive element that appeals to many students.

EAR TRAINING

Ah, aural work. Too often it's relegated to the last few minutes of a lesson before an exam, but it can (and should!) be so much more than that. Make ear training and singing a regular part of your lessons, and your students will reap the benefits for years to come.

The Role of Listening in the Piano Studio

WHY SHOULD WE TEACH LISTENING?

I used to think students should figure out the music themselves rather than hear it first. Here's why I changed my mind.

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A (SECRET) WAY TO TEST BEGINNER AURAL SKILLS

Kids love using these FREE printable voting paddles. They have no idea we're secretly testing their aural skills, so, shhhh...

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TEACHING PIANO STUDENTS HOW TO PLAY BY EAR

I believe we not only can, but SHOULD teach our students to play by ear. Here's my step-by-step process.

START SINGING IN YOUR PIANO STUDIO

Singing shouldn't be used just for aural training. It is a valuable tool for teaching phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, and more.

The Kodály Method Explained – What You Need to Know as a Piano Teacher

THE KODÁLY APPROACH FOR PIANO TEACHERS

The Kodály method can be something of a mystery for us piano teachers, but I believe it has useful lessons for us.

Solfa for piano teachers...for beginners

NEW TO SOLFA? HERE'S A PRIMER.

Piano teachers are often reluctant to bring solfa into their studio, but it is a fantastic tool which doesn't have to be hard or scary.

SCALES

Scales! My favourite part of every piano lesson. Seriously, I'm not joking. If you learn the magic of teaching scales in varied ways and employing improvisation techniques to bring them to life – you can learn to love 'em too.

Piano scale level charts

GAMEIFY SCALES PRACTICE WITH THESE FREE CHARTS

These scale level charts provide a systematic approach to teaching scales and really keep students motivated.

HOW TO RECLAIM SOME OF YOUR SCALES LESSON TIME

Like the idea of students learning scales at home with videos and apps? Here are some ways, plus more fun in the studio!

7 Ways to Make Scales Stick

7 WAYS TO SHAKE UP BORING SCALES DRILLS

If your students (and you!) get bored during scales practice, here are 7 ways to get out of the rut and make your students think.

CHORDS

Chords are the foundation of much of the music students are listening to today, and they shouldn't be the exclusive property of guitarists. Young pianists can be the life of the singalong party too if we give them these skills.

Chord Level Challenges - Systemised Piano Chord Goals2

A STRUCTURED PIANO CHORD CURRICULUM

These 5 levels of chord challenges give a clear structure for teaching piano chords, with time to celebrate in between.

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POWERFUL VISUAL TOOLS FOR TEACHING CHORDS

Chords don't have to be complicated. Use these tools to make them accessible even for young students.

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3 STEPS TO CHORD INVERSION SUPERHEROES

Follow this three-step strategy for teaching chord inversions and your students will be inversion superheroes in no time.

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USING LEAD SHEETS WITH ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS

I believe in the value of lead sheets for even our youngest, absolute beginner piano students.

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5 FUN WAYS TO USE CHORD PROGRESSIONS

Getting good at playing chord progressions takes time and repetition, but that repetition doesn't have to be boring.

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THE PRIMARY CHORD SCALE & POP SONGS

In this post, guest writer Tony Parlapiano shares his unique approach for teaching pop chord progressions.

NOTATION

Yuck. If there's one part of music theory that's hard to put a bow on it's all the rules, conventions and traditions that go into writing music notation accurately. But this stuff can be a really valuable step towards comprehensive understanding...and we can make it fun, I promise.

Grand staff colouring worksheet for piano students

GRAND STAFF WORKSHEET FOR NEWBIES

This (free!) worksheet takes the mystery out of the Grand Staff. Colouring it can often make the symbols seem less scary.

INTRODUCING HOW TO GROUP & BEAM NOTES

This video quickly and succinctly covers the rules for beaming notes in simple time signatures, and the worksheet reinforces it.

INTERACTIVE PRACTICE: GROUPING RESTS & NOTES

Students can mix and match these relative rhythm cards to see the relationships and grouping rules more clearly.

TERMS & SYMBOLS

Fortissississihuh? Allewhatnow? If your students tongues are tied up in the Italian, help them come to grips with the beautiful language of our music vocabulary using these fun and creative ideas.

Awesome Game for Drilling Italian Musical Terms

A FUN (FREE!) GAME FOR TEACHING MUSICAL TERMS

This game is loosely based on charades, adapted for our purposes to (secretly) teach those Italian music terms.

HOW TO TEACH DYNAMICS USING DRAMA

One way to bring dynamics to life is using the voice to act them out. Here's how it works in my studio.

Forte vs Piano Worksheet for Newbies

FORTE VS. PIANO WORKSHEET FOR NEWBIES

I like to assign this for homework after first explaining the terms and doing some exercises in their piano lesson.

HISTORY

Music history can end up with a dusty and stuffy air about it, but it doesn't have to. Learning about the great composers and the musical periods should be about making connections to the past that help us understand our present and future too.

9 Fun Ways to Teach Music History to Piano Students

9 FRESH WAYS TO INCLUDE MUSIC HISTORY

These ideas and activities to integrate music history into your teaching can help bring history to life for your students.

Teaching about the Great Composers

BRINGING COMPOSERS INTO YOUR LESSONS

Is your studio's composer display fading into the background? Try this FREE timeline with matching assignment sheets!

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TEACHING MUSIC HISTORY WITH STORYTELLING

Teaching music history to kids doesn't have to be dry and dull if you use these storytelling techniques.

OCCASIONS

Music games and improvisation activities can be a fun way to celebrate a special occasion or holiday in your studio. And when you bake in some music theory to spice up that cake, it's a recipe for deliciousness for sure. These free printable games and worksheets might just do the trick.

GET CREATIVE WITH THESE FUN CANDY CARDS

Each candy card has an expression, tempo, dynamic, or articulation on it. Incorporate these into the music to bring them to life.

A Very Irish Improvisation Game for Paddy's Day

A VERY IRISH IMPROVISATION GAME

This game based on the folk tale about Dagda and his magic harp gets students creating at the piano with an Irish-y twist.

Hippity Hop Your Way to Rhythm Reading Success2

A BUNNY-THEMED RHYTHM GAME WITH 4 LEVELS

This rhythm reading game is a great way to welcome Spring into your studio with options for 4 different levels of students.

Halloween music worksheets

HALLOWEEN NOTE NAME WORKSHEETS

These 2 trick-or-treat worksheets are great for reviewing beginner note names. Use them in the studio, or assign as homework.

Gift Grab A Festive Fun Game for Intermediate Piano Students

A FESTIVE GAME FOR INTERMEDIATE STUDENTS

The last few weeks before winter break are a great time to get off the bench and review music theory terms and symbols.

Christmas theme music worksheets

CHRISTMAS WORKSHEETS FOR BEGINNERS

Beginner students can match up festive gifts and stockings to identify keys on the keyboard or notes on the staff.

Removing the Music Theory Stigma

Let's face it, music theory gets a bad rep. Many students (and even teachers) groan when it comes to that part of the lesson.

But why? Music theory is really just the language of music so what is it that makes it dry and dull?

Worksheets are mostly to blame for this, I think. Theory should not be synonymous with boring and repetitive worksheets.

Music Theory Needs a Rebrand

The first thing we need to do is give music theory a bit of a face-lift. For starters, let's stop calling workbooks "theory" and start calling them "written work" – 'cause that's really what we mean when we say that.

Then, let's apply the phrase "music theory" to a much more diverse palette of in-lesson and at-home activities. And, moreover, let's teach music theory in a way that scaffolds our students' learning and makes playing awesome music easier so that they see it as a helpful aid, not a chore.

Teaching music theory should represent a smorgasbord of tactics.

Fun Tactics for Teaching Music Theory

The best music theory teaching tactics are interactive and engaging. When we make these concepts come to life, our students are more likely to retain them for the long-term.

Music Theory Games

If this is your first time on the Colourful Keys blog then there's something you should know about me: I'm really passionate about games-based teaching. (But if you've been around even a wee while I'm sure you already know that!)

Games have the power not only to make music theory more fun but also to make our students' understanding of music theory more elastic.

Elastic or flexible knowledge can applied in many different contexts and used to figure out new concepts. Games provide a great opportunity for this type of learning since students naturally need to puzzle through part of the game by themselves and learn from the other players as they go.

Singing Music Theory

I'm no Kodály expert, but I definitely believe in the power of singing to teach us about music. The voice is our baked-in instrument and it's the most intuitive way to understand music theory.

Not every student will be willing to sing but through simple activities which you'll find here on the blog and gentle coaxing, most of them can be brought around if we start young enough. Don't let a student's (or your own) shyness discourage you from singing!

You can learn more about Kodály and the basics of solfa singing here.

Moving Music Theory

Most piano lessons are altogether too stationary in my opinion. In fact, I think we can agree that most of us are not moving enough in general. So why not use piano lessons as an opportunity to move together?!

Movement activities are one of the best ways to teach rhythm, beat, metre, pitch and a whole range of other topics. Teaching these things through movement rather than purely intellectually is more inclusive of learning differences and better for every learner overall.

If you want some quick and easy rhythm movement ideas, check out my book 'Rhythm in 5'.

Written Music Theory

Written music theory exercises still have their place in my studio. I believe that approaching music theory concepts from every angle is the best way to ensure thorough understanding.

You will see a few music theory worksheets listed above, but if you're after a more comprehensive curriculum you might like my 'Thinking Theory' books. They're all available with studio licenses so you can print parts or whole books as you need them for your students.

Making Music Theory Relevant

No matter what singing activities or fun games you plan into your lessons, please do not forget the final and crucial step: Make it relevant.

Most of us (and I would venture to say far fewer 9-year-olds) don't learn music theory for the sake of becoming musicologists. We learn music theory so that we can play beautiful music.

So, whatever you're doing and whatever stage your students are at – make those connections clear to them. Have discussions and discovery sessions based on the repertoire they're learning.

That's the surest route to having them fall in love with music theory.

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