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Music Theory Online with Jonathan Coopersmith

music theory lessonsLast week we announced the release of our online music theory lessons, which we're providing to all members of all our online learning schools for no additional charge. The idea is to give everyone here a solid resource to learn more about music theory online. It wouldn't be possible without Jonathan Coopersmith, who is the man behind the music theory lessons here and who heads up the Music Theory Department at the highly regarded Curtis Institute of Music. We asked him some questions about his experience with teaching music theory, which will give you an insight into how just how deep his knowlege of music theory runs. 

AW:  In general, why should someone learn music theory?

JC: If you like to know how things work in general, then learning about how music works might be very interesting to you. And it opens up more possibilities for your playing...for example, instead of just learning one scale, learn the pattern for that scale and now you can play it in any key. Understanding how music works leads to a better understanding of what you're already playing, and can even spark creativity allowing you to explore other areas of music you might not have thought of on your own. The more you know, the more you'll enjoy playing and listening to music, and the more control you'll have over what you can do.

AW: What inspired you to get so deeply involved in the world of music theory?

JC:  I didn't set out to become involved in music theory; that wasn't my goal. It happened slowly and pretty naturally. I'm naturally curious and I like figuring out how things work. I had great teachers who made it interesting, too, which always helps. Understanding how music works is necessary for a classical orchestral conductor, which is what I studied in graduate school.

AW: Tell us a little about your music theory teaching background (where you've taught, for how long ,etc).

JC:  I do a lot of other things besides teaching, but as far as that aspect of my career goes, I've taught composition and conducting privately for years. That includes ear training, score analysis, orchestration, and much more. I didn't set out to become a teacher, but I really like working with people one on one, and I love watching the excitement on people's faces when they learn something new, or when they figure something out for the first time. I started teaching at Curtis Institute of Music in 2005 and I've been there ever since.

AW: For a musician who is already able to play well, how will a knowledge of music theory improve their craft?

JC:  I would argue that in order to play well, a musician already has to know something about theory! Playing well and a knowledge of music theory go together. Someone who really knows how to improvise a solo over complicated chord changes or compose interesting progressions must have some kind of theory or knowledge about what's happening in the music, formal or not, or else they wouldn't know how to do that. (Whether or not they can explain it or teach it to someone else is another matter.) In this sense, music theory opens up possibilities for voice leading, substitute chords, pitch collections for improvising, etc. Even for professional classical instrumentalists, a knowledge of music theory is crucial to interpreting passages and determining phrase direction. You can never know it all, so even for the more advanced players in any genre of music, the more you know, the more possibilities there are.

AW: Music theory is something that some musicians feel is a daunting and hard thing to learn, what would you say to inspire them to get started?

JC:  You don't have to tackle everything at once. In fact, learning about music is a lifelong process, so there's no rush! Get familiar with the basics -- every little piece of knowledge helps and everything counts. You wouldn't expect someone to pick up an instrument and start playing right away, and it's the same with understanding music. Just take it one piece of information at a time. Remember, it's about discovering how music works, which is interesting and can be a lot of fun. If you're looking at it that way, you won't even know you're learning music theory.

AW: Some musicians that study music theory describe an "a-ha" moment when it all just seems to click and make sense.  Can you speak to that?

JC:  That's a great way to think about it, because "ah-ha" is what you say when you've figured something out. I've had a lot of "ah-ha" moments along the way, and I still do each time I figure something out. It can be very gratifying to understand how something works, especially if you've been working at it for a while. This kind of feeling can happen quite often as you begin learning more and more about music theory. It's like learning a language, or anything new, from math to mechanics. At first, you really have to think about everything slowly and carefully and there are a lot of new vocabulary words. Every day gets a little easier and one day, you realize that it's become second nature and you don't have to think much about it any more. It all comes together, and you just apply your knowledge to new situations and everything you do. It takes time and practice, but it can and does happen!

AW: What are some benefits or advantages of a music theory education that are less widely known?

JC:  Not everyone realizes the benefits of music theory that I've already discussed -- being able to compose, improvise, fix problems with chords or progressions, etc.. Music theory doesn't only apply to one instrument, either, so a big benefit is in understanding what's happening when you listen to other instruments, ensembles, bands, and even orchestras in the classical music world. I think people really underestimate how much more enjoyment and fulfillment they'll get out of playing and listening if they know what's going on in the music. Another very important benefit to having a music theory education is in being able to communicate with other musicians. You want to have that vocabulary to talk in rehearsal about where you are in a piece, what chord you're talking about, what changes you might want to make, etc.

AW: What are some aspects of music theory that make learning it fun and rewarding?

JC:  If you like learning how and why things work, then music theory should be automatically fun. As soon as you learn something, try to apply it to something else. For example, if you learn the pattern for a scale, try starting on a different note. If you learn a new scale, try it in a solo. You can use the information immediately. You can experiment, and don't be afraid to make mistakes. (In fact, you can learn more from your mistakes if you understand why something doesn't work.) Music theory should be about discovering what's behind music, what makes it work the way it does, why different music makes us feel different ways. It should always be about music. If it becomes too much about math or science, it starts to become disconnected from what you're playing. If it seems boring, you're probably not making a musical connection.

AW: Is it ever too late to start learning music theory?

JC:  Never! Younger people generally don't think about how much there is to learn, so they just jump in and start learning. And they're less afraid to make mistakes, so they learn faster. As we get older, we realize how big the task is, we talk ourselves out of things and we're embarrassed to make mistakes. Just learn a little bit at a time and don't think about trying to have a complete understanding right away. Unlike a physical activity which may have limits when it comes to age, you can keep learning your entire life.

AW: How do you define music theory?

JC:  I don't really like the term "music theory" because it sounds too dry and disconnected from actual music. Besides, there's no one single "music theory" that fits everything. There are commonly accepted and used terms, and there are some basics that don't change, but each style of music has its own unique history, tradition, technique, etc.. Whether one realizes it or not, there are "rules" governing whatever style of music you were influenced by. When you play or hear something that doesn't sound right, it's probably because it's not in the "right style" -- in other words, one of these unspoken "rules" was broken. Figuring out what's behind the music and what makes it work is what I call "music theory". People can sometimes differ when it comes to theory, or differ over how to analyze a certain passage of music. That said, music theory can simply be knowledge about what your playing. There are different skills one needs to have as a musician: good ears, knowing what notes/chords you want to play, having a vocabulary to communicate with other musicians, knowledge of history and tradition, understanding what you're playing or what someone else is playing, etc.. To me, all of that (and more) falls under the definition of "music theory".

AW: What are some common misconceptions about music theory?

JC:  I think the biggest misconception is that theory is dry and boring, unconnected from real music, and that you don't need to know anything about theory in order to be a great musician! Those great musicians who claim they don't know anything about theory are probably just defining it differently than I do. Having some knowledge of what is happening in the music you play or listen to is crucial to being a great musician.

AW:  How long have people been studying music theory and how did it become formalized?

JC:  That's a very long answer! Music theory has been around since Ancient Greece, around 500 BCE (about 2500 years ago). Pythagoras, the great mathematician, came up with the theory which defines intervals (e.g. an octave, perfect fifth, etc.). There were others who contributed to the theory of scales and modes. Plato and Aristotle wrote about the role of music in society and in building one's character. The development of not only music theory, but of music itself, is a fascinating journey from the Middle Ages through today, and you can really see how the music of one era leads and evolves to the next.

AW:  Can you apply music theory knowledge to any kind of music? 

JC:  You can come up with a "theory" for any type of music. I wouldn't try to apply classical theory (harmony and counterpoint) to purely electronic or beat driven music from today; maybe one or two aspects would apply, but there's probably a different theory that describes how that music works. The term "music" is defined very broadly today. Things that fall under the category of "music" today may be better described or analyzed as "poetry", or it's more about the words or the beat than the actual music, so I would apply "music theory" only to the musical aspects of any type or style of music.

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Find out more about Music Theory Online with Jonathan Coopersmith here

Music Theory Online with Jonathan Coopersmith

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