August 12, 2020

About the Author: Sonja Joubert

Sonja Joubert is a master pianist classically trained by the late master Mr Josias Van Der Merwe and the late Adolph Hallis. She is also an excellent piano teacher with over 40 years of teaching experience specialising in both jazz and classical piano.

Many people think that learning the theory of music is merely time-wasting and not really important. The fact is that learning and understanding music in its written form and knowing the basics concerning the theory behind it can only be to the advantage of a student. It can never be to your disadvantage.

You might think that you only want to be able to play your instrument and make music. That you are not interested in studying the background or theory of music but rather in being able to play your instrument. But alas! To really enjoy and understand your music means that you will have to conquer the basics of the theory. It plays a significant role, especially for the adult student! I can and will only enhance your playing and bring you great satisfaction and pleasure.

Having a basic understanding of the basic theory of music can only enhance the adult learner and gives you an edge above your peers.

Most students have an insatiable desire to understand how their instrument works as well as to have an understanding of the written music and the composition of music. You may say: “I will learn everything by ear”, which is totally possible but in this day and age we all want to understand and have knowledge of where things come from and how it works. It gives you an edge and great satisfaction to be able to understand what you are playing.

Being able to read music

When you start with piano lessons or any other instrument, you will find that the basics of being able to read music are of vital importance and inevitable. No matter how simple the music is, you will always find that at some stage you will need to be able to understand the very basics of theory like the stave, the clefs, the note names, the time signatures, the key signatures and expressions etc. which are written on the manuscript.

Having a basic understanding of the basic theory can only enhance the adult and give you the edge above your peers, knowing that you understand the background of music and are able to communicate on the same level as an enlightened musician.

Music theory examines the elements that construct a piece of music, including notation, key signatures, time signatures, and chord progressions. Many teachers will insist that music theory is a fundamental tenet of balanced music education and may even include theory as part of their lessons.

What are the theory basics needed for you to play the piano or another instrument?

It would include:

  • Note reading and the reading of the score
  • Keys, clefs and key signatures
  • Understanding timing and time signatures
  • Understanding phrasing and phrase markings
  • Note values and how to count them
  • French time names
  • Understanding rhythm
  • Interpretation of music
  • Knowing your interval pictures, being able to name any interval from any root note instantly
  • Understanding how chords are constructed and where they fit in a key.
  • Understanding how chords are put together.
  • (Especially in the jazz genre having the background of chord forming and its symbols. Knowing your chords and symbols is super important for today’s aspiring jazz musician. When playing with a band or another jazz musician, you will need to be able to know how and what when they talk about, e.g. the minor 7 flat 5 chord or the ii V I progression.

It is unimaginable for youngsters to learn to play music without learning the basics or theory. So much more for the adult beginner. It’s unthinkable to really learn to play well without at least conquering the very basics of the area you are conquering. As it is said: “Knowledge is power”, and it’s also true in studying music.

The advantage of technology and live online piano lessons

Today we have the great advantage of the Internet and google plus the new development of studying music via online lessons. This makes studying music and the basics of theory possible for many who in the past, found it hard to study music because of practical impaired movement or of not being able to attend classes.

In the past years you had to either use books or attend lessons with a teacher, but today we have the great advantage of also being able to learn via Zoom lessons which are specially made ‘famous’ during the COVID-19 pandemic 2020.

We offer online piano lessons online via Zoom at The Online Piano Institute.

Understanding your instrument

Having an understanding of the instrument that you are studying is important for the production of tone on your instrument. Let’s use the piano as an example. The main action of the instrument is a hammer hitting against a string. Knowing your damper pedals and how it works properly, plus understanding the mechanism of the piano will all help you with your tone production. Knowing how to press the notes, feeling the keys and being able to listen and understand how it’s created all forms part of being able to make beautiful music, Knowing your instrument and its way of working helps you with creating a lovely tone and a beautiful singing sound on your instrument. Knowing how tone is produced with the hand, the hand position, the weight and pressure placed on keys, are all part of the basics needed to be able to play your instrument well.

The same principle is important for every instrument you study. For the violinist, it’s important to know how the bow is moved over the strings, for the trumpet player knowing how to create sound with his lips and using his diaphragm for breathing, for the flautist how to hold your instrument and create sound with your mouth, etc. These are basics which have to be taught and learnt in order to play and enjoy your instrument fully.

Understanding chords and intervals plus the layout of the keyboard

I found that every student that started playing the piano or any other instrument soon got very interested in how and why chords are formed the way they are. On the piano or keyboard, it is visually easy to see and understand intervals and semitones. Also, to see the way chords are formed. Having this knowledge is quite contagious, and I have even had some students come back for a next lesson having figured out the whole Bach prelude chordwise! What a pleasure it brings to students to be able to analyse and understand the music they are playing! For singers especially, knowing these intervals and being able to sing them is a great plus!

The teaching of theory should be an integral part of learning to play your instrument at each lesson

Personally, I think the teaching of theory within the practical lesson is of greatest importance, as theory is actually an intricate part of your playing and not something separate from practical playing. If you can apply the understanding of what you are playing, it helps you with your interpretation in many ways.

Having a visual mental picture of notes, lines, intervals and chords etc.

When you as a student have an understanding of the five lines of the stave, having a clear mental picture of the notes, the lines and spaces, the intervals etc. the forming of the interval of a 3rd third on the piano becomes very easy to see visually. Being able to see the movement of a 3rd or any other interval on the keys is quite visual and easy to recognise. It’s less easy for other instruments, but on the keyboard, it is very clear once you have grasped the basics of how the notes move up and down alphabetically and how intervals look.

Playing from video clips

If you want to learn your favourite Bach or your favourite Beethoven or even Einaud without a score, it would be quite daunting for many. Some students can work out music by ear, but it takes a lot of development before one can do it effectively. Most people prefer to read from a score or watch a video clip on YouTube, showing them how to play the music.

Learn from a professionally trained music teacher

Playing from a video clip is quite surprising as it can show you how to play and is available at any time of day or night when the teacher is not around. But I have found that many students who have been using video clips from YouTube were actually playing wrongly because of an incorrect version uploaded by some piano player who does not really have the skills or the know-how. It’s also challenging for the student to assess which video is good and which is not correct. It’s best to have a music teacher in person or doing live online Zoom piano lessons.


Make sure you learn music and its theory from a trained music teacher else there might be bad acquired habits which you will have to change at a later time.

Understanding the basics enhances your playing

Being able to understand the theory and the basics of music can only enhance and help your playing. It means that you can buy a piece of music and read it like I read a book from the very first note of the page to the very last note. You can have a total understanding of what’s going on in a specific piece of music. Knowing theory gives you the edge of having the ability to know the key that your song is written in, the timing it will be played in etc. Being able to read the notes and being able to interpret the music and can only be a pleasure. It might take you a while to get to that point and especially with the reading of music.

Reading Music

Reading music is like a new language that has to be learned. It’s only learned by doing it continuously. Make sure that you actively incorporate the reading of music as a part of your weekly lessons or playing. Simply reading simple music for a few minutes each time, can improve your reading skills significantly.

Unfortunately, many students get very bored with their training because of the pieces they are playing. It’s essential to play exciting pieces that you really feel you want to learn. That way, your progress will be much faster.

Be sure to check out our article on improving your sight-reading too!

Be a literate musician

Music theory is helpful for every kind of music in a significant way. It will allow you to analyse the work of other composers quickly and in so doing develop your style. A deep understanding of music theory makes a literate musician. It makes a musician who can not only speak the language of music but read and write it as well.

Music theory often gives you a deeper understanding of the music you already know. But you don’t need theory to play music, but playing music implies or creates the theory of music. It’s not really the question of whether I should learn theory, but rather the question of when I should learn it.

Essentially, music theory allows students to understand why some things sound good to our ears, and others don’t. … Music theory provides a deeper understanding of the process behind composition through notes, scales, intervals, keys, and why each component is important for composition and sound.

Theory is part and parcel of learning to play!

‘Music theory’ as people call it, is one of the most exciting and enjoyable subjects that one can do whilst learning to play your instrument. I personally do not believe in teaching theory separately from your instrument because the theory is actually all about your instrument and the music that you’re playing. It’s about the very piece that you are playing. You will be learning theory while you are doing your exam pieces or your music piece. Theory is part and parcel of learning to play!. It is best for the teacher and for the student to learn theory while studying a new piece of music.

It’s always great for the adult beginner to know:

  • How things are constructed and
  • Where and how the music is written or developed. It’s actually a great adventure to suddenly find out.
  • Why and how chords work,
  • How the keys work,
  • Why there are sharps and
  • Why there are flats. To know,
  • Where the 12 keys come from and things like,
  • Knowing what an interval is etc.

Questions like “why am I playing scales” gets answered in music theory.

Unfortunately, today theory has many times been treated as a separate theoretical subject. Theory music is one of the most exciting subjects to learn, as long as it’s learnt while practically doing it on your instrument. This way, the theory is actually only a representation of the sound or music you are playing. And very exciting!

Importance of knowing theory for the jazz student

Even when playing by ear theory plays an important role like in jazz. Knowing the difference between the major seven chords, the minor seventh chord, the dominant 7th chord, the minor seventh flat five chord and many more. It is imperative.

So yes, it is essential to be able to have an understanding of the basics of music and have training in it. I find music theory to be one of my most favourite subjects especially after I discovered that music theory is not actually music theory, but it is actually just the musical representation of precisely what I am playing. Working from this perspective makes it alive and enjoyable.

Hearing and seeing your instrument in your mind is the answer to enjoying theory of music

So working from the perspective of hearing the music and seeing your instrument in your mind is the answer to enjoying theory. Working on theory without an instrument or not being able to hear what you are writing by only using your mind and your memory will make music theory very boring and very tiring. But the moment you understand the music and hear the music and are able to transfer what you’re playing to paper or are able to hear what is on paper in your mind and understand where it comes from, that moment theory becomes a great pleasure. What a pleasure to know that you’ve conquered something that many others do not understand. The basics of music and its theory!

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