Music theory causes many students to exclaim “but I just want to play the piano!” In my teaching career, out of the hundreds of times I have taught scales I have only experienced one student who commented that learning the whole and half step pattern in major scales was cool. Instead, the most common response I receive from students when teaching them theory more often resembles a groan.
Students often find music theory dry and boring and can have difficulty understanding how music theory supports the goal of playing pieces students want to learn. Though a student’s initial reaction to theory may be negative, music teachers realize the importance and the door of creativity that can open with a well-rounded understanding of music theory.
So how do we teachers help students understand the value of learning music theory, and how do we keep theory exciting and engaging for students of all ages? In my teaching career, I have found one important concept that aids in helping students enjoy theory. Theory needs to be kept fun!
When working with children, we can keep students engaged by making the material more interactive. Using any form of a game or activity helps students retain information.
In the book “Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from Neuroscience and the Classroom” (ASCD, 2020), authors Judy and Malana Willis show scientific evidence supporting that young children learn best when having fun. They explain how teachers can work with multiple sensory inputs to benefit students’ durable understanding and long-term memory of educational material.
Activities and games can be added to any lesson. Outlined below are three methods for teachers to implement theory games and activities in a lesson and provide an ideal learning environment.
*The definition of games as used in this article refers to any activity that involves the participation of the student in an interactive and fun way using a hands-on manipulative or completed in a kinesthetic environment where students can move their hands and their bodies.
Teachers may collect a variety of games useful for practising common theory concepts. These games can be organized in such a way so as to quickly find and use a desired game with each student during their lesson. By collecting a variety of short games, one may pull out a resource that reinforces concepts the student is needing extra review during a lesson.
This method of implementing games in one’s studio requires little planning from the teacher but can become repetitive if games are being reused too much for review of concepts. This method also lacks defined scope and sequence goals that each student should accomplish. Without defined goals, one risks students not progressing in their understanding of theory.
A second option for teachers is to have a studio-wide music theory theme each month such as rhythm, scales, or key signatures and plan games around this theme. One could plan different themes and games for each level of student, beginner, intermediate, advanced, or have a studio-wide theme with the same game but with options to adjust the difficulty level according to student’s ability.
This method of implementing games in one’s studio requires some advance planning but can be accomplished studio-wide at the beginning of the semester or month it does not involve extra planning time each week. Another benefit is it eliminates the concern of over using a particular game such as option one may cause.
While an efficient planning choice, monthly themed planning does not allow for tailoring activities to an individual student’s unique needs.
My preferred method of implementing games in my studio is tailoring each student’s activity time to a student’s needs or specific level. At the beginning of the month, I plan each student’s games for the month and at the beginning of the week I pull out the games I am using for that week. I try to use a different game each week even when reviewing a concept as this prevents children from becoming too comfortable with a particular game format and instead requires that they utilize their knowledge in different situations.
Though this form of implementation creates more planning, by saving all former lesson plans one can re-use these plans the following year with new students. If needed, one can then edit and tailor material for students who may need more review.
To create a year’s plan for theory games:
Related: See one of our top games to play with piano students in this quick demo of Frog and Snake:
I encourage any teacher wanting to give their students a solid foundation in theory to explore the options of including fun and excitement into learning theory by including games and activities. By trying each of the mentioned planning options, games as needed, studio themes, and tailored games and activities each teacher can determine their preferred method for implementing music games.
If you’re looking to round out your games collection and get some fresh fun ideas, check out these finds at TopMusicMarketplace, made by fellow independent teachers.
Kristen Smith is a writer and experienced music teacher who loves creating learning activities for students to enjoy. Find her blog at Music Teaching Adventures.com.
A Fresh Look at the Intersection Between Piano Technique and Musical Expression
5 principles for music studio teachers to avoid getting stuck in the weeds
TC184: Dr Anita Collins on the Neuroscience of Music Lessons and the Brain
TTTV032: What to say to parents when their child is about to quit with Anita Collins