The Beginner's Guide to Starting Piano Lessons

Why is Music Theory Used in Piano Lessons?

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Rose Park

3/28/24 • 4 min read

Many new piano learners or their parents wonder why music theory gets so much attention in lessons. After all, isn’t the main goal just learning to play the right notes? Is it necessary to learn anyway? While that’s definitely important, music theory actually gives you the core foundations to become a well-rounded pianist.

Once you understand the core concepts like melody and musical structure, playing piano seems to make more sense, as if everything is just connecting smoothly.

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Understanding musical notations and structures

When it comes to learning the piano, one of the most important skills to develop right from the start is reading musical notation. Now, some pianists might prefer learning tunes by ear, and that’s perfectly okay, especially for more experienced musicians. But for those just beginning their piano journey, building a strong foundation in reading sheet music is most ideal.

The notes, rhythms, and symbols written on the sheet music act like a detailed guidebook, showing you exactly how to play each part of a piece. Without being able to understand the guide, it’s kind of like trying to play a complicated piece blindfolded.

Let’s take rhythms, for instance. Those note values and time signatures might look a bit strange at first, but they’re actually telling you precisely how long to hold each note and when to pause. Misreading those rhythmic patterns can completely throw off the entire flow of a piece. And don’t forget about key signatures – those sharps and flats at the start of each staff line let you know which notes need to be raised or lowered throughout the music.

What's a structure?

Reading notation isn’t just about hitting the right notes and rhythms, though. It’s also about understanding the structure and relationships within a piece of music. The staff lines and spaces represent different pitches, while the treble and bass clefs indicate which register those notes belong to. Being able to read and understand these elements lets you navigate chord progressions and melodic lines easier.

Why music theory is used in piano lessons? - Lesson With You

What are dynamic markings?

We can’t forget the expressive markings that bring music to life – dynamics and phrasing. With these notations, you can add expression and emotion to your playing. Paying attention to phrasing in particular gives your piano performance a nice, natural flow.

For example, dynamics such as pianissimo (pp) and forte (f) indicate the loudness. Phrasing guides you on expressing rises, falls, and breaths in the melody line. With the guidance of a professional instructor, you’ll learn various notation markings that can improve your playing, transforming it into a more expressive and engaging performance.

Developing Musicality and Creativity

Music theory opens up a whole new level of understanding how music can be rich, complex, and emotionally powerful. By learning concepts like melody, harmony, and musical form, piano students develop creativity that helps them appreciate and analyze pieces of music.

Melody is at the heart of any musical work – it’s the sequence of notes that become the main message of the music. Studying how melodies are arranged gives you insights into all the little details like intervals, phrasing, and rhythms. You will learn different interval types, like major, minor, and perfect intervals, shaping the overall character and emotional feel of a melody.

Through music theory, you will understand how the placement of longer and shorter notes, as well as repeating rhythmic patterns, can create an overall sense of flow within a melodic line.

Harmony is like adding layers underneath the main melody line on the piano. Learning about chords, how they move from one to the next, and how the chords relate to each other helps train your ears. You’ll start to pick up on all those supporting harmonies that make the melody sound richer and more complete.

Then there’s Musical form – the overall structure of music. In piano lessons, you’ll learn to recognize the different sections like introductions, main melody themes, developments where the melody gets expanded, and recapitulations when that main theme returns. Seeing how all these parts fit together in a piece makes it simpler to grasp the big picture of a structure.

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How music theory can level up your piano skills

Music theory makes a huge difference when you’re trying to level up your piano skills. Instead of learning new pieces note-by-note, having a solid understanding of the musical concepts gives you a much more efficient way to practice piano.

Take intervals for example. Instead of just memorizing random note combinations, you start to see how melodies and chords fit together in larger musical frameworks. Similarly, learning chord inversions helps you understand how chords change smoothly while playing piano, making it easier to remember each chord shape.

Music theory is also an incredibly useful problem-solving tool when you practice piano. Instead of just mindlessly playing the same notes over and over, with music theory, you can analyze the chords, voicing, and the rhythmic patterns involved. This lets you strategically read music and practice just the specific technical or musical challenges. Plus, once you’ve learned a piece thoroughly, having that solid music theory knowledge makes memorizing way more easily.

Ultimately, when you bring music theory into your piano practice routine, it opens up a wide range of techniques for strategically working through challenges, planning effective practice sessions, and improving your piano skills in the long term.

3 benefits of learning music theory in piano lessons

Learn music faster

Music theory makes learning new piano pieces easier and more organized. Instead of just memorizing, students can use music theory to spot melodic patterns and structures in music, making practice more focused and memorization more reliable.

Appreciate music better

Studying music theory also helps you understand how music is put together. You’ll learn how composers create melodies, harmonies, and the overall feel of a piece to evoke emotions. This knowledge makes playing and listening to music more enjoyable for you.

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3. Be more creative

Plus, knowing music theory boosts your creativity at the piano. You’ll be able to improvise, compose, and arrange music by combining different musical elements in exciting ways. Through music theory, you will also gain skills like sight-reading, ear-training, and distinguishing absolute or relative pitch.

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Common questions about music theory

Q. How long does it take to learn music theory in piano?

Generally, it takes several years to develop a comprehensive understanding of music theory through piano lessons. Establishing a basic foundation, which includes key signatures and note reading, typically requires six months to a year. Progressing to more advanced concepts like complex rhythms, chord progressions, and harmonies usually takes another year or so. 

But the timeline isn’t fixed, and students can advance more quickly with consistent practice and proper drills after each piano lesson.

Q. What materials are used for music theory?

In piano lessons, students begin with certain types of piano method books that combine music theory with pieces. As they progress through each chapter, students learn important musical concepts through activities such as writing, listening, and performing drills. The best piano method books include Faber Piano Adventures and Alfred’s.

Q. Is it okay if I want to focus on playing the piano rather than learning music theory first?

That’s perfectly fine – you can ask your piano teacher to focus more on learning new songs. But having a good grasp of music theory will help you pick up music faster. If you’re not so sure about theory, you might find piano a bit trickier at first and lose interest. Learning music theory sooner will make playing piano with new songs much easier.

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Rose Park

Rose Park is a graduate of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University where she studied Piano Performance and Arts Administration, receiving both Bachelor's and Master's degrees before co-founding Lesson With You. As a pianist, Rose was a prizewinner in many international piano competitions and performed at various summer programs and festivals across the United States, Italy, and Japan.