How Music Theory and Improvising Can Be Taught Together

How Music Theory and Improvisation Can Be Taught Together

Music theory and improvising.  It’s important to have both in our teaching.  But, what is the best way to teach music theory? To avoid the mistakes of the past, music theory should above all be done in a timely, hands-on manner that ensures students see the connection between theory and application.  One of the best ways to teach music theory is through using the music students are already playing.  The other way to combine music theory and improvisation.

Why Not Just Use Worksheets?

Worksheets ensure students are focused on one thing at a time, can help them read music better (at least we hope) and have worked for decades.  Or have they?  I don’t remember what I learnt from worksheets.  I learnt from the practical application of theory concepts at the piano.  And, in talking to other teachers and students, I’ve discovered I’m not alone.  I don’t blame my teachers.  Education research has come a long way in the last decades and it will continue to evolve as research is done.

There are a few major downfalls of using strictly worksheets (or even only apps) compared to combining music theory and improvisation.  Worksheets are not relevant, disassociate between music and theory, (I know this is going to be polarizing) more about the teacher than the student.  Unless the activity requires active listening, active involvement and a chance to make their opinions, students learn to parrot back the ‘right’ answer without thinking on why it’s ‘right.

Not Relevant

They aren’t relevant because theory without real-world application means nothing.  It’s a start, but life is much different than in a highly controlled setting.  We have seen this in almost every category of theoretical thought.  Theory means well, but the reality can be far from the utopian ideals they come from.

Disassociate Between Theory and Reality

Students typically see a disassociation between music and theory.  Think about how many students don’t know the names of notes on the staff even though you have ‘taught’ it many times.  And, this can be after years!  (Yes, this has happened in my studio as well which was the wake-up call I needed to do things differently.)


Worksheets are more about making things easy for the teacher than the student.  After teaching in the school system, I can definitively say it much easier to mark worksheets than open-ended projects.  I could fly through my marking when there was a clear right or wrong answer.  To avoid biases, it took a lot more time and effort for those open-ended projects.  Hearing from my students and my kids, worksheets are more often seen as “busy work” than anything else.

But, it doesn’t have to be all negative.  There is a way to consistently teach music theory in a way that makes sense to students.

Music Theory and Improvising

These two things have more in common than you may think at first.  First, we need to use the same definitions though.

What is improvisation? Improvising is combining patterns of rhythm, melody or chords to create something new.

What is music theory? Music theory is understanding the underlying structure of music and giving those structures/symbols/ideas names.

Both music theory and improvising are ways of interacting with parts of music in accessible ways. 
Put them together and you have an incredible powerhouse of a teaching tool!

Music theory on its own is much like learning how to drive by reading the learner’s manual with no practical experience. The first time driving a vehicle, much of that theory goes out the window since everything is happening so fast. (To read about the musical equivalent of this, click here.)

Improvising with no music theory leaves students and teachers flounder with no guidance.  To go back to our driving example, it would be like putting someone behind the wheel with no instructions or guidance and saying “Let’s go!”  

But, when music theory and improvising are combined it creates a learning experience in which the student is supported, knows what is expected, can be successful and sees the real-world results of that learning.

5 Tips to Get Students Improvising

Here are a few tips that have helped to incorporate music theory and improvising seamlessly into my studio.

  • Keep it simple and focus on one idea at a time.  This might be keyboard geography, meter, tonality, rhythm pattern, dynamics, or articulation … it could be anything.  But, focus on one idea at a time.
  • Chords give great structure both for the overall structure and melody notes!  These are the basis of Western music and have one of the biggest impacts on student playing.
  • Listen to many examples of the main idea behind the improvisation. Give your students many ideas to fill their improvising toolbox!
  • Get students singing (or at least listening to you sing).  What we can sing or audiate is something we have a much higher probability of playing.
  • Always link it back to something they are playing or will be playing to really make it exceptionally powerful.

Teaching Music Theory and Improvising Together

In my studio, you may hear something rather surprising.  “Do you remember last year when you played [song name]?”  “Do you remember music lab from 2 years ago when we listened to music with [music theory concept]?”  My students have fun during music lab and lessons.  But, what has helped their learning exponentially is continually showing them how it all ties together.

Does it work?  Since going online, my students needed to become a bit more independent.  After all, they couldn’t rely on Ms. Rosemarie to point to the page or guide their hands.  This was when I saw the massive payoff of making the connection for my students.  They remember what we have done and are starting to tell me “Do you remember when …?  This song is like that!”  And, so I will continue to make those connections for them until they can do it on their own.

Which questions do you have about teaching music theory through improvisation?

Let me know in the comments below!

I’m a big fan of making things easy to implement and fit in during crammed lesson times.  For that reason, this systematic 10-week set of warm-ups was a powerhouse series that took my students from off the bench, singing, playing and improvising with chords in a real-world way!

To purchase your copy of these powerhouse warm-ups, click here.  

“If You Can Sing Chords, You Can Play Chords”: Piano Warm-Ups


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