Imagine this: you’ve been working hard on a new piano piece. After many hours, you can finally play all of the notes with some fluency!
You stand atop this Parnassus, rightfully proud of your accomplishment … and then you hear a little voice say: sure, you can play this piece. But do you understand it?
This is usually when students ask me for resources on music theory, which is spot on. But if you don’t have a theory teacher on hand, it’s hard to know where to start. It’s not that there aren’t free resources widely available — it’s that there are too many. It can be a bit overwhelming.
For pianists, I’ll recommend focusing on three areas of music theory that can yield huge benefits for your playing, particularly if your focus is tonal or common practice period repertoire.
This topic you can tackle without so much as a sheet of staff paper.
In music theory, formal analysis analyzes the structure of a piece, from big to small. The biggest structural level is the form of the entire piece; in piano repertoire, you’ll want to read up on terms like sonata, rondo, ternary, binary, and variation form and learn to identify their component parts.
From that birds-eye view, you can start poking into the smaller-scale structure of the piece, such as phrase structure. Some key terms here include cadences, periods, sentences, and hypermeter.
At an even more micro level, you could do some motivic analysis and track how a large-scale work can be built off just a few notes (Ludwig, I’m looking at you).
The payoff of formal analysis is that you’ll be able to see each piece’s unique narrative arc. You’ll never again play it like a string of notes simply placed one after the other.
Harmony is one of the key ingredients in the magic potion of piano music. It’s so central that I can tell a pianist who thinks harmonically from one who doesn’t. It also, by the way, helps you memorize pieces and avoid learning (or even, egads, recording) wrong notes.
To start, learn to identify diatonic triads and seventh chords and do some basic Roman numeral analysis. The fun continues as you expand into applied chords, chromatic harmony and modulation.
Ultimately, identifying chords helps you decipher their narrative content. As brainy pianists from Robert Levin to Leonard Bernstein have explained, some chords have more tension, and some have more release.
Treat all harmonies the same and you’ve basically made your Beethoven sonata a sad sonic pancake.
For me, a strong sense of counterpoint (along with mastery of pedal) is what separates a competent pianist from a spellbinding one. Why? Because we pianists were made for this.
Most instrumentalists can only navigate a single line of music, but we pianists can handle a multitude of voices using just our ten fingers and our general awesomeness.
As a result, composers expected that pianists be able to distinguish what all of the voices are doing!
One starting point is to learn more about Baroque-era contrapuntal forms like fugues, canons and inventions. Learning to follow two to four voices at a time will prepare you to do the same when those same contrapuntal textures are wrapped in the sumptuous Romantic harmonies of Rachmaninov or Chopin.
So, if you’re game, how do start your music theory journey? It depends on how much time and energy you have.
If you want the whole hog, go ahead and get a good theory tutor or teacher or take a college-level course, making sure to do the related ear training and written exercises.
If you’re a DIYer, check out a standard college textbook (such as this or this) and do drills online (at sites like this and this).
If you have even less time, start with looking up the terms I’ve suggested on the good ole internet and go down whatever rabbit holes you find. Even short and sweet articles (like in this online textbook or on course websites like this one) can set you on your way.
Trust me, your playing will never be the same.