Teaching music theory - role/importance of learning terminology


I’m ok with it.
But I intend to teach. And have some experience in it with various mentally challenged and non challenged people.

But it is only my anecdotal experience.

That’s fine, the third is a logical communication in english. diatonic isn’t.

So just to finalize, I understand what you guys are saying and appreciate your input which, I will definitely think about.

Just in my own self learning and watching students, the added complication of new words really throws off many people. And when there’s a class of teens amped up in youth, they really need logic they can follow, not memorize.
All I intend is to get the meat of the subject across with little hang ups.


I see. To the extent that you’re talking about experienced musicians teaching beginners, then I agree. Starting with English descriptions before jargon is a good idea. Jargon is supposed to aid communication, not inhibit it.

I was thinking more about beginners teaching themselves, which is different.

That said, if attrition is a big problem with your students, I’d focus on keeping them motivated more than coming up with an alternative vocabulary. Motivation is magic when it comes to learning.


They banned energy drinks here in UK for under 16’s :laughing: Maybe that’ll help.


Diatonic totally is - it’s a word we adapted from greek, sure, but it’s an english word (It’s listed in Merriam-Webster, which is my standard of choice, although I don’t love their definition), and plenty of other widely used english words were adapted from greek, like gymnasium, curriculum, sophomore, astronaut, or hero all came directly from Greek or were modern coinages from greek works. Diatonic refers to a family of scales, much like pentatonic, although for whatever reason pentatonic seems to scare people less, probably because it’s used more often in a blues context. The only difference is the root; dia- refers to seven pitches while penta- refers to five (and hepta- six, etc). It’s the proper name for a family of scales.

Listen, man, I don’t think this stuff is nearly as complex as you make it out to be. I’m by NO means the biggest theory expert on the boards here, but I know this stuff pretty well, and if there are any particular concepts or terms you’re hung up on or don’t fully understand, I’d be more than happy to help you or answer questions or explain things. Just ask. :+1:


In common vernacular it’s not, big difference between an educated person as you clearly are and the everyday person wanting to learn a bit of theory. I think we are miscommunicating in terms of the level of interest and focus a person has. I’m kinda picking up the slack and not only teaching my own stressed out self, but on the road to teach true beginners that aren’t necessarily willing to put in the focus. You based on your posts alone are quite enthusiastic, no wonder you know a fair amount. And I appreciate all info you’re posting as learning stuff in multiple formats really helps me.


Agreed. And I agree with @Frylock about folks being taught intermediate material in a non-beginner way. What’s being described (and this thread has gotten very long very quickly) sounds like a teacher and/or student issue. Declaring that b3 and mode names aren’t helpful… (And apologies if I’m not quoting exactly.) Yikes. With a great teacher emparting knowledge well, students are going to get it, and won’t be distracted by the “scary” aspect of the terminology. And it’s important they do get it. Because this is the easy stuff that much else depends upon for understanding and communication.


Hyper, chatty, slightly disruptive. etc. Normal teens.
What I’m saying is based off my experience with that type of group. In a UK college setting.
And some add, autism etc.

They don’t take well to formal education. This is my bases for my comments, I’m included in that as I’ve been confused many times myself. But more than willing to be schooled.


What’s the goal of the venture? To get them excited about theory as they go off to do more with it? A lot of theory gets taught as a tough thing on the side. A “supposed to” do thing, you know?

p.s. This is a long way from Yngwie’s new lessons, but yeah, a discussion of teaching methods regarding specific content is much easier than a reinvent the wheel kind of thread, me thinks.


To get the core most important concepts across with very little extras or long dull explanation. Using logic and everyday physical concepts that they and me just get. No fluff. That’s why I feel all the extra words are big barriers to this. As if you teach the pure logical concepts first, you have little stress. The proper words can be explained later.

If I say play the 2nd note of the 5 note pattern I just showed you. It’s instantly there in their minds using everyday language they fully understand.

If I say play the minor 3rd of the minor pentatonic. Blank stare.
Even if already taught such things. Because music theory explained in complicated words most never use is hard to keep in the mind.

My point is to get actual musical concepts across, not definitions. Once the base concept is there, the fancy stuff can be added. Because that lack of uncertainty solidifies it in the mind.

And this happens even if searching for understanding yourself, you get blinded with science.
I’m not ignoring the explanation of the terminology. Just flipping it around, as there no memorization needed. Of Course this is a very basic example. The less there is to remrmber the faster concepts get conveyed.


Teaching for understanding. Excellent.

What constitutes, “fancy stuff?” Some of this terminology is just base terminology, and no pun intended, akin to baseball terminology as mentioned earlier. If it seems irrelevant to you, it likely will be difficult for them to be excited about it (whatever it is) as well. If you are teaching with a curriculum to support, that obviously makes things trickier.

You are on a forum with centuries of combined wisdom about theory and why it matters to the craft. Hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers having contributed to that understanding. Most of us that started playing a very long time ago didn’t have that kind of resource available to us. That should be great news for someone five years in. :slight_smile: (Not sure if you started with other instruments and/or theory much earlier.)

I dare say most of us are more clever at doing the same than the authors of the books we were introduced to originally… There may be less disagreement here than you’ve faced.


Hepta means seven, hexa refers to six. Dia means through here (I think).
Sorry to be that person…


Dammit! You’re right. :rofl:


For example, pentatonic scale degree. It’s just not common english.
Five note pattern number. Is plain english, self explanatory.
Understandable to a beginner with no real explanation needed.

Once thats there. Extra words can easily be attached with far less stress…

And in my personal teaching the mass of info is actually counterproductive. So many people teach basic theory with with foreign words, then you have to go on another search for what they just said means, memorize it. Then go back to original info, and hope it’s clearer.


Well, that’s taking it back to criticizing terminology. That’s sort of a windmill tilt. One may just teach the scale without pointing out that it has five notes at all, no?


I think my point is proven just there. So wtf is diatonic? I’ve always heard it’s 7.


The diatonic scales just are, and they’re sometimes defined in terms of seven notes (@Drew’s off the hook with our theory overlords. phew!). Differentiates from chromatic. Something may be diatonic to a particular key (hence the definition from “that guy,” @Squeaks :wink: ). Couple of usages. For example in the key of ‘C’, note F is a member of the related diatonic scale. F# on the other hand, is not diatonic to C major.


I mean, two things are kind of jumping out at me here.

First, your issue seems to mostly be with “foreign” words being used to describe theory. That doesn’t make much sense to me, partly because they’re not foreign at all, they’ve been adapted into the english language, and partly because, well, plenty of other “foreign” words are regularly used in English - a car chassis, for example, but because they’re well understood, it’s not a problem - words are just a means to share information, it doesn’t matter where they come from as long as they can convey information to others.

Second, your “just call it the 2nd note of the five note pattern rather than the minor 3rd” robs it of the context that I think is so critical to the use of scale degrees. In the harmonic context, it’s NOT the “second note.” It’s the “third” note of the diatonic scale, and the pentatonic scale just omits the second and sixth notes. The interval between the root and the third degree determines if the scale is major or minor, regardless if you’re playing a pentatonic minor (1, b3, 4, 5, b7) or a diatonic minot (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7) and calling it the "second note of the 5 note pattern instead of a minor 3rd, glosses over the fact that the pitch in question is the third degree relative to your tonal center, regardless of how many notes occur in the scale between it and the root, and neglects to say anything about the quality of the note, major or minor.

Simply, “second note in the five note pattern” does almost nothing to identify the pitch, because it leaves too many questions unanswered. WHICH five note pattern, for one? If you’re playing a pentatonic scale comprised of the root, b2, 3, 5, b7, for example - a nonstandard form, but still technically pentatonic, and kind of a cool, vaguely phrygian dominant flavored scale - then the "2nd note is only a half step off your root, a minor 2nd. If you’re playing a major pentatonic, its a major 3rd away.

The beauty of the system of scale degrees we use is it clearly defines notes based on the interval between the note and the root. “Third note of a five note pattern” tells you nothing. “Perfect fourth” tells you exactly how far from the root the note is, and how it sounds in relation to the root. In your example, the “second note in a five note pattern” and the “third note in a seven note pattern” are, provided both scales are major, actually the same pitch and the same interval to the root… but you’d never guess that based on your descriptions, and the fact that they ARE the same interval from the root is musically important.

So, try not to arbitrarily think of words as “foreign” or “english,” and try thinking about scale degrees not as telling you which number they are as you ascend through the scale, but as defining the relationship between the root and that particular note. Pentatonics are actually a really good filter to think about this through, because a minor third is the same interval from the root, regardless of if it’s the second pitch in a pentatonic minor scale or the third pitch in a diatonic minor, so having a different way to describe it depending on which particular scale you happen to be playing at the time is needlessly complex.


Once again, thank you for the info i’ll take it in.

Though I think you’re ignoring the idea of teaching fairly unmotivated people and picking on something I just made up on the spot for a quick post.


Learning musical theory is as hard as learning another language? Of course. Since music IS another language.
Learning new stuff is always confusing, and terms and definitions could be quite confusing too. It’s not a problem of music theory it’s a problem of any codified theory. How many people could understand arithmetics if you teach them in a strict way (like give them a bunch of Peano axioms)? One percent, or two?
And usually you have to learn some boring basics before interesting things would start. For example, relativity theory is actually quite easy if… if you understand tensor analysis.
There’re no ‘easy ways’ of learning any more or less complicated system. You whether try hard or just whine.
P.S. musical theory actually is an interesting thing. and it’s very very easy compated to math or physics or linguistics or whatever.


The idea of teaching fairly unmotivated people reminds of something Steve Vai said about Joe Satriani’s teaching method. Vai said that if Joe asked you to learn something for the next week’s lesson, when you came back the next week you’d have to play it for him. If you hadn’t learned it, Satriani would stop the lesson right there and say “This lesson is over. I told you to have that ready for today.” I agree with that philosophy. I don’t believe that anybody deserves to waste a teacher’s time.

If someone truly wants to learn, the teacher will see it. If they’re not motivated, or if their motivation level is so low that they need music theory restructured in a way where it’s dumbed down to make it simpler for them, they don’t want it bad enough. Nothing worth doing is easy to learn and if it were easy, everybody would do it. Displaying one possesses the drive and motivation to do whatever is necessary to learn is what separates the wheat from the chaff.