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Teaching Chord Theory To Secondary Music Performance Ensembles

Posted by Thomas J. West on October 12, 2011 at 7:30 AM

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As part of a sequential curriculum in music education, my instrumental music performance students continually learn and practice written music notation. This begins with rote scale and arpeggio study (letter names before notation, learned in circle of fifths order), combined with improvisation on the pentatonic scale.


Once the students have become familiar with the first three key areas (both performing the scales and arpeggios as well as writing them), the are prepared to start talking about chord theory and simple harmonic progressions.


Introducing the concepts involved takes about 20-30 minutes of class time. I begin by writing out their most familiar major scale on the board (Bb for winds, D for strings). The students identify the tonic triad arpeggio they already know how to play. I then write those pitches stacked in thirds over top of the tonic pitch, explaining that they will see this chord described in contemporary music as simply the letter name of the tonic pitch. I also show them the traditional roman numeral (I teach parts of both systems of labeling, because both have their strengths).


We then go on to identify and write out the other triads in the major scale, playing each and identifying the quality. Once completed, we identify the primary chords in that key and note that they are the three major chords.


chord theory

Students construct the above on the classroom board


From there, I demonstrate the differences between closed and open position chords and show them both chord inversions. We then talk about the convention of tonic - sub-dominant - dominant - tonic chord progressions and show how inversions are used to create more playable voice parts through a progression.


Sound like a lot? It is. My high school students being introduced to these concepts grasp them fairly well. My middle school students usually get this info in two parts after a lot more scale study.


After this introduction, I provide them opportunities to practice these concepts primarily using Noteflight Classroom as an asynchronous assignment source (done outside of class on their computer at home - yes, I have the luxury of every student having an internet-ready computer). They are learning to use notation software at the same time.


The eventual goal of the curriculum is to enable students to write a four-part quartet for their primary instrument and have it performed or make a multi-track recording by the end of their senior year. Some students are already ecxceeding this goal because of their work in our school's piano curriculum and will be ready to write full scores for multiple instruments.


This article (c) 2011 Thomas J. West. All content on ThomasJWestMusic dot com is licensed under a Creative Contributions Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. Please contact the author before publishing on or off-line.

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Categories: Music Education, Music Composition, Teacher Tips

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