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Music Theory with Howard Levy: Part 1

music theory

Music Theory: just the words themselves can strike fear into the heart of a beginning musician or those who play by ear.

Learning music theory will actually help you pick out tunes by ear. I think the most important thing about music theory is teaching someone how to HEAR more accurately. I like to keep the terminology to a minimum and only teach things that are the most useful to what a musician needs to make progress at each step along the way.

The skill of being able to hear what you are listening to accurately is one that few people possess naturally, so it usually needs to be explained and taught. I like to draw a parallel between sight and sound.

Our octave is divided into 12 half steps. Our foot is divided into 12 inches. Just as we use a ruler to measure distance with our eyes - one inch, 2 inches, 3 inches - we must learn to measure the sonic distances of the divisions of the octave - half step, whole step, minor third - with our ears. I call it “seeing with your ears.”

If you begin to think about it in this way, “ear training” will become a far less abstract concept. I believe that identifying the intervals is the fundamental building block of becoming a good musician, whatever instrument one plays, whatever the style.  

Singing is also an important part of this process. Sometimes in Western music, we put the cart before the horse by teaching people how to play things on an instrument before they can hear them.

I think that for a beginner, it is most important to hear something BEFORE you try to play it - that is, to sing a melody or a rhythmic pattern first before trying it on an instrument. This is the approach that Indian classical music teachers use, and I think it is a very important technique.

For my harmonica students, I always emphasize that they first should sing a Blues lick before trying to play it. Even the simplest thing is hard to do if you can’t hear it. It’s surprising how many people have never used these “muscles” before they try out an instrument.  With the diatonic harmonica, this is especially important, since the instrument is invisible to the player, and you don’t use your fingers/hands to produce the notes. 

To play most Blues licks on a harmonica, a player has to bend notes by changing the resonance and pressure in the mouth, which a pretty abstract thing to visualize. So having a “good ear”, as we say, is really important in bending a note to a precise pitch.

diatonic harmonica notes bending

For example a b3, b5, b7 – all essential notes for playing blues, are only obtainable on a diatonic harmonica by using this bending technique. The trial - and - error approach that works for finding notes on an instrument like the piano, guitar, saxophone, etc, does not work well at all on the diatonic harmonica.

I recommend my students to get ear-training programs/apps. There are many that you can download, and you can start to train your ears to hear the intervals. And with these, you can assign numbers to the notes of the major scale - from 1 to 7- and start singing simple melodies with these numbers. Hearing like this will make it much easier to transpose simple melodies to other keys, which is a very important skill to have as a musician. 

- Howard Levy

ArtistWorks offers free music theory lessons to members of all its schools taught by Jonathan Coopersmith, Head of the Music Theory Department at Curtis Institute of Music. 

Related Blogs:

harmonica lessons with howard levy

Learn more about online harmonica lessons with Howard Levy at



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