Essential Skills

for Promoting a Lifelong Love of Music and Music Making

part 1 of 4



by Scott McBride Smith, NCTM

Stereotypes die hard, sometimes. There still are people in the U.S. who think all music teachers are kindly ladies with negligible training and no professionalism, handing out candy for good performances and slaps on the wrist for bad.

Kindly? Mostly. Minimal professionalism? Never! Today's MTNA members are educated, experienced and expert. This is reflected in results from studies that show music teachers are viewed by most U.S. citizens as respected professionals. In the latest Gallup poll, American Attitudes Toward Music (March 2003, conducted for the National Association of Music Merchants), an overwhelming majority of Americans polled—73 percent—believe children should be exposed to music before age 5. A whopping 96 percent consider music part of a well-rounded education.

Why, then, these articles? With today's busy schedules and packed lesson times, teachers sometimes fall into the trap of concentrating on repertoire only. "It's more fun for my students," one said, ignoring the preponderance of evidence that a lifetime of music making depends on well-developed proficiency in listening, sight reading and technique. That is the purpose of this series-to give teachers needed information, resources and time-effective strategies to help students build basic skills at all levels.

For this, the first article in a series of four, we invited one of the top theory teachers in the U.S. to share her ideas with us. We were impressed with the breadth of her thinking and her ability to simultaneously clarify complex topics and offer practical advice. We already have started applying her suggestions in our own studios. We hope you will, too!

By Dorothy Payne

The late Dorothy Payne taught at the University of South Carolina, specializing in undergraduate musicianship. She received the Lifetime Achievment in Music Theory Teaching and Scholarship Prize from the Gail Boyd de Stwolinski Center at the University of Oklahoma.

Music literacy requires both skill and knowledge. Skill allows a musician to perform with facility, while knowledge makes it possible to perform with insight.

During my long involvement with college teaching, I have observed theory classes in various institutions. Besides examples of excellent teaching, I have witnessed a few truly deadening presentations in which the teacher spends half the class with his or her back to the students, writing on the board, and not a note of music is heard during the entire class period. The most effective presentation of basic musical skills should be action-oriented.

Ability to Internalize Basic Rhythms and Pulse

There are no quick and easy answers to the challenge, although making friends with a jazz musician might be a good start. The student who is not internalizing rhythm and pulse will invariably lose track of the beat. All performers should have an ongoing "mental metronome," which establishes a sense of continuity. A student who has a solid grasp of rhythm and pulse is much more likely to correctly notate the pitches of a melody.

I have used the following exercise in class and find it challenging but useful: students begin clapping a steady beat—let's say, four beats to a measure. At a signal, they stop for six measures but continue to count silently with no physical movement. Then they resume clapping at the seventh measure. The results can be very revealing, providing the opportunity to talk about mental subdivision as a tool. If done in a group, this exercise also provides moments of humor because not everyone gets to the seventh measure at the same time. This can be done with smaller or longer "silent" periods, as well as different tempi.

It is helpful to have students listen to music, recorded or played by the teacher, and conduct as they listen, making sure their conducting patterns represent the music's character and mood. The physical gesture of conducting helps establish an internal sense of pulse and also may be used when students are simultaneously singing a melody, adding coordination skill to the exercise. Experience always should precede notation.

My work has been powerfully influenced by the teaching and theories of Emile Jacques Dalcroze. Although it places significant emphasis on solfège, ear training and improvisation, the underlying philosophy behind this approach is that of physical movement and kinesthetic awareness as the basis for musical mastery.

A simple example of this concept may be demonstrated by the following exercise:

Exercise 1

The teacher establishes a quarter note beat at mm=60 to the quarter note. Upon the teacher's signal, the student claps the beat, noting the physical adjustment and energy required as the pace increases. The teacher then may repeat the exercise, using a much slower beat for the quarter note (mm = 40). The student's gestures should become more expansive, representing the entire duration of each quarter note and subsequent values. Similarly, if the teacher selects a faster quarter note, the gestures become smaller and ultimately could become demonstrable by "finger-wiggling" when the student reaches faster note values.

Ideally, the student would then "walk" the exercise, adjusting the stride to the changes of space and energy required as the tempo changes. A student also may be asked to conduct each 4/4 measure while walking—a more challenging task than one might imagine.

The concept of a quick physical response to changing signals is an important part of the Dalcroze philosophy and many musical endeavors.

Ability to Read—Musical Literacy

If we think of music as a language and talk about "sight reading," is it not equally appropriate to talk about "sight reading" a book or a newspaper article? That has a strange ring to it. Quick understanding in both mediums requires a multitude of skills--symbol identification, pattern recognition and combining "chunks" of information into larger meaningful groupings. The difference is that musical sight reading involves instrumental skill. I refer here to a basic "comfort level" with the topography of the keyboard, and most importantly, the ability to visualize and aurally engage the keyboard when executing analytical or ear-training exercises. This is a critical skill for all musicians, regardless of their instrument. I am keenly aware that reading difficulties arise for the student looking back and forth between the music and the keyboard.

Here is one exercise for addressing that problem.

Exercise 2

You see a series of triads suggesting, in turn:

  1. Major tonic in root position (C major)
  2. Minor tonic in root position (C minor)
  3. Dominant in first inversion, leading to a new tonic one-half step higher (A-flat major triad leading to D-flat major or C-sharp major), then repeating the sequence as shown

After locating the starting triad, the student looks away from the keyboard and performs the sequence until directed to stop. The harmonic implications of this exercise are somewhat murky, and occasionally it is advisable to use enharmonic spellings as we have done. Nonetheless, because it keeps the hand in very close position, it lends itself to what is sometimes referred to as "blind technique," in that it requires the student to process the location of black-and-white keys without visual reference to the keyboard. You may wish to ask the student to identify each chord as it is played, using pop symbols as opposed to Roman numerals.

The exercise can be further developed in the following manner, which not only requires a greater range of spatial awareness on the student's part, but also lends itself to a more musical rendition, a consistent goal.

Exercise 3

Other sequence patterns are possible, such as a series of intervals spanning the gamut of the keyboard. As an example, begin with the lowest A on the keyboard, up a major sixth to F-sharp, down a major third to D, up a major sixth to B, down a major third to G, up a major sixth to E and so forth, maintaining the M6, M3, M6, M3 alternation throughout. A comparable descending sequence may be used (Descending intervals tend to be more challenging.), and always without looking at the keyboard after the initial pitch is played. Because the foregoing patterns lie outside any specified key, they help strengthen both spelling and aural perception of isolated intervals.

As is the case in most effective learning, the creative teacher seeks to challenge the student's present skill level, realizing when a student struggles with and subsequently masters a particular musical problem, an overall increase in ability is achieved that will enhance other related activities.

Keeping a steady beat is challenging for those struggling with sight reading and involves reading groups of notes at a time. Useful here is any kind of ensemble situation--an easy duet either sung or played with the teacher or another student—that requires the student to "fake" or even leave out the occasional measure to keep up. It also helps break the "stop and fix it" syndrome that hinders so many fledgling sight readers.

Keep in mind the importance of choosing "reading" repertoire at a level lower than the student's prepared music. While reminding the student of the many advantages of developing reading skills, try not to chide him or her for playing by ear, which many "late-blooming" readers do, since an aural and tactile familiarity with the keyboard combined with subsequent reading skills can ultimately prove to be invaluable.

Musical literacy requires knowledge of (as opposed to "passing acquaintance with") major and minor scales, key signatures, intervals and triad spelling. This is the musical alphabet from which the language of music ultimately is derived. I have discovered it is the lack of mastery of these important subjects that tends to haunt a student throughout musical study. The need to painstakingly calculate the key signature of F-sharp minor every time it occurs, for example, renders any type of musical analysis a truly daunting task.

To combine scale/key drill with keyboard visualization, the teacher might ask the student to place four fingers from each hand (omitting the thumb makes for the most natural hand position) over the eight notes of the major scale. In the case of D major, the left hand would be responsible for D up to G (D-major tetrachord), while the right hand would take over A up to D (A-major tetrachord). This should be done silently so the student is mentally hearing the scale pattern. When the scale has been successfully performed up and down one octave (speed is not important, but a steady tempo is), ask the student to look away from the keyboard and then, silently again, locate the notes of the E-major scale and play them. This might be followed by asking the student to perform the E harmonic minor scale, also without visual reference to his or her hands.

It is vitally important to make sure you and your students are "equal opportunity employers" in your teaching and illustrations. Make it a point to quietly, but persistently, shun C major.

Here is one more exercise to reinforce mastery of triads. These exercises are designed to prevent the student from going on "automatic pilot" while performing. We assume here that the four triad types have been discussed, are understood and can be spelled correctly.

Exercise 4

  1. Have the student sing or play various triads arpeggiated on a given root ("1"), using the "lyrics" (if sung): 1 - 3 - 5 - 3 - 1. Change the root note after each triad. You may stick with only major, alternate major and minor or "mix and match" all four types, remembering the dissonance inherent in the diminished and augmented triads poses special challenges. If you are dealing with a small class situation and choosing the "playing" route, you might choose an assembly line procedure with students lining up at the piano to await their turn. This exercise can be made very challenging by going beyond triads to seventh chords.
  2. This is the same exercise as (a), but beginning on "5" as the reference pitch and arpeggiating down:
    5 - 3 - 1 - 3 - 5. Depending on the student's ability, the triad quality may stay the same or be varied.
  3. This is the same exercise as (a), but giving "3" as the reference pitch and performing the arpeggio up as:
    3 - 5 - 1 - 5 - 3. This last version becomes very challenging if you change the reference pitch, the triad type or both. It also may be continued using "5" as the reference pitch. It requires the brain to be intensely involved, and if you spend too much time on it, you may perceive a thin wisp of steam emerging from your student's ears. That means it is time to stop.

Ability to Hear the Notes on the Page

There is, perhaps, no skill more essential to consummate musicianship than this one. Often referred to as "audiation," the ability to hear the notes on the page is clearly akin to music reading and should be considered a prerequisite for effective performance. Eye, ear, mind and hand are needed for development of aural perception/recognition of scales, intervals, triads and tunes. We will speak alternately of playing and singing, since each activity tends to reinforce the other. Egregious errors can occur when a student, analyzing a piece of music, makes no effort to play or hear the composition but mechanically processes the notes on the page.

Many musicians make use of specific solfège syllables while developing this skill. There are a number of different systems in use, and each has its proponents and detractors. The efficacy of any system largely is dependent on the teacher's strong belief in it. I have chosen not to address this issue since information easily is available and a comprehensive discussion would not fit comfortably within the scope of this article. Nonetheless, the use of some type of solfège as a tool has produced remarkable results.

Notating a given melody, even a familiar one, away from the piano is daunting for many students. The concept of scale degree function, recognizing the way in which specific scale degrees contribute to, or detract from, the shape of the music is critical for both harmonic and melodic perception. For example: asked to write out the tune "Happy Birthday" in a key of their choice, most students will begin on C. The astute ones will internally "listen," realize that C is functioning as "V" (dominant) in the key of F, and proceed accordingly. Others may assume they are in C and write the melody accordingly. It works pretty well until we encounter a B-natural in the final declaration of "Happy Birthday," suggesting a brief flirtation with the Lydian mode. Still others, believing they are in C, will dutifully "tweak" the final phrase of the piece to return to the note C at the cadence, making for a somewhat jarring ending. Those who miss the initial leap from C up to F end up with a creative but essentially unrecognizable version. Have the student try playing this, and other familiar tunes, and then transposing each to a different key. After some drills doing this, and in some cases, considerable drills are required, try the original exercise once more.

Sometimes it can be useful to have the student record his or her sung performance of a new melody, then listen to the result, keeping in mind that the act of singing strongly reinforces the audiation process. Ask the student what went wrong (if anything) and compare his or her version with the notated one. Discuss "stumbling blocks" and strategies to avoid them.

Ability to Understand Basic Elements of Theory, Form and Harmony

The foregoing sections of this article have dwelt briefly on musical issues that are critical in developing musicianship. The understanding of more involved topics, such as principles of harmonic progression, voice leading, cadence patterns, formal considerations, contemporary techniques and others, will be far more accessible and rewarding for the student who is comfortable with basic components of the musical language. It is advisable to use every opportunity to reinforce these basic concepts within the context of actual music, for example, finding and identifying cadences in the student's repertoire, introducing Roman numeral terminology, locating nonharmonic tones and other technical devices in the music. Selecting very brief passages from a piece of music (such as a four- or five-chord cadence formula), identifying the harmonies involved and having the student memorize and transpose the excerpt, helps develop aural recognition and also may enhance memory. Some type of theory textbook or workbook would be beneficial for most students. 

Matters of formal analysis may be brought up here, such as phrase structure and what constitutes a phrase. The task of formal analysis often can be rather subjective, and students need to be able to defend their judgments. 

Here is one very basic example:

Exercise 5

Play the first phrase segment of God Save the Queen ("My country 'tis of thee") and stop. Is that a phrase? Well, no. Why not? Well, it is too short. Right--let's continue with "sweet land of liberty." Now do we have a phrase? Why not? (If the tune has been harmonized, we hope the student recognizes the "wrong" harmonization of the tonic note at the end of the section; if not, one could perhaps acknowledge a somewhat "terse" phrase.); then continue through "to thee I sing." At last we have closure. This suggests a possible approach to other examples.

An awareness of phrase beginnings and endings has a significant effect on the performance.

Listening to music (played by the teacher or on a recording) can be useful at any level. Comparing disparate pieces of music, such as an excerpt from a Vivaldi Concerto Grosso, followed by a jazz selection, followed by an atonal work or a minimalist composition (maybe even a steel drum band) can promote discussions about the stylistic differences and an exploration of emotional content. Students can:

  • Determine whether the excerpt is in major or minor--or neither
  • Identify the meter and perhaps conduct
  • Assess whether the melody is the most important element, or not too important--and why or why not
  • Describe chord structure--do we hear triads or more complicated sonorities
  • Articulate what they believe the composer is trying to convey

Does the student like the piece? Why or why not? Have the student bring to class a favorite piece to discuss. It always makes for a lively exchange.


I have a deeply held conviction that a teacher's willingness and ability to take a student forward from wherever he or she may be in terms of development are of paramount importance. This has been eloquently expressed by Carl Rogers in his book, A Way of Being, when he says: "When the teacher has the ability to understand each student's reactions from the inside, has a sensitive awareness of how the process of education and learning seems to the student, then, again, the likelihood that significant learning will take place is increased. Such a teacher can accept students' occasional apathy, their erratic desire to explore by-roads of knowledge, as well as their disciplined efforts to achieve major goals. He or she can accept personal feelings that both disturb and promote learning--rivalry with a sibling, hatred of authority, concern about personal adequacy. What I am describing is a prizing of the learners as imperfect human beings with many feelings, many potentialities."1



1. Rogers, Carl. A Way of Being. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980): 272.


The following list of resources represents materials that have been used by the author or have been recommended by other individuals including Christopher Fisher, Ohio University; Rebecca Shockley, University of Minnesota; and Mark Laughlin and Heather Rentz, D.M.A. candidates, University of South Carolina. Needless to say, this brief listing cannot begin to cover the plethora of excellent and practical materials available in today's market.

Rhythm and Meter

Robert Abramson, Feel It, Warner Brothers (1998). Rhythm games for youngsters based on Dalcroze principles; contains two CDs. Additional Dalcroze resource information may be found at 

Daniel Kazez, Rhythm Reading, W.W. Norton (1997).

Music Reading & Sight Singing

Sol Berkowitz, et al, A New Approach to Sight Singing, W.W. Norton (1997), Fourth Edition. Plentiful exercises, including "Sing-and-Play" exercises to develop coordination skills.

Paul Hindemith, Elementary Training for Musicians, Schott & Co., Ltd (1946). Also features numerous and challenging coordination exercises.

Basic Elements of Theory, Form and Harmony

Stefan Kostka and Dorothy Payne, Tonal Harmony, McGraw-Hill (2004), Fifth Edition

General Resources

Piano Pedagogy Forum,

Michael Rogers, Teaching Approaches in Music Theory, Southern Illinois Press (2004), Second Edition.

Helpful Websites

The following websites offer information about software programs in the areas of musicianship and piano pedagogy: