“What about this chord?” he asked. He was so eager to learn, so excited by the possibilities, that the excitement was visible in his face. I was almost as excited. It wasn’t very often that a student brought that level of energy to theory class. This was a question worthy of a thoughtful answer.
Actually, he and I had this discussion many times, especially in his first year of music theory. When our class was over, he would dash up to the piano and play a progression using a chord much more complex than what we were currently studying in class.
While I wanted to encourage him, I knew that he didn’t have all the information he needed yet. He was familiar in a practical way with advanced harmonic progressions but didn’t have the technical knowledge required for the correct usage of these chords. He wanted to leap ahead and I was trying to slow him down long enough to teach him what he needed to know.
We eventually came to an understanding. I would tell him at what point in the curriculum he would be ready to start using those chords well, and he would do his best to be patient. “Two more weeks!” became our rallying cry.
Music theory courses are often about the rules. The conventions that have become the foundation of Western art music developed in sequence and logically. Well, mostly logically.
The good news is that you don’t have to know all the rules to be a good musician. In fact, simply by training your ear to hear harmonies, to anticipate which chord or melody note will come next and to play them by ear and by sight is excellent training. That’s the training my student had when he was young, and he acquired it in one of the best and time-tested ways: playing the piano in church.
I did this too when I was young and it was an invaluable experience. I learned how to sight read, how to accompany a group, how to lead a group. And just by learning the hymns I absorbed the basic “rules” of Western music, the conventions of harmony and melody, chord construction and chord progressions. In fact when someone asks me if they should take a theory course, I am likely to recommend instead that they get a plain hymnal and play from it daily.
In case you aren’t convinced of the benefits to be obtained this way, I have assembled this list of 10 benefits that should send you to the bookshelf to dust off that hymn book.
Benefit #1: Interval Recognition
Your eyes and your fingers will learn to quickly recognize sizes and shapes of intervals.
Benefit #2: Hands Together Practice
Most hymns have both hands playing at the same time, which is excellent for hands together learning.
Benefit #3: Placing Practice
You will learn to read and place chords quickly and accurately with both hands.
Benefit #4: Chord Structure
Hymns provide a clear, almost textbook-like, framework for learning to identify chords.
Benefit #5: Chord Progression
Your ear will learn to hear how chords work together and you will learn to anticipate the most usual sequences of chords, which is a tremendous asset in sight reading.
Benefit #6: Creating Legato
Simple hymn textures are ideal for learning to project a well-phrased melody line.
Benefit #7: Sight Reading Practice
The relatively uncomplicated texture and material of most hymns makes them perfect for sight reading practice, and there are usually just enough pedal or lever changes to keep you on your toes.
Benefit #8: Note Reading Study
Most hymns are written with four notes to each chord for the soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices. Pick out one of the voices and say the notes of that line while you play the other three.
Benefit #9: Ear Training Study
Go one step further than note reading practice, and sing the notes of one of the lines while you play the others.
Benefit #10: Improvisation Practice
Hymns are a wonderful starting point for improvisation. After all, Bach did it. Why shouldn’t you?