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Why Music Theory & History are Essential

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

In this post Easter era,  the remainder of April represents one of those curious times of the year, when music students all across the country frantically scramble to cram those facts, practice those exercises, nail down the flashcards, and generally freak out.  All this in the effort to pass their upcoming May theory and history exams. This sight in turn produces ear to ear grins on the faces of their professors - who savour this period of cram and jam as retribution for many a sleepy eye and lax homework effort during the classes of weeks gone past!

Note: A certain blog writer and his daughter editor, who shall remain nameless, may or may not have been - at an aforementioned time one of those very students.  But that is a topic for another day...

For those of you reading this from abroad, or are new to the RCM exams system, the RCM method requires for each practical exam level (of the student’s major performance instrument), to have concurrent theory/history co-requisites. These are challenging courses which serve to introduce a student to roughly 1000 years worth of music history, analysis, and even the basics of rudimentary composition. The co-requisite for each level is listed below.


There are no additional theory/history co-requisites in excess of those listed for ARCT


  • History 3

  • two classes from the following: Counterpoint, Analysis, Harmony III

Grade 10 

  • Harmony II, History II

Grade 9

  • Harmony I, History I

Grade 8 

  • This course is formerly known as Advanced Rudiments

Grade 7

  • This is an additional course the RCM added a few years back; as such, it does not correspond with any of the previous Rudiments courses. There is no formal exam for this grade - we tend to teach this course together with Grade 8 Theory. 

Grade 6  

  • This course is formerly known as Intermediate Rudiments

Grade 5

  • this course is formerly known as Basic Rudiments 

Each of the earlier RCM grades (1-4) also have theory complements, but the most interesting nuts and bolts start appearing around the level 5. 

These courses are time and work intensive, and you may be asking as to why they are even necessary?

The short answer is that anybody who is truly serious about learning one of the great artistic and cultural traditions in the world today, Western Art Music, will only enhance the depth of understanding of the repertoire which they are currently studying, with the addition of this broader historical and analytical perspective.  

For instance, when we talk of great artists and their artistic conceptions, one has to realize that a historically informed perspective is a necessity to understand the psychology of the composer, as well as the societal issues of the day which may have influenced the work. The same is true when looking at the given works' larger architecture and general composition. Again, this is as true from the performers advantage as it is from the auditors.

Art is always a reflection of society, and musical art is no different. Take for instance the music of a composer such as Beethoven, and its evolution through his 3 periods of compositional  maturation. In 1791 he arrived in Vienna as a young man of 21, full of the revolutionary spirit inspired by the Napoleonic revolt sweeping Europe at the time. His early works are full of sarcasm, mischief and pedantry: the proverbial stoking of the fire to light up the establishment and artistic norms.  

Transition now to his middle period works, where his revolt against society soon thereafter becomes a revolt against the deity.  This period represents a proverbial shaking of the fists at the sky - inner chaos as he grapples with the process of a gradual degeneration in his hearing to the point of total deafness.   

Further on, with his later works, which can be viewed as musical gospels of sublime acceptance and forgiveness; Beethoven, with one oar anchored firmly in the contrapuntal and structural waters of the past, casts his gaze forward to a gesture and expressionist philosophy which is entirely novel: and which at times is on a seemingly impenetrable depth level.  

Likewise, from a theoretical bent, understanding the evolution of a given structural form, or harmonic language, is crucial to understanding the repertoire of a given genre or historical period.  

How does a 13th-century poetic form (rondeaux) influence the church hymns of the Protestant Reformation? Or movement structures of the sonata cycles of the classical era, or virtually every single piece of rock ‘n’ roll written since Elvis Presley?

What is the deeper significance of the number three in the construction of music, and how does it manifest in just about all aspects of it: from chordal structure, to classical phrase structure, to the larger vistas of structural forms like sonata form? 

What is it during a performance when poetic inspiration meets miracles in musical syntax, that can leave the listener spellbound and at a loss for words? What is the harmonic language that is being used at such moments? Why was it used at that point the piece? How was it approached? Under which circumstances can it be replicated?   

And so for all of you students out looking for answers to these questions and many more, and for those of you who are currently slogging through endless terms and exercises in preparation for your exams; keep the faith! Once you are armed with the tools to read and appreciate Shakespeare, only then you can delve even more deeply into his wisdom-filled works at the emotional and expressionist levels. These courses aim to give the student similar insights, and to serve as a springboard into a pool of much deeper musical understanding.

Happy studying one and all, and GOOD LUCK!!

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