Joshua Tanis is a Lecturer in the Department of Music Theory at the University of Michigan. As a collaborative pianist he has worked on local, national, and international stages with artists from the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and other major companies.
Would you tell me briefly, Josh, about your musical background?
Sure. Well, my family would bring me home from church on a Sunday morning, and we always had a piano in the house, it was mainly a piece of furniture because nobody in the house was musical at that time. And when we would come home from church, I would go over to the piano and start plunking out some of the hymn tunes that I remembered from church. And my parents eventually got to a point where they said, “Well, perhaps there’s something here, we might enroll him in formal piano lessons when he’s old enough.” And the dominoes fell, one after the other, from there, in a good way.
Just as a brief aside, something humorous. When I was seven years old, I was asking my parents for a grand piano, and of course they thought this was the most interesting request from a seven-year-old. And they promised me that if, at the age of 12, I was still playing the piano seriously, they would buy me a grand piano. And of course, they never thought I was still going to be playing at 12, so this was a bet where the odds were in their favor, or so they thought. So my 12th birthday rolls around, and of course I’m still playing the piano very seriously, and they did follow through on their promise and I got a grand piano, which is still with me to this day.
Did you remember from the ages of seven to twelve about that promise?
I absolutely did because I probably asked them about it three or four times a day! So I never forgot about it, but maybe somewhere inside they were hoping I would forget about it, only because it would have saved them money. But the piano came home, and at that point I was starting to do quite a bit of work as a collaborative pianist. Collaborative piano has been my main avenue for playing and I have a master’s degree in collaborative piano in addition to music theory.
At the end of high school I thought that music would not become my occupation. I was going to go off to school to be a dentist and follow the pre-dental track as an undergrad. And when I arrived at the University at Albany for my undergraduate studies, I learned very quickly, maybe in three weeks, that not taking formal music classes was not an option.
So I added a music major to the biology major and studied music formally at the undergraduate level. Later I did a dual master’s in collaborative piano and music theory at the City University of New York, Hunter College. And then I went on to receive a PhD in Music Theory and Composition at Florida State University, and now work as a faculty member in the field of music theory, but still continue as a collaborative pianist.
Well, thank you very much for that background, that’s very interesting. It makes me want to ask my dentist if he ever took music classes!
Probably he did!
Do you have much experience teaching piano?
I have some experience teaching piano to younger students and a few adult students. I also have a lot of experience working as a music theorist with pianists. So while that isn’t formal piano lessons, I treat it as a supplement to their own piano training. And perhaps most interestingly, working with folks who have some facility at the piano and then going down the path of music theory with them has been a very rewarding process, to see how they can relate music theory to piano, and piano to music theory.
What is your specific specialty, or specialties, within the realm of music theory?
I would like to consider myself a specialist in musical form, especially in musical form that deals with texted music literature.
What is texted music literature?
Song literature, any texted music literature. And in particular, I study the music of Richard Strauss, specifically his songs for voice and piano.
Fantastic. I don’t know if I mentioned this to you, but about 15 years ago when I was in graduate school, to help support myself, I was working as an accompanist at the music school with vocal students, so I got to accompany a number of Strauss songs. I love his songs, they’re just gorgeous.
They’re very pianistic, too. I find that they fit under the hands very nicely at the piano.
As succinctly as you could, how would you define music theory for the new adult music student, for someone that maybe has heard that term for the first time. What is music theory?
You have asked me a question that there’s probably no great answer for, and I think the music theorists of the world are still trying to figure out what music theory is today. For me, music theory is the study of how music is put together and unfolds through time.
Fair enough. I like it, it’s very straightforward. Do you have any experience with, for example, the piano students that you’ve taught, in particular the adults, who might have expressed a disinterest, or a sense of being intimidated by, theory? And did they come around to appreciate it at a later point?
Yes. And I think that the trick has been, for me, in teaching piano students, especially adult students who may come in with these preconceived notions about music theory, is that there are probably a handful of clever ways that you can introduce music theory topics to piano studies without actually telling anyone that they’re studying music theory. So this sleight of hand I find to be very effective, and it could be something as simple as working on scales. Studying scales is inherently theoretical. It could be studying intervals. It could be thinking about harmonizing melodies or the way that given melodies are already harmonized. All of these kinds of things that pianists engage with on a practice-by-practice basis, or a lesson-by-lesson basis, seem to be engaging many elements of music theory.
It does seem to me that people have some interesting notions about music theory. I think that they think that it’s very clinical, overwhelmingly complicated, that perhaps it strips the music of its musicality, because I find that a lot of people think music theorists are too busy examining certain things under the microscope that they don’t take into account the broader range of a composition. And one of my responses to folks that have some of these opinions about music theory is that yes, there are some music theorists that want to zoom in on particular features of the music, but there are also music theorists who want to zoom way out on music and take into account the broader scale. So I find that when I address elements of music theory without even mentioning music theory at all, this seems to be the best way to get students thinking about music theory concepts.
How is music theory helpful for an adult beginner learning piano?
One thing that comes to mind is that probably adult students have heard a variety of music for a much longer time than a younger piano student. And therefore, adults probably have some ideas about how music works. Some may attend to melody, others may attend to rhythm, others may attend to harmony, depending on where they are in their studies, right? If it’s a very, very beginning adult student, maybe they haven’t really considered any of these things. If it’s an adult student who knows a little bit more about melody and harmony and rhythm and so forth, they might be listening to these kinds of things.
I have a number of different ways that adult students might engage music theory. Counterpoint can come into play right away. I’m sure it’s the case that most students, after they learn where notes are on the piano and how those notes fit under the hands, can start to attend to two-voice textures. We have a note in the treble, a note in the bass. Counterpoint is a focus of a lot of music theorists, and I think what can be very helpful are simple questions like does this melody behave in parallel motion, contrary motion, are there a lot of steps, are there a lot of skips in each of the lines? And what notes are they outlining? What scale degrees might they be outlining in a particular key?
I think that the correlation between music theory and aural skills and aural training is very important, especially for pianists, because most of the time, elements of aural skills are taught by way of keyboard exercises, right? Can I play a melody for you and can you either sing it back to me or write it down? Can I play a chord progression for you and can you identify some of the chords, or can you at least identify the bass line? Can I play a combination of intervals for you and can you identify each of those intervals? This aural identification of elements of melody and harmony becomes very well-suited to piano students, especially adult piano students who are used to hearing music and interacting with music, because our ears can guide where our hands are going, and I think that in many ways, our hands guide where our ears are going.
I think adult piano students who are being trained to realize at the keyboard what it is they’re seeing on a page engage a visual and tactile response, but also an aural response. Probably as we continue our piano studies, when we play a wrong note, we know it’s a wrong note because our ears are coordinating with our eyes and our hands at the same time. So simple identification of intervals, in particular, can be very helpful. I was reaching up for this E flat, but oops, I fell short at D.
Do you think private music teachers emphasize music theory as much as they could or should?
In my experience with private piano teachers, music theory was very rarely introduced, at least in definitive terms. In my own training, I did exercises such as, here is a given note, pencil in a major sixth above this note, or a perfect fourth below this note, something like that. And I remember being introduced to the very basics of Roman numeral analysis at a much later date. But these things were never at the core of my piano training, and actually, looking back, I wish that they had been because I think there would have been great benefit in terms of understanding the music I was practicing.
One thing that I think a lot of people imagine about music theory is that it’s much more about notes and harmony than anything else. But music theory also encompasses musical form. It also encompasses rhythm and meter, which can be very important depending on the type of music literature a student is studying.
Even cadences were never really talked about, and cadences can make all the difference in one’s practicing, because cadences can work as goalposts. And if cadences, formulas and patterns are understood by students, I think all of the sudden one’s job of predicting the future, so to speak, in your practicing, becomes easier. My students may say well, what is the point of studying music theory? And I say, music theory in many ways is about pattern recognition, and when you become very good at recognizing patterns in a particular musical style, you probably become a better sight reader because now these patterns are falling into place. And when you become a better sight reader, you’re probably becoming a more hirable musician, for practical and obvious purposes.
Do you think adult students want to understand music theory more than teachers may give them credit for? And that gets to, also, your understanding of adult learners in general, and that’s actually my master’s degree, adult education, so I’ll just let you go with it.
It seems to me that adult students are going to be, overall, folks who are quite committed to studying because they’re making a choice later in life to take up either a new hobby or work on beginning a new career or pursuing something that they always wished they’d done at a younger age.
I’m not so sure that many people know what falls within the realm of music theory. So if they have preconceived notions that music theory is boring or useless, they probably won’t want to study it. But if they’re under the impression that music theory can serve their piano studies and their general musicianship and they understand that music theory encompasses a lot of different musical elements, then I think that they will be very willing to study music theory. But I do think that teachers of adult students should emphasize what music theory is and what its usefulness is. And perhaps better yet, if the teacher completely eliminates the jargon and even the use of the term “music theory” and focuses on some music theory-like exercises that we might find in music theory textbooks or adult piano methods, then I think adult students will be very happy to go along with it, because it’s probably going to seem as though it’s truly enriching their piano studies, which I believe it certainly will.
In the best of all possible worlds, what particular knowledge or skills would an adult piano student have before they were to dive into pretty serious, college-level music theory? In other words, what would make that journey a bit easier and/or more enjoyable in terms of their reading abilities, their piano playing skills, their knowledge of basic scales and chords and all of that?
In my experience, college-level music theory courses begin with music fundamentals and maybe even a review of music fundamentals. So it would be great to know key signatures, meter signatures, scales, basic rhythmic patterns, perhaps some basic harmony and voice-leading, but that seems to come a little bit later in the college curriculum at most institutions. One thing that isn’t necessary but makes things easier is the ability to just be a very fluent reader of music. So notes falling on the staff in a particular key, in particular octaves, in at least two voices, and being able to play that at the piano. It was very helpful for me when I completed music theory homework to be able to sit down and work out the exercises at the piano. This isn’t the only way, but in terms of adult students who might want to pursue this, being able to play these fundamentals at the piano will be very helpful.
Do you have any opinions on whether adult learners are better off learning a theoretical concept before practical application or vice versa?
I always take the approach to find something in the music and then describe it to my students. I find that music theory, at least to me and in my experience with my students, comes to life when you can describe something about the music rather than prescribe something that you might find down the road.
How can understanding theory help new pianists feel more comfortable with the keyboard in general? For example, one of my approaches with beginners is to teach fundamental five-finger positions, major pentascales, minor pentascales, etc. Are there any kind of basic aspects of theory that would help your average adult piano student just feel more comfortable with their instrument?
That’s a very good question. For me, and for better or for worse, music theory seems to have been a very keyboard-based study for a long time. So having a good grasp of the piano helps with music theory and vice versa. What immediately comes to mind is particular scales and intervals, and if we think about how notes function within particular scales, and if we think about the different intervals that one can play and identify at the keyboard, we can then later relate that to things such as harmony. There are stylistic ways to harmonize a melody vs. unstylistic ways. So scales, intervals, all of these things will play into elements of harmony and counterpoint.
How can understanding theory help students learn to become better readers?
Well, music theory is, in many ways, focused on notes and interaction between notes. It comes down to pattern recognition, and pattern recognition can be in the realm of pitch, but it can also be in the realm of rhythm. Once one can identify certain patterns in pitch or rhythm, then I think reading becomes a lot easier. Students learn to predict what’s going to happen. And this will be different for different styles – that’s probably the most difficult part. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach because there are different patterns in pitch and rhythm for different styles of music. But I think with exposure and with practice, one can become aware of those patterns quickly and probably the best way to become acquainted with those patterns is constantly to be reading through music from different style periods.