Music Theory Training for the Musical Theatre Student

Photo of La Cage Aux Folles courtesy of University of Oklahoma, 2015, Weitzenhoffer School of Musical Theatre, Directed by Shawn Churchman, Choreographed by Lyn Cramer.

Deciphering the Broadway Composer for the Actor

By Mitchell Hanlon


As more college musical theatre programs flourish and begin to offer music training from faculty within the theater department, the need has arisen to identify exactly what music theory training a musical theatre performer requires. It’s time to elucidate the goals of such a class and get specific with how to achieve them. This article will do both, giving detailed examples from an actual music theory lesson designed with the musical theatre (MT) performer in mind. 



While it is always advisable for any performer to have instrumental skill or music training as part of their résumé, the reality is that few students entering MT programs are well trained musicians. The crowded curriculum of any comprehensive musical theatre program necessitates compact, practical skill development in music that directly relates to the music competencies needed by the MT performer. 

In larger schools and universities, music theory training often falls to faculty in the music department, where many MT students may feel at a disadvantage to the music majors who already have years of music-reading experience. This is not the ideal learning environment for MT students. Further, the skills and knowledge required for music careers are not the same as those needed by MT performers. This is why many programs are now opting to bring trained musicians on faculty within musical theatre programs not only to music direct or teach voice, but to teach music theory and aural skills. 

Often this theory class might be called simply "sight-singing for MT majors," but I disagree that the main requirement of music training for performers is to learn to sing printed music on sight. Strong sight-reading skills take years of practice for most to achieve a useful competence. Sight-singing is evidence of proficiency at reading a printed melody: the real goal is to learn music quickly, not the skill of sight-reading itself. For those many students who are better at auditory learning of a melody, they need to develop the aptitude to learn melodies or parts quickly and solidly by ear. Rapid learning of the singing part allows the performer to concentrate sooner on choreography, acting, and so on. This is more valuable than simply seeing the melody on the page and singing it pitch-perfectly. I never test students by having them sight-sing unprepared material chiefly because in most professional callbacks they will not experience this. Instead, they will be sent song material to prepare before the audition. Broadway and national tour auditions now often send a digital package that includes the printed music and often recordings for learning the song. Sometimes there is only a short time to learn the new material, but "cold reading" a new song is rarely expected. 

There are few books to aid in teaching theory specifically for MT. The list begins in 2008 with John Bell’s Music Theory for Musical Theatre, a brief textbook with just a few pages of workbook exercises. In 2015, John Franceschina authored the Oxford Press publication Music Theory Through Musical Theatre: Putting It Together. In this very volume of this journal, Andrew Gerle’s new Music Essentials for Singers and Actors (2018) is reviewed. This year also saw the first doctoral thesis on the subject presented by Justin Cowan. Entitled Musicianship for Musical Theatre: A New Instructional Resource for the Musical Theatre Student Studying Music Theory, it offers three chapters of what will be a future textbook. And finally there is the upcoming book by Christine Riley entitled Music Fundamentals for Musical Theatre scheduled for 2020 publication with Methuen Drama. From her cogent introduction, it seems Ms. Riley’s materials will be right on target with this article and very useful.

I began teaching music theory in a BFA music theatre program in 2005, so I had to develop my own lessons and course curriculum. In the following, I will explicate my goals for the curriculum of music training for musical theatre students, and give examples of strategies and lessons that achieve what I believe are the essential objectives.



In my experience, these are the practical music training goals for the musical theatre performer: 

  • To be able to sing in tune, quickly learning and holding a melody or vocal part, and be able to find/follow their part in printed music.
  • To be able to talk to a pianist or music director using standard music vocabulary. 
  • To develop a professional work ethic and understand standard workplace expectations for music rehearsals and, ultimately, performance.
  • To know how a composer communicates through the written music, and to understand how terms and symbols on the page reveal emotional content of a song. 

This last point is significant, and is the element frequently missing from theory classes offered by traditional music departments. Theatre composers understand dramatic impetus and how to use music to support that. Good theatre composers convey their ideas on character, goals, subtext, and action of the play through the music. Unlike stage directions in a libretto, the MT performer must intuit the dramatic content from musical content as well as the Italian terms and symbols the composer utilizes. Getting actors to recognize the musical language Broadway composers use to communicate should be at the heart of theory and music training. We should not just teach music skills for music’s sake.



I have found that the best way to accomplish these goals is to use a multi-tiered approach when building the lessons. Lesson plans will include melodies played both on the piano and sung as well as music vocabulary study, rhythm practice, interval and ear training, keyboard skills, and other general theory concepts. For reference, my university class is 75-minute sessions twice each week for fifteen weeks. Students are required to bring a small portable keyboard (like the Cassio SA-76) to class each day.

It is important to emphasize the skill "overlap" to students so they will begin to integrate for themselves. When students are learning to play a new melody on the piano, they are also building rhythmic reading skills. When they sing the melodies they just learned to play, they are practicing intervals, tonal memory, and pitch security. A good example of synthesis of theory concepts is having students find their first sung note from the accompaniment. This essential MT competency calls for note reading skills in both clefs, tonal memory of a pitch heard during the piano intro, or using interval training to find the proper starting pitch from either the last note of the accompaniment or bass note. 

A large part of specifying the curriculum for MT students is describing a routine music symbol, word, or concept in the greater terms of what it means to the actor. That's one reason why it is important to use material from Broadway and American standard songs: it enhances the utility for the student. Any term affecting the choices of meter, key, range, dynamics, rhythm and pitch are a part of the expressive language used by the music theatre composer. Consider a fermata: It’s not enough to explain that the symbol means to hold the note longer than the printed value. The MT student should be alert to enquiring why the music is extended at this moment. The composer put a fermata on that exact word on that specific pitch for a reason, but that reason is not supplied. It must be intuited. Is there something keeping the character from revealing the next thought? Or does the character playfully toy with expectations before going on? Is love swelling at the moment, or does something fearful keep the singer from advancing? In performance class and voice lessons, the student learns how to accomplish these differences, but theory training begins with looking for clues in the music from the composer. So the logic is that anytime things change in music—the key raises, the tempo slows, the dynamic shifts—means there is something changing in the character or the scene. Being sensitive to and alert for emotional clues in the music is another way in which musical theatre theory training differs from standard music theory. 

What follows is a brief outline of curriculum for the first half of a semester, followed by a very detailed lesson that would occur on or about week twelve (assuming a fourteen or fifteen week semester). 

Week One

  • Note and rest rhythmic values 
  • Note reading in both clefs (half and whole steps as well as flat and sharp accidentals) 
  • At the keyboard: play 5-note scales ending with both an arpeggiated and block major triad in C, G and F, both hands, memorized (This shorter scale fits under the hand of the piano beginner, and reinforces the major triad and key signatures while being useful—and recognizable—as a traditional vocal warm-up.)

Week Two

  • Beginning rhythmic work using clapping and counting 
  • Dynamic terms 
  • At the keyboard: All sharp key 5-note scales are memorized 
  • Played and Sung: Easy song melodies (Examples: "On the Street Where You Live" or "I Could Write a Book" (All lessons from now on will have song melodies to learn to play and sing for each class, along with all other homework.) 

Week Three

  • Quiz on Dynamic terms
  • Using the scale tones to sing simple diatonic melodies, beginning sight-singing concepts are presented along with a rubric of tactics including pre-analysis, pre-reading of lyrics and singing a warm-up scale in the key. 
  • Ear training in class to recognize 2nd and 3rd intervals
  • At the keyboard: melodies with harder rhythms and key signatures

Week Four

  • Written work for building major and minor 2nd and 3rd intervals
  • Tempo terms are presented
  • Rhythmic exercises counting and clapping sixteenth notes
  • At the keyboard: All flat key 5-note scales are memorized 

Week Five

  • Quiz on all major key signatures
  • At home listening exercises begin with 2nds and 3rd intervals (recorded piano intervals for aural recognition and singing practice) 
  • At the keyboard: Songs using sixteenth-note rhythms

Week Six

  • Quiz on tempo terms
  • Listening exercises for perfect 4th and 5th and the tritone
  • Simple chord progressions are introduced in class and students learn to accompany themselves with I, IV, V triads on "Those Magic Changes" from Grease 

Week Seven

  • Full review of concepts and terms for the midterm 
  • More practice on aural and written recognition of intervals

Week Eight: Midterm

  • Day 1: Written Test on terms, note reading, visual and aural recognition of intervals
  • Day 2: Practical Test; individual appointments performing rhythms, playing 5-note scales, playing then singing of assigned melodies

After the midterm, new concepts include (partial list)

  • Compound time signatures and 6/8 melodies , triplet rhythms
  • Dictionary of music terminology
  • Ear training and written work on 6ths, 7ths, and octaves
  • Full octave scales memorized in all keys
  • Synthesis of knowledge and efficient learning strategies


Sample Lesson

The following describes a class session in more detail. This particular lesson would occur on or about week twelve. Depending on the skill level of your students, this lesson could be expanded into two class periods.

  1. The class starts with a quiz grading each student on playing an octave scale at the keyboard prepared for either hand. This would be full octave scales, memorized (the seven sharp keys only; the flat keys will be a different assignment). Each student plays a requested (random) scale for the class. Playing octave scales at the keyboard helps the students reinforce the memorization of key signatures, improves piano playing coordination, and is connected to vocal warm ups. (10 minutes)
  2. In the previous class meeting there was a quiz on music terms beginning with letters D – L from an alphabetized dictionary of 175 music terms with a brief description of each. This day, I return those graded quizzes and begin to present the terms beginning with letters M – Q, explaining at times the subtleties of the terms the MT actor needs to know that are not in the short description. This is in preparation for the next vocabulary quiz a week from now. (15 minutes)
  3. Next the students present the homework they have prepared. Besides the scales preparation, the students have learned the first verse of the song "Fifty Percent" from Ballroom, reinforcing the study of triplets. The homework required students to play the melody from the piano vocal sheet music at the keyboard. They also are required to sing the melody securely, a cappella. We start with everyone playing the song slowly in unison since it is in the key of Db major which can cause problems. I spot check a few individuals, asking them to play a phrase. As the individual student plays the line, I ask a second student, “How did they do?” This keeps everyone engaged and informs me of the second student’s perception and aural recognition. Finally, we sing the song, sometimes individually, sometimes by row, or groups. Often I play the piano accompaniment for a first brave soloist. (15 minutes)
  4. The theory concept for this lesson is augmented and diminished intervals (all sizes). This allows a review of major, minor and perfect intervals and their sizes . Homework is constructed so the student must first recognize the interval, then figure out how much it should change to become the requested interval. This is written work to be turned in at the next class. (10 minutes)
  5. The homework includes a worksheet that is a review and practice of Major and minor 6ths, recognizing and building them on the page. This reinforces the listening unit done two weeks earlier teaching aural recognition and ability to sing 6ths. I remind the class that sixths are an important harmonic interval, and therefore deserve substantial attention and practice. Students must play their homework answers to self-check them aurally, then sing the answers to reinforce their performance skills. The written work will be turned in at the next class. (5 minutes)
  6. Lastly, I present the songs being studied as homework for next class. What follows is a summary of how I introduce the two songs. (The conversation flows more naturally and is not broken up into the categories used here to illustrate.) The students receive a single-sided page that has the fake book song edition (single line melody with words) along with written instructions to learn the song first and then apply transposition in a described manner. Transposition is not part of every song lesson. It is being developed in tandem with today’s song performance assignments. (20 minutes) 


"I got the Sun in the Morning and the Moon at Night"

by Irving Berlin  

(Beginning with the lyric "Got no diamond.")


Basic Sight Reading Concepts

Before singing, take notice of how many features repeat in this Berlin melody. The opening four pitches appear in the same order and rhythm in the next two bars. Then the last part of the opening phrase is simply scale movement, making it rather easy to sing (as opposed to random jumps.) Also, the second phrase of the melody (measures 9-16) are an exact repeat of measures 1-8, cutting the amount to learn in half.


Music Theory

To begin to sight-read the melody, notice that throughout the excerpt there are no accidentals which means the notes come from the scale of G major, and we can sing using scale tone numbers. Since we are in the key of G, every G is 1, A is 2 and so on. The opening measure is 5 – 7 – 1 – 1, 5 – 7 – 1, etc., using the scale tone numbers.


Music Terminology

After you’ve tried the pitches and the rhythms slowly, now notice the tempo marking moderate jump tempo. The term “jump tempo” means it is a song that moves along quickly and swings. Swinging means the eighth notes are not the normal even rhythm eighth-notes. They swing with a long-short, long-short pattern (roughly like a quarter note and an eighth note combo in a compound time signature) as you count the “one-and, two-and, three-and, four-and” division of the beat. This should definitely affect measures 4 and 5, where you will perform the swinging eighths in the long-short pattern. It also makes the song sound like we are accustomed to hearing it, and a bit more fun.

If you need to play the pitches to get them securely, concentrate on the opening four pitches and their rhythm since they repeat so many times (D, F#, G, G). Then jump to measures 4-6 and play those pitches until you are securely hearing it. Sing the first eight bars many times until you can do it securely in the right jump rhythm.



Once you’ve learned the melody strongly, try starting on a lower note. If we lower the song from G to Eb, all notes come down by a major 3rd (four half steps). This makes the highest note only a Bb, not a D, which for the women will be a welcome change since most women can sing a Bb still connected solidly to the chest voice. Tenors may prefer the written key, but baritones will possibly find the lowered key more comfortable. All will be asked to sing the song in the transposed key, but not to play it on the piano. 


"I Enjoy Being a Girl"

by Rodgers and Hammerstein


Basic Sight Reading Concepts

Observe that there are four phrases that are each four bars long, a very typical Rodgers & Hammerstein writing convention. Also the first phrase and the third phrase have exactly the same rhythm, notably the rest on the downbeat of the third bar, which creates syncopation, an accented note on a usually weak beat. 


Music Theory

The rhythms are simple: quarter notes or higher values. You can learn the rhythm as if it were in common time (4/4), even though it is written in cut time (2/2). You will eventually speed up the song to count just the two half notes per measure. Say the words in the correct rhythm before you even play or sing the pitches. 



Notice the instruction “8va lower throughout.” It is a common convention to write a melody in one octave, but the singer sings it in their comfortable octave. This is good practice for reading ledger lines. 



The instructions read: “Based on the highest (or lowest) notes in the song, find the key that is most comfortable for you. Be prepared to sing it in class and know which key you like best.” A discussion of the uses of transposition follows. It is a practical necessity for MT performers to learn not only their range, but also which notes are most comfortable for them. This is vital when the opportunity to change key exists (e.g., when buying a song from an online source), or when creating a cabaret performance.



Juggling a mixture of topics allows for more reappearance/reinforcement of important subject matter. Repetition is crucial for attaining music-reading skills. As often as possible, the teacher should highlight particularly useful information for the musical theatre performer and point out the practical applications of these skills, especially when it involves how the composer communicates to the actor. The educator’s art is knowing when to press for more homework time or when to notice that an entire class is having trouble and allow for more explanation and repetition during class. Keeping all the students motivated, from those who have had some music training to the scared beginners, is another facet of our art. 


Finally, do not underestimate the importance of salesmanship! For any required curriculum like music theory, part of the job is educating students about why these skills are important. If students understand that they will be more employable, better-prepared performers if they can achieve the course goals, they will more willingly invest the time necessary to build musicianship. So keep reminding students, and keep praising them as they accomplish small steps forward. Utility of the material and investment by the student are the exact arguments for tailoring music theory study to the needs of musical theatre students, and for bringing theory courses under the aegis of the theater department, so that our students acquire the skills that will serve them throughout their career.


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