The Illustrated Theory of Music, a series of short, informal videos, animate the stories behind Western music theory


The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE) has unveiled a new series of short, informal videos, designed to help children and adults with music theory. Asking such questions ‘What does a ‘quaver’ really mean?’, ‘Why do we use bars?’ and ‘Why does it have to be so slow?’, The Illustrated Theory of Music (ITOM) animates the stories behind Western music theory and aims to provoke new questions about what we think we know. 

Led by the OAE’s musicians, the series invites audiences to ask questions, challenge conventional wisdom in order to build a new understanding of music. Broadly speaking, the ITOM will cover topics in the Grade V theory syllabus and will be relevant to UK GCSE and A level music students and the American APs  (Advanced Placement) equivalent level of education. The videos will cover a wide range of topics, from intervals and ornamentation to the structure of the trio sonata. In the spirit of accessibility, they will be illustrated with stories from music history, as well as a range of impish animations.

But while it has been created with the purpose to teach, it will not place emphasis on the notion that theory has to be learned to pass exams. Rather, the topics covered, which will be contextualised, explained with props and images and dramatised, are intended to encourage the audience to research further independently.

The videos will not follow a linear, left-top-right format. Instead, the topics will zoom in and out on pivotal moments in music history, challenging the notion that history is a straightforward timeline with one right answer for everything. The aim is to continue the series beyond the lockdown, and establish it as a core element of the orchestra’s educational work.

Cecelia Bruggemeyer, OAE double bass, who stars in the OAE’s first ITOM video, says: ‘The Illustrated Theory of Music is a wonderful opportunity to tell the story of music history and think about what we do: why we play as we play, why we make the choices we do and the theories and ideas that excite and inspire us. ”Illustrating” it brings the added bonus of thinking about how to share those ideas in a fun and accessible way with other people, whatever their prior musical knowledge and experience is.’

Crispin Woodhead, OAE Chief Executive, says: ‘Some people might see our videos and think – ‘that’s not theory’. And in the traditional sense – no, it might not be. But, so what? We’re going to show that there’s no right or wrong way to teach theory and that music history is full of colourful and amusing stories.’