Current Status of Music Theory Teaching

  • DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18177/sym.2016.56.fr.11135
  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26574444

The large-scale recommendations from the Manifesto encourage faculty to consider new ways of thinking about creativity, integration, and diversity in the classroom. In order to start the discussion, it is necessary to better understand the current teaching trends from as many universities as possible based on these three pillars. Within the initial draft of the Manifesto, several assumptions were made regarding current teaching practices, including statements such as:

  • "That the majority of music students graduate with little to no experience, let alone significant grounding, in the essential creative processes of improvisation and composition represents one of the most startling shortcomings in all of arts education."
  • "Large numbers of music majors graduate with little or no hands-on engagement in music beyond European classical repertory."
  • "The fact that theory and aural skills are often perceived as divorced from one another and from music performance and from music history provides ample impetus for foundational rethinking of these facets of the conventional core."

These statements include words such as "majority," "large numbers," and "fact" indicating the presence of data to quantify or qualify these claims; however, no citations were given in the document and attempts to find any factual information to back these statements in the literature beyond anecdotal comments was unsuccessful.

Music Theory Teaching Surveys

Theorists have discussed the recommendations presented in the Manifesto for at least the last decade. Published in the 2012 volume of the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, Elizabeth West Marvin's article, "The Core Curricula In Music Theory-Developments and Pedagogical Trends" highlights some of the changes within the theory classroom. Marvin introduces the ideal music theory classroom in the following manner:

The ideal theory classroom would thus be intensely musical, absolutely relevant to what students learn in other parts of the core and in their applied study, and it would challenge students to ever higher levels of artistry (regardless of the level at which they begin). Where schools will differ are in questions of scope and emphasis.

To better understand the current trends in pedagogy, Marvin placed a call for information on the Society for Music Theory listserv, held conversations with theorists teaching in the core, and reviewed current theory textbooks. Although only fourteen institutions responded to the call, Marvin was able to observe the following trends:

1. Engagement of professional music theorists in designing and teaching the core

2. Focus on analysis and repertoire, somewhat less on part-writing

3. Integration of aural and written skills and increased time devoted to aural training

4. Increased use of technology in teaching

5. Remedial classes are growing

6. Two challenges: improvisation and music outside the Western canon1

In order to have more responses from a broad audience and to better understand current teaching practices in theory and aural skills classrooms, a detailed survey was sent out in August of 2015. The survey was sent out through the discussion listserv for the Society for Music Theory and through The College Music Society.2  Over 350 participants responded to portions of the survey and the majority of the open ended questions included approximately 250 responses. It is important to note that there are many teaching within the undergraduate core who belong to neither society and that, based on the membership numbers from The College Music Society, only a small portion of those teaching music theory and aural skills opted to complete the survey. The survey was designed to allow participants to develop their own definitions of the words "diversity," "creativity," and "integration." The definitions for these terms were intentionally left out and greater emphasize how these particular terms may possess various meanings for different schools and populations. There is no one-size-fits-all curriculum or terminology in this discussion.

Demographics

Participants of the survey were from around the country and abroad. Approximately ninety-two percent of participants were employed at four-year colleges (35% with doctoral programs in music). The following chart indicates the results of the demographic portion of the survey:

  • — Highest Level of Education

◦ 49.29%-Ph.D. in Music Theory

◦ 16.81% -D.M.A./Ph.D. in Composition

◦ 17.66%- Other (Music History, Music Education)

  • Department/School of Music

◦ 29.31%-Four year college with no graduate program

◦ 35.06%-Four year college with doctoral program

◦ 27.59%- Four year college with masters program only

  • — Majors Enrolled within Department

◦ Various sizes represented

◦ 35.24%-More than 300 majors

  • — Areas Taught

◦ 90.20% Written Theory

◦ 69.74% Aural Skills

◦ 26.51% Composition

◦ 25.94% Music History

  • — Location of Institution

◦ All regions represented

◦ Majority of responses from Northwest and Midwest

As expected, participants included trained theorists and composers. However, it is interesting to note that approximately 18% of the participants did not hold a Ph.D. in music theory or a doctoral degree in music composition. The "others" included musicologists and music educators. While 90% of the participants indicated that they were teaching written theory, the participants were also teaching composition, ensembles, music technology, and music history (26%). The demographics of this survey are important as they show the diversity of our field and indicate there may be many instructors who are not active in the two societies or in the field. It is also important to note that approximately 90% of those teaching music theory and aural skills are not represented in the results of this survey.

The scope of this survey is extremely broad and included the following questions in relation to current pedagogical practices:

1. In what ways do you exhibit creativity in the classroom?

2. How comfortable are you at improvising? (improvisation understood to include all repertoires)

3. How often do you ask students to demonstrate improvisation skills?

4. How often is movement incorporated in the following: Ensembles, Applied Music, Classroom?

5. How often do you ask your students to compose? (Only include composition beyond part-writing exercises)

6. In what ways have you found the material covered in your theory/aural skills classes integrated into ensembles, applied lessons, and other music classes?

7. Beyond quizzes, tests, and papers, what other kinds of activities have helped your students understand and demonstrate knowledge in the following areas: Aural Skills, Music Theory?

8. What have been some of your greatest challenges in terms of assessing students?

9. In your direct instruction of students, how much exposure do they receive in the following styles/genres of music (Various Genres)?

10. How often do you involve your students in the selection of repertoire studied within the classroom?

11. Describe your current practices in terms of theory and aural skills.

12. How would you gauge the importance of the following topics traditionally taught within the theory/aural skills curriculum (Various Topics)?

13. Do you feel as though you have enough time in the curriculum to cover everything that is expected or needed? Use the comment box to elaborate on material that you wish could be added and/or removed from your current curriculum.

14. Use the space below to provide additional information regarding your current pedagogical approaches in the classroom. Feel free to include specific examples on how you are using integration, diversity, and creativity in your classroom.

 

Results of Aural Skills Integration

Question: Describe your current practices in terms of theory and aural skills.

The results of the survey indicate that most of the 257 respondents are including a great deal of integration. Twenty-two percent of the responses highlight that written theory and aural skills are completely integrated, both in terms of material and scheduling. Ninety-two comments were given in response to this question including responses such as,

· "(theory and aural skills)...are three separate courses...they are taught by the same professor, so there is much integration."

· "We of course all believe that theory should be included in aural skills and vice versa, but keeping the two as separate courses prevents one faculty member from focusing a little more on theory than aural skills, or vice versa."

· "For me, the correlation and integration of these parts is what it means to be an educated musician."

 

Results regarding composition

Question: How often do you ask your students to compose? (only include composition beyond part-writing exercises)

The results of this survey indicate that 45% of instructors are asking their students to compose somewhat frequently while 32% are implementing some composition and the other 21% are integrating little composition. While 45% is not an overwhelming majority, the results of this survey indicate that students are receiving some experience in composition, at least 75%. This is in conflict with the findings mentioned in the original Manifesto document. One hundred thirty-two respondents offered additional comments on this question, including:

· "Composition exercises/assignments give our students the opportunity to apply the skills being learned to creative work and to facilitate the acquisition of those skills in Music Theory I-IV."

· "Four years of Composer's Concert where students perform/conduct their own works. ALL works are submitted to NYSSMA and many to NAFME"

· "Absolutely central activity"

· Other responses in the survey give specific assignments, which range from a model polonaise project to a 24 bar project in simple meter.

 

Diversity and Genres of Music

Question: In your direct instruction of students, how much exposure do they receive in the following styles/genres of music (Various Genres)

The question in terms of exposure to styles and genres of music provided a great deal of information. While many of the findings, shown in Figure 1, are expected, such as the substantial exposure to both Classical and Romantic music, other findings may be a surprise.

Figure 1 - Responses regarding Repertoire

figure 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two hundred sixty-three participants responded to this question. The results indicate that students are receiving more exposure to jazz than early music and over a quarter of those responses show that students are in fact receiving exposure to popular music. Our students are being exposed to literature "beyond European classical repertory."

Many chose to elaborate on this question, including statements such as:

· "My philosophy is to use whatever music exhibits the principles I'm trying to demonstrate to my students."

· "A broad canon is crucial to modern music education, but a firm foundation in the notated music of the past with its rich history of philosophical, analytical, social, and cultural scholarship is equally crucial."

· "I love popular music, but don't go out of my way to include it just to be politically correct or just so I can say I've done so. If it's relevant, let's talk about it."

Topics Currently Taught

Question: How would you gauge the importance of the following topics traditionally taught within the theory/aural skills curriculum (Various Topics)?

Approximately 255 responses were gathered from the question regarding importance of certain topics. Topics such as fundamentals, sight singing, harmonic function, modulation, and formal structures were evaluated as very important. Topics that include Jazz harmony, extended chords, and part writing were deemed less important. It is perhaps the lack of perceived importance for the topics of part-writing and realization of lead sheets that could be the start of an interesting discussion in terms of curriculum. Again, these responses could be in relation to the type of school and the student population whether that be more performance, education, industry, or therapy based. Figure 2 highlights the responses regarding the importance of fundamentals and advanced theoretical and aural skills topics.

Figure 2 - Importance of Topics Taught in Curriculum

figure 2

 

Over 500 individual comments accompany this question for each category.

In terms of part writing, comments were mixed including:

· "We are considering decreasing emphases on part writing in our written theory classes to have more time for other skills. There is some hesitancy to change because of concerns about not preparing students adequately for expectations for graduate school"

· "I used to think this was quite a bit more important than I currently do. Beyond an understanding of how tendency tones, chordal 7ths, and chromatically altered tones behave, perhaps it is not really all that important."

· "Serves as a soft composition exercise and greatly helps reinforce spelling, non chord tone use, syntax, and notational skills"

· "There are lessons to be learned that my students tell me are valuable"

Comments in terms of lead sheet instruction seemed to be varied. Responses include,

· "Very practical skill in today's word"

· "Really important for the jazz people, less for music ed"

· "Only certain majors"

· "Mostly for learning to spell and analyze chords."

Improvisation

Question: How often do you ask students to demonstrate improvisation skills?

Similar to the results found in the 2012 study, there is clearly more to be done in regards to instruction in improvisation. The authors of the Manifesto state that music students "have little to no experience, let alone significant grounding, in the essential creative processes of improvisation." Figure 3 highlights how although approximately 30% are receiving a fair amount of improvisational practice, more can certainly be done.

Figure 3-Integration of Improvisation

figure 3

One of the challenges in evaluating the overall responses from this question is in defining the term "improvisation." Can students kazooing a melody line over a given chord progression be considered improvisation? Can improvisation be found in a song writing class where students are given three motives and asked to write a ballad using the motives? The Manifesto does not clearly define improvisation, although it offers suggestions, such as "a systematic program of improvisation study may unite multiple improvisatory languages, including style-specific (for example, jazz, Hindustani, or European classical) and stylistically open approaches."

 

Creativity

Question: In what ways do you exhibit creativity in the classroom?

This open-ended question produced a great deal of response, even from those respondents who were disturbed by the lack of definition of the term "creativity." Two hundred thirty-five open ended responses accompanied this question including specific examples of composition, improvisation, student led discussions, open-ended analytical questions, technology based teaching, and performance activities.

The list of responses is extensive and a sampling of responses include:

· Harmonization of a melody, re-harmonizing a given example, crafting an original melody, crafting an original harmonic progression, etc.

· Incorporation of popular music examples into the curriculum; emphasis on improvisation; at-the-board composition.

· Use of learning management systems (Blackboard, D2L, Canvas); add examples from current literature to support concepts

· Probing and brain-game type questions fostering Socratic method discussion. Group work and team analysis.

· Many. My iPod allows me to illustrate ideas with musical examples in an ad libitum manner, thus responding better to student queries and expand upon ideas broached in reading or elsewhere through class. My assignments emphasize synthesis of ideas in their responses. I ask students to work in pairs at times, and at other times to do careful critiques of others' work. We learn a sight-singing drill and then modify it to achieve different goals.

· Creative thinking when analyzing music; creative visualizations of musical features (visuals), creative engagement (performing musical examples).

· Open-ended analytical questions explored through small-group discussion; improvisation tasks; engaging students in the design of exercises (e.g. making rhythms studies based on repertory pieces).

· Composition, improvisation, performance on instruments, visual art creation, dance, guest speakers from performance areas.

· Students compose music. They also program computers for interactive performances with musicians.

· Through composition assignments, performance of student work, and improvisation. I also encourage creative ways of thinking about music; for instance, by asking students to develop narratives for a given work.

· Creativity is most often exhibited in the classroom in the form of problem solving. How would you continue this melodic excerpt, how would you harmonize this tune, what techniques would you use to compose a piece that would sound like it was in a particular style or genre.

· I am able to improvise with some art in classical music styles. I seek to analyze music to share its deep and lasting experiential values in our cultural and personal life, in particularity and generality. I will use any tools that enable my aims: metaphor, analogy, mathematics, historical study, critical theory, and cultural interpretations.

· Freedom for student expression of what they learn, all styles applied respected, student voice received not criticized

· Composition assignments, applying information from non-musical fields to the understanding of music, exercises that require thinking and practices beyond 'the box', use of improvisation, brainstorming, and other types of spontaneity

· Requiring students to do a composition project in non-composition classes. Allowing students to map ideas in one discipline (e.g. STEM) onto musical applications Altering lesson plans to include student contributions that might happen just-in-time

· Mobile device teaching, integration of Dalcroze and movement into aural skills, student collaboration with other aural skills classes at institutions in other states

Future of Theory and Aural Skills Pedagogy

The preliminary results indicate that instructors teaching music theory and aural skills are integrating aural skills and theory, are introducing composition, are using a variety of musical genres and styles, and certainly are teaching in a creative manner. However, we can do more. Perhaps through the conversation that has begun due to the publication of the Manifesto we can continue this discussion, moving forward with a better understanding of what is truly happening in our classrooms around the country without unsupported claims and generalizations. The field of music theory pedagogy has evolved greatly from that of 20 years ago. I feel fortunate to be surrounded by colleagues who believe in independent thinking, creative learning, student engagement, and collaborative experiences. I also believe in the power of the undergraduate student and believe they are capable of making connections between musical genres and theoretical topics if we only serve as the guide. It is extremely important to constantly evolve as an educator. We must fully understand what is currently happening in our classrooms before we can make drastic changes in what should happen in an educational environment. There is no one size fits all curriculum nor will any curriculum grow if it remains stagnant and unaware of the developing trends and studies of the field. Each music program must decide what works the best for their student body in order to better serve the population of future musicians, educators, and scholars.

 Notes

1For more information on the 2012 study refer to "The Core Curricula In Music Theory-Developments and Pedagogical Trends." Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 26 (2012): 255–263.

2As of December 1, 2015 the current membership in the Society for Music Theory is 1300 while the membership of the College Music Society is approximately 7,000, 4,000 of whom have listed music theory or aural skills as an area of specialization. Many music theorists belong to both societies, so evaluating a percentage of participants based on number of surveys sent out is not feasible. Based solely on the data from the CMS database, approximately 8.8% of those teaching music theory and/or aural skills responded to the survey.

 

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Last modified on Friday, 08/03/2019

Jennifer Sterling Snodgrass

Jennifer Sterling Snodgrass is professor and coordinator of music theory in the Hayes School of Music at Appalachian State University, teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses in music theory, aural skills, and pedagogy. Dr. Snodgrass received her B.M. in vocal performance from Meredith College and her M.M. in music theory from the University of Tennessee. In 2002, Snodgrass earned a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland where her research focused on computer-assisted instruction and pedagogy.

Snodgrass has published research in areas of analysis and pedagogy in multiple journals such as Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy Online, Sacred Music, The TI:MEs, Music Theory Online, College Music Symposium, and the Music Educators Journal. Along with Dr. Susan Piagentini, Snodgrass serves as the co-author of Fundamentals of Music Theory (2012). The seventh edition of the text is currently in revision and will be made available in 2017. Her latest research involves understanding the specific pedagogies for teaching students enrolled in music industry and music business programs. The result of this research is the text, Contemporary Musicianship: Analysis and the Artist, published by Oxford University Press in 2015. Snodgrass will begin work on a general pedagogy book during the fall of 2016.

She has also received numerous awards in relation to excellence in undergraduate education, including the National DyKnow Educator of the Month, the Plemmons Leadership Medallion, the Outstanding Professor Award from the Appalachian Student Government Association, the Hayes School of Music Outstanding Teaching Award, and the College Music Society Innovations in Technology and Teaching Award. In the spring of 2016, Snodgrass was named an official quarter finalist for the Grammy Music Educator Award and was named Faculty of Distinction at Appalachian State.

Snodgrass is currently the national vice-president of The College Music Society and continues to serve the society on both the national and regional level. She most recently was appointed to the editorial board for the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy and is the co-chair of the newly launched Music Theory Pedagogy Online. Based on her expertise in technology and education, Snodgrass leads workshops in technology and pedagogy on both the K-12 and university level.

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