The Creativity of One: A Core-Course Model for Music Theory

Music theory and musicianship courses provide students with vocabulary, tools, and skills to discuss and perform music intellectually. In the past few years, there have been numerous conversations around changing the music theory sequence and the role of Western musical biases.11. Beyond my own presentation of this information (at the joint meeting of the Southern Chapter of CMS and South-Central Chapter of the Society of Music Theory, Nashville, TN, February 2020), other presentations have been occurring recently, such as Stefanie Acevedo & Toby Rush, “What If We Throw It All Out and Start Over? Exchanging Tradition for Relevance in the Theory Curriculum,” Music Theory Midwest Conference, June 25, 2020 (https://mtmw.org/index.php/conferences/programs?year=2020). Publications that informed the changes described in this essay include: Levine, Victoria Lindsay. 2014. “Making the Music Major Relevant at Liberal Arts Colleges.” College Music Symposium 54. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/26574387); and CMS Task Force. 2016. “Transforming Music Study from Its Foundations: A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors.” College Music Symposium 56: 1-22. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/26574453). More recent publications about innovations in music theory curriculum change can be found in the online journal Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy Volume 7 (https://engagingstudentsmusic.org/index) as well as in the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy (https://jmtp.appstate.edu/articles). Usually it is difficult to overhaul a curriculum, but fortunately, being the only theorist in a small music department at a liberal arts college has given me the opportunity for continual assessment and development of creative pedagogical approaches. As many departments and schools are taking curriculum reform seriously in the post-pandemic environment, I reflect and report on the success of a different model that has been in place for six years at my institution. The core-course paradigm offered here is an alternative to the typical sequential theory/musicianship courses and has the potential to allow instructors to diversify repertoire choices as well.

This new curriculum began with an evaluation of the content and goals of the theory sequence including a consideration of our students and their future in music. Departmental trends indicated that incoming students had more exposure to popular rather than classical music. Surprisingly, many of our music majors declare a second major and do not pursue music after graduation.22. Currently, 46% of declared music majors—juniors and seniors (n=17)—are pursuing a second major or degree; this is typical in any four-year period. However, we discovered that many of our music minors actually end up in music-related fields after graduation; e.g., entertainment law, music therapy, musicology, education, performance, arts administration. I wondered if a curriculum could be designed to expose a wide variety of concepts to music minors that would also prepare majors for graduate study. What examples and topics would best serve all students, challenging both novice and more experienced music learners?

As my college’s liberal arts mission provides the framework to embrace breadth and then depth of study, the resultant reform I developed centers on one course that provides general skill sets for both majors and minors. This core-course design eliminates the sequential curricula (see Image 1). Following this core course, upper-level courses provide depth through specific topics while reviewing core concepts and further developing skill sets. While typically populated by music majors, these upper-level courses can also be electives for music minors and non-majors with prior training.33. Students who complete the Advanced Placement® Music Theory Exam fall into this category. Students must show keyboard and aural skill facility as well as phrase structure vocabulary in addition to their test scores.

Image 1: Current curriculum map

 image1

“Understanding Musicianship,” the core course, provides students with musical terminology and demonstrates how it can be used with any repertoire. The broad overview of harmonic functions, melodic analysis, and formal concepts is built around three skills: listening vocabulary, keyboard facility, and analysis. The semester is divided into four parts: Fundamentals Review; Phrase Structure; Chromatic Harmony & Modulation; and Introduction to Larger Forms & Review. As this curriculum does not have enough space to offer written, aural, and keyboard skills courses separately, the core course combines all skills four days each week. The recent addition of a keyboard lab facility on my campus allows every class meeting to emphasize practical alongside analytic skills. Activities are geared toward the course topics as well as developing the abilities of each student.

Within “Understanding Musicianship,” a review of fundamentals ensures that all students possess a similar working vocabulary. A two-level procedure (lead-sheet symbols and Roman numerals with figures) is embedded into every assignment. With a solid background in identification, the focus on harmonic functions and relationships can apply to a wide variety of repertoire. I look for examples that connect specifically to each student at least once during the semester—pieces they are preparing for ensemble performances, literature for individual applied areas, or even local concerts. Comparing and contrasting popular and classical musics is another way I model the use of the vocabulary. For example, the ii-V-I progression can be seen in “C’est si bon” by Betti/Hornez as well as at the refrain’s end in Mozart’s third movement “Alla turca” K. 333.

Using phrase structure analysis as the central focus of “Understanding Musicianship” enables students to appreciate the overall narrative and structure of any composition, which is directly applicable to performance areas. Conversations may involve harmonies (progressions), melodies (motives), and/or the interpretation of repetition and contrast. Discussion of non-chord tones provides a window into more aspects of performance; consonance and dissonance are a prelude to contrapuntal studies. All harmonic functions are covered–diatonic, borrowed, and chromatic–as well as modulation techniques. Larger forms provide a chance to review at the end of the semester.

The most drastic change to this curriculum is the omission of in-depth voice-leading study in the core course. As students are more frequently exposed to a wider variety of repertoire in which parallel motions are seen and used, the classic study of voice-leading in a systematic way is saved for upper-level courses. Since most textbooks are geared toward sequential courses and focus on voice-leading techniques, the textbook I chose needed to present various repertoire styles, provide manageable exercises, and allow flexibility for personal additions and adaptations.44. The textbook currently in use is Contemporary Musicianship: Analysis and the Artist by Jennifer Sterling Snodgrass, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020). In addition to fifteen textbook chapters, there are four online chapters and two appendices with teachable content; ten are used for fundamentals review. I find that supplementary materials for the performative areas are needed more often, especially for keyboard skills. Students are asked to describe aural and visual stimuli with appropriate musical vocabulary at this level, saving the development of transcription skills for upper-level courses. Sight-singing is used as a tool for understanding musical context and specific terminology.

While “Understanding Musicianship” is designed to provide breadth of musical vocabulary, the upper-level (elective) courses are designed to provide depth with a single focus, providing a new lens to review the terminology learned in the core course (see Image 2). One elective is offered every semester at my institution.55. My five-course teaching load during the academic year consists of one or two sections of the core course, two upper-level electives, and one or two sections of a fundamentals course The variety of advanced topics and their open-ended description was designed so that other music faculty would be able to teach a theory course; this opportunity models for the students how all musicians use music theory vocabulary in their own studies, scholarship, and creative activities.

Image 2: Upper-level music theory electives

 image2

One predicament associated with this non-sequenced format occurs with students pursuing music graduate studies. Many graduate programs search applicants’ undergraduate transcripts for typical course titles and a sequenced approach; since the curricular framework I developed is atypical, providing a short explanation of the courses in letters of recommendation is necessary. In my experience, students who have completed three courses with this curricular design have been exempted from the basic graduate theory review courses and find themselves on par with students coming from other, more traditional theory/musicianship sequences.

The core-course design I have outlined herein provides the flexibility to be relevant to a variety of students. This breadth allows for adaptation of other methodologies and diverse repertoire. Each upper-level course can then be tailored to more specifically address the skillsets students need and desire. As a result, students are more engaged. Not only are they exposed to Beethoven, but also to the Beatles and Count Basie, too; not only do they learn about circle of fifths progressions, but also the twelve-bar blues. As a result, students are able to discuss any music, including that which does not fit into a prescribed model. After five years, I found that 86% of my students met or exceeded my expectations by earning 80% or more on their final exams (n=113). Now students have the vocabulary to describe what they see, hear, and perform– just the beginning of a (hopefully) long journey of musical exploration.

 

Notes

1. Beyond my own presentation of this information (at the joint meeting of the Southern Chapter of CMS and South-Central Chapter of the Society of Music Theory, Nashville, TN, February 2020), other presentations have been occurring recently, such as Stefanie Acevedo & Toby Rush, “What If We Throw It All Out and Start Over? Exchanging Tradition for Relevance in the Theory Curriculum,” Music Theory Midwest Conference, June 25, 2020 (https://mtmw.org/index.php/conferences/programs?year=2020). Publications that informed the changes described in this essay include: Levine, Victoria Lindsay. 2014. “Making the Music Major Relevant at Liberal Arts Colleges.” College Music Symposium 54. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/26574387); and CMS Task Force. 2016. “Transforming Music Study from Its Foundations: A Manifesto for Progressive Change in the Undergraduate Preparation of Music Majors.” College Music Symposium 56: 1-22. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/26574453). More recent publications about innovations in music theory curriculum change can be found in the online journal Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy Volume 7 (https://engagingstudentsmusic.org/index) as well as in the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy (https://jmtp.appstate.edu/articles).

2. Currently, 46% of declared music majors—juniors and seniors (n=17)—are pursuing a second major or degree; this is typical in any four-year period.

3. Students who complete the Advanced Placement® Music Theory Exam fall into this category. Students must show keyboard and aural skill facility as well as phrase structure vocabulary in addition to their test scores. 

4. The textbook currently in use is Contemporary Musicianship: Analysis and the Artist by Jennifer Sterling Snodgrass, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020). In addition to fifteen textbook chapters, there are four online chapters and two appendices with teachable content; ten are used for fundamentals review.

5. My five-course teaching load during the academic year consists of one or two sections of the core course, two upper-level electives, and one or two sections of a fundamentals course.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 15/11/2022

Courtenay L. Harter

Courtenay Harter is an Associate Professor of Music at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, where she teaches music theory, music cognition, oboe/English horn, and chamber music. She is the coordinator of Music Theory and an advisor for the Music & Psychology interdisciplinary major. Currently, she serves as President-Elect of the College Music Society’s Southern Chapter.

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