Modular music theory

We are dedicating an entire course to pop and jazz music, thoroughly integrating theory and performance, and de-sequencing the curriculum.
Megan L. Lavengood

I just won a grant for grant from my university to re-develop the music theory curriculum. In our grant proposal, we emphasized two major developments: a more thorough integration between theory and performance, and a modular design that gives students flexibility and choice.

Disclaimer: this blog post might be riddled with errors and weird punctuation. I’m trying for the first time to use dictation to write this post instead of the keyboard. I have bad injury in my wrists, currently diagnosed as tendinitis, and I’m trying to avoid typing as much as possible.

Modular design

The part of this whole plan that I’m the most invested in is getting popular music into a central part of the theory curriculum. I believe that popular music needs to be taught on its own, within its own context, in order to really elevate it to the same level that we put classical music on. Most commonly, incorporation of popular music into the theory curriculum looks like dropping in a few relevant pop music examples into the curriculum that‘s entirely designed around learning classical music. This continues to subordinate the importance of popular music to the importance of classical music. For example, if your focus is on teaching students the grammar of a classical phrase and the progression from tonic to subdominant to dominant, any examples from popular music that you pull is kind of tokenizing popular music—because in general, popular music does not abide by this grammar. There’s a lot more that I could say about that, but I’ll refrain for now. Suffice it to say I believe that pop music needs to be taught in its own class.

If we’re ever going to be able to change the content of the theory curriculum, we have to let some things go that we wish we could otherwise include. In brainstorming about these topics, I noticed a resemblance between the topics I would teach in a pop music class and the topics I already teach in Theory 3, our course focused on chromatic  harmony. A course focused on pop music and jazz music would easily accommodate the topics of applied chords and modal mixture. The one chromatic chord that I don’t know how to accommodate in this repertoire is augmented sixth chords, but honestly I’m not even too bothered by that —that topic is actually one of my pet peeves, because students get very hung up on the types of augmented sixth chords, and honestly I don’t think understanding that chord is that important in real life. I usually teach sonata form in Theory 3, and that’s not going to work with pop and jazz, but I can still talk about form in a general way, and forms specific to pop and jazz.

I was discussing this idea with a close friend and colleague of mine, Andrew Gades, who is also implementing an innovative theory curriculum at his university, the College of Idaho. (Hopefully he’ll be publishing an article about this soon.) Andrew wants to de-sequence the theory curriculum at his school, and he pointed out that if Theory 3 were a pop and jazz theory course, then the curriculum at my school could also be de-sequenced. It’s possible then to design Theory 3 to not even require Theory 2.

Essentially I want to make it so that Theory 1 is really an Introduction to Theory course. After taking intro, a student could proceed to one of three repertoire-based courses: a course on 18th-century music, a course on pop and jazz music, or a course on 20th Century art music. There’s no reason why these courses would need to be taken in historical order. After discussing with my colleagues, we decided it would also be beneficial to add a third-level course, which would be a course on classical forms. This third level course would require 18th-century music as a prerequisite.

modular curriculum.001

With all of these options, we would allow more flexibility for students to choose their own path through the theory curriculum in order to accommodate their diverse interests. Our music technology program has 75 students in it, last I heard. These students usually only have to take two semesters of music theory. If the curriculum is sequenced, then that means they take essentially music fundamentals and a course on chorale harmonization. Replacing the course on chorale harmonization with the course on pop and jazz music theory would clearly benefit these students. (But even students in education or performance are sometimes more interested in and pop and jazz.) Conversely, a student who is completely focused on classical music can take the classical forms class instead of taking a course in pop and jazz.

Real life music theory

If I had a nickel for every time someone said that music theory isn’t applicable in real life! Another major part of our effort this redesign is to explicitly incorporate performance into music theory classroom. For each course, one of our main learning objectives is something that has to do with performance. The Director of Strings is one of our team members, and while to my knowledge she doesn’t have experience teaching music theory courses, she has reliably provided perspective on the difficulties a single line instrumentalist has in the theory classroom—something a lot of theory professors need to hear about.

One example of this that excites me the most is the addition of playing practicum quizzes in Theory 1, alongside typical fundamentals timed quizzes meant to build fluency in notation. So for example, students will have to notate intervals, interpret intervals from the notation, and also play intervals on their instrument (these would be three separate quizzes).

The Director of Strings is also coordinating performances in a casual recital series with activities in the theory classroom. This might take the form of performing student compositions, or alternatively, performing pieces that students have analyzed in theory class, and discussing how their knowledge of music theory informed their performance decisions.

Recruitment and retention

There are plenty of music schools in the Washington DC area. We are hoping that we can make our school stand out through our innovative theory curriculum. And recruitment, we can tell students that our theory program is extremely hands-on. We can also tell students that they will have a level of choice and agency that they probably don’t have in theory curriculums of comparable schools.

Music theory classes have a reputation for being weeder classes. When students fail a music theory class, they can become quite demotivated. But if the theory curriculum is modular, failing a course doesn’t set them behind an entire year––they can still go on to take the course they had planned to the following semester. This student can go back to that failed course another time, or maybe choose a new path through the curriculum that doesn’t need that course.

Students might also feel a greater sense of ownership and commitment to music theory classes if they feel that they are 1) relevant to their careers and 2) something they are choosing to do.

It still remains to be seen how all of this is going to really work out. I know my colleague Andrew, who I mentioned above, has already been doing this for a year or so, and can hopefully publish the results of his experiment soon. One particular difficulty we anticipate is syncing up this new curriculum with keyboard skills and ear training (or not, as the case maybe). But when it comes to making strides in progress and the music  theory curriculum, we have to start somewhere, and I’m very excited about our starting place.

1 thought on “Modular music theory

  1. This is a great start. I’m teaching a popular music theory course this coming year, and I can’t wait to trade notes.

    (First thought: underlying all core music theory instruction is the vital importance of ear training. This doubles when we’re talking about jazz and pop, where there’s often no score, and where the pleasures are historically understood as primarily bodily/aural/Dionysian, and not mental/visual/Apollonian. In my experience the divide is disastrously wide in this regard between incoming students who “get” pop/jazz and those who’ve only been taught classical performance by rote. It’s criminal that conservatories consistently indicate that the second category of experience is somehow more desirable.)

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