Modes of teaching music theory

April 17, 2007


Those of you who teach music theory have likely been through the following dilemma: do you offer it where all the components are taught and coordinated in one “super class” or do you break it down into modules? The module approach will offer a class or two in harmony, one or two in counterpoint, a series of classes in music analysis, and a gradated series of musicianship classes that teach sight-singing, rhythm exercises, melodic and harmonic dictation, and keyboard harmony (sometimes with actual piano literature to learn). For the past 20 years, we have used the super class model, but it is breaking down. Students with great ears are bored witless with classmates who are struggling. Some have a native understanding of how harmony works and others seem doomed to never understand it. Dictation skills are all over the place.

We are considering returning to the modular model in the interest of enrolling students in classes that they really need, and not just because “everyone” is required to take them, or because students need so many lower or upper division units.

Any thoughts on this will be appreciated.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

PB April 17, 2007 at 11:25 am

Its funny you say that you are looking at moving away from a comprehensive theory program. Although not going as far, at CSUF we are discussing recombining theory and musicianship back together. Although I have not taught enough music theory to have a strong opinion on what the best methods are, I have spent a good deal of time this semester reading and thinking about where music theory and musicianship pedagogy came from. Have you read Michael Rogers Teaching Approaches In Music Theory? It’s a great survey and discussion on the history methods of teaching theory in the university. He offers a pretty good overview of the positives and negatives of the most common approaches used today.

Roger Bourland April 17, 2007 at 6:29 pm

PB: Thanks for the tip, I’ll take a look at the book. It’s a pendulum I fear. You’re swinging one way and now we’re thinking about swinging the other. Robert Winter reminds me that our current model of teaching music goes back to Mendelssohn. We’ve been having interesting conversations about new models. Taking EVERYTHING off of the table and putting it back or not, one at a time.

Blake April 17, 2007 at 11:30 pm

I really appreciated the modular approach when it was used at Northwestern. It makes sense to me because students come to university with such different backgrounds. Many of our voice majors were excellent sight-singers, for instance, but lagged far behind instrumentalists in music theory. As a cellist, I had more experience with music theory but I needed a lot more work in aural skills. A modular approach maximizes learning while minimizing the time commitment–something that was always important to me since I was trying to put in a much practice time as I could.

Roger Bourland April 18, 2007 at 6:40 am

Blake, yep: that’s our problem, the students’ skills are all over the place and the modular approach seems the only way at this point.

music4stage April 18, 2007 at 7:39 pm

I’ve always had this utopian view that everything – harmony, counterpoint, ear training – should be taught at the same time, working up through periods of music history, with a focus on singing the material.

Never having actually taught in the real world, I can see from these comments how impractical that could be.

Roger Bourland April 18, 2007 at 10:02 pm

4stage: Yeah, the problem is that the students all have different strengths and weaknesses, and shouldn’t be made to sit through classes that cover material they already know. It IS fun to play Socrates and want to teach them EVERYTHING.

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