Last week, I wrote about an experimental assignment. After introducing my students to the concept of scale degrees, I asked them to listen to a couple of episodes of the music theory / psychology podcast Song Appeal. These episodes discuss how the use of particular scale degrees in popular songs by Fall Out Boy and The Calling creates both tension and comfort. For homework, I asked them to write a few sentences about what they found (1) interesting and (2) confusing in each episode, with the hope that this would help them contextualize the theoretical concept of scale degrees. As I wrote last week, it sort of flopped... while my students enjoyed the podcast, almost none of them wrote about scale degrees in their homework.
So I've been thinking more about it. What went wrong?
In hindsight, this assignment really isn't so radical. It's common for teachers to ask students to write brief responses to book chapters or articles. So why not ask them to respond to podcast episodes, too?
What went wrong, I think, is that my instructions were simply too vague and open-ended for the narrower goals I had in mind: "write a few sentences about something you find (1) interesting and (2) confusing in each episode." If I wanted them to focus on scale degrees, I should have simply said so. Students aren't mind readers!
So I thought I'd have a round 2 at this, crafting a new assignment that would do what I had originally wanted my students to gain from the original assignment, but with clearer instructions.
But it's a bit lame to give them the same homework two weeks in a row, isn't it?
So here's what I did this week.
One of the podcast episodes I'd previously assigned them discusses how the limited use of scale degrees 1-5 in "Sugar We're Goin' Down" by Fall Out Boy helps create a sense of comfort and familiarity for listeners.
So this week, rather than simply asking them to listen to the podcast episode, I decided to have them delve into the sheet music itself.
The first thing we did, after I handed out copies of the score, was to listen to the song on YouTube while following along with the sheet music. This was actually the very first time that most of my students had ever looked at sheet music. I'd taught them, of course, how to read and write pitches, rhythms, etc, but this is different: this is real music, not just an exercise.
The second thing we did, after listening to the song, was to explore the score's layout and paratext. Remember: my students had never seen sheet music before. So I pointed out the layout of the title and the band's name. I explained how the grand staff shows us the right hand melody and the left hand accompaniment, with the lyrics printed in between the two staves. We noticed the metronome marking at the beginning, and – interestingly enough – the formal labels "intro," "1. verse," "pre-chorus," "chorus," "instrumental," "2. verse," etc, that were printed throughout the score. We talked about the dynamic marking, mf, and the key signature, both concepts that we hadn't yet discussed in class. And we noticed that instead of 4/4, the time signature was written as a big C – "C is for Common Time."
The third thing we did, after listening to the song and exploring the score's layout and paratext, was to label all the notes in the 1st verse's melody with their scale degree numbers. This was great. It's exactly what I wanted to teach them. We wrote the D major scale on the board, labeled the scale degrees, and then they tried to do the same for each note of the melody in their handouts. Then I wrote the melody on the board, and together, as a class, we labeled all the scale degrees in it.
What's the point of labeling scale degrees?
Who even cares?
Well, here's what we found.
Nearly every single note in the verse's melody is scale degree 1, 2, or 3! There are a few 5's here and there, and at the very end of the verse we get a few 4's. But isn't that interesting? There are 7 notes in the scale. Why only use the first three?
In the Song Appeal podcast episode on this song (Season 1 Episode 1), the show's host, Hunter Farris, explains that this limited use of scale degrees 1-3 is precisely what makes the song feel so comfortable and familiar for listeners. Not only is the melodic range very simple, but it's exactly the same range used in nursery rhymes like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Merrily We Roll Along." Furthermore, as Farris notes in his podcast – and as we ourselves noticed while analyzing the score in class – scale degrees 4 and 5 are added very gradually. After only having 1-3 for a while, we get a 5. Then, the melody goes on with just 1-3 and 5. Only after we're used to the addition of 5 do we then get, at the very end of the verse, scale degree 4. We're not bombarded with scale degrees. We ease our way into the song.
For homework, I asked them to label the scale degrees in the pre-chorus and chorus, too. That'll be interesting. You see, the verse is limited almost exclusively to scale degrees 1-3, with occasional 4's and 5's by the end. The pre-chorus, however, emphatically introduces scale degree 7, and the chorus is full of large leaps. So it's like we ease our way into the verse, and then the pre-chorus builds up some excitement by introducing the leading tone, and then the chorus just soars. So cool! And we'll talk about this in class next week.
But wait, why stop here?! Let's change this to minor now!
After we labeled and discussed the scale degrees in the verse, I asked them to add accidentals to convert the verse's melody from D major to D minor.
Again, this highlights the practicality of scale degrees, while also reinforcing the differences between major and minor. AND IT'S FUN!
All they had to do was lower every scale degree 3 by a half step, by adding natural signs, and boom – it's in minor. For homework, I asked them to practice playing the verse's melody on the piano in both major and minor. In class next week, I'll ask them to sing it in both modes.
Finally, after having delved into the score in these ways, I gave them one final assignment: go home, label all the scale degrees in the pre-chorus and chorus, convert it all to minor...
... and then...
... re-listen to the podcast episode about this song, and write a paragraph explaining how the use of scale degrees 1-5 creates a sense of comfort and familiarity in this song.
Boom! That last part is really what I had wanted from them last week, but hadn't gotten... but this time, having gone through the music in so much more detail, I'm confident that they'll be able to understand this thesis about the scale degrees much more clearly.
Upward and onward!
Kind regards from Providence, RI,
Last week, I introduced my college students to scales.
At this point in the semester, music theory is still extremely new to them. We've talked about the basics of pitch, rhythm, and meter – what many might call "utterly basic." And yet, those of us who have taught total beginners know that even these foundational concepts can be so overwhelming to learn.
There are just so many symbols, so many terms, so many rules, so many concepts, and so many variables to assimilate, that it can feel like we're simply drowning in them. To make things worse, all of these symbols and terms and rules are so intricately interconnected, that it can be difficult to understand one without already knowing the others.
Obviously, this ain't insurmountable. It just takes time and practice.
But I mention this to remind us all, before I describe the homework I assigned them, just how new this still is for my students. Yes, we've learned the basics – but maybe it's more accurate to say that we're learning the basics, and will continue to solidify our understanding of them throughout the semester.
When can we start actually using this stuff?
In an earlier post, I told you about asking my students to write essays on "what is music theory?" and "why do we learn it?" A significant answer to both of these questions is that music theory helps us understand and talk about music in more detailed and interesting ways.
For example, there's a wonderful new podcast called "Song Appeal," which explores the psychology of why we like the music we like. The show is hosted by Hunter Farris, a music student at Brigham Young University, who uses the language of music theory to explain what makes a given tune "catchy," why certain chord progressions keep our attention, how musical sound can trigger nostalgia, and more.
Like many music podcasters, bloggers, and YouTubers, Farris tries to make his work accessible to people who know nothing about music theory, by minimizing his use of jargon and by explaining the terms and concepts that he does use.
So I had this idea: if these podcasts are designed for absolute novices, then maybe they'll be perfect for my students in the very first weeks of learning music theory?
Psychology of Scale Degrees
For homework, I asked my students to listen to a couple of episodes of the Song Appeal podcast, and then write a few sentences about what they found (1) interesting and (2) confusing in each episode.
Since we had just talked in class about scale degrees, I intentionally assigned episodes that explore the psychological power of scale degrees.
Season 1 Episode 1 argues that the song "Sugar, We're Goin' Down" by Fall Out Boy triggers a sense of comfortable familiarity in its listeners in three significant ways:
Season 1 Episode 15 takes a totally different approach to thinking about scale degrees. Rather than triggering a sense of comfortable familiarity, Farris argues, "Wherever You Will Go" by The Calling is full of tension and suspense. How does this happen? As I explained to my students in class, scale degrees aren't just numbers applied to random notes. Each scale degree has a function to play, and it's largely the interaction of differently-functioning scale degrees that gives tonal music its emotional power. Scale degree 1, for instance, is typically used at the beginning and end of a phrase to establish a sense of "home." Scale degree 5 reinforces the endings of phrases by resolving from 5 back to 1.
So what makes "Wherever You Will Go" so gripping? Rather than resolving from 5 to 1, the melody frequently leaps from 5 to 7, or from 5 to 2... both so close to 1, but not quite there. As Farris explains:
"The melody starts out on note 5, and when we hear that, our brains expect to hear note 1 pretty soon so we can get some resolution. Then it moves to note 7, which is so close to note 1 – so close to resolution – that our brains almost beg to hear note 1. Imagine if “Wherever You Will Go” ended on note 7 like this “So late -”. We just need some kind of resolution! So when we hear note 5 and then note 7, it’s like waving a cookie in front of the Cookie Monster’s face – but not letting him eat it – then waving two cookies in front of his face. And unless we hear note 1, we’re going to feel how the Cookie Monster would feel if he didn’t get to eat those cookies."
OK, cool, but this is a pedagogy blog... not a psychology blog!
So, I asked my students to listen to these episodes, and write a few response sentences, as a way of seeing how the theory we're learning in class can actually help us better understand "real music."
I'll admit, it was kind of disappointing. But maybe that has more to do with the ambiguity of my assignment instructions than it does with the assignment concept.
To be sure, some of my students LOVED listening to this podcast. "Sugar We're Going Down" was a radio hit when my students were in middle school. One of my students was so enthusiastic when she came to our next class session, that it was all she wanted to talk about before we got started.
What surprised me, though, was that most of the responses mentioned nothing at all about scale degrees. They mentioned that these podcast episodes discussed tension, or that they discussed familiarity, or that they discussed these songs that were such a huge part of my students' childhood, but without giving much insight into how or why.
Again, maybe that's my fault. In crafting the assignment, I had wanted it to be as open as possible, so that students could feel free to explore their own curiosity. But in fact, I hadn't really wanted it to be sooo open... I wanted it to specifically help them think about practical implications of scale degrees. I should have made that clearer in the instructions, with questions like "how does talking about scale degrees help us better understand these two songs?" and "was there anything about the discussion of scale degrees in these episodes that confused you, or that triggered new questions for you?"
So maybe I'll assign this again... next week! But with new instructions:
"Listen to these two episodes again. Write a paragraph explaining how scale degrees 7 and 2 are used to create tension in 'Wherever You Will Go,' and a second paragraph explaining how scale degrees 1-5 are used to create comfort in 'Sugar We're Goin' Down.'"
And we can have a short class discussion about it, even if just 10 minutes.
What do you think?
As I've mentioned in previous posts, this is all an experiment for me. The vast and mysterious world of social media is still so new, and it's so radically different from traditional media, that it can be very difficult to know how best to use it in our teaching... especially with all the stigma that it carries within academia.
So I'd be very grateful to hear your reactions to this assignment, if you have the time and energy to spare.
Feel free to leave a comment below, e-mail me at SocialMediaMusicTheory@gmail.com, and/or send a tweet over @SocialMediaMus1
All my best, from Providence, RI,
What's music theory?
And why are we learning it?
In my experience, these questions are rarely addressed in college classrooms. Maybe on the first day of class, there might be a few introductory words exchanged, but in general we just hop right to the task of learning facts, examining materials, discussing ideas, and acquiring skills.
In fact, when I've asked my students at New York University and Brown University why they signed up for music theory, the answer was nearly always a non-sequitur: "I need this class to fulfill a requirement." I mean, that answer is not irrelevant – graduating is important – but such an answer reveals that the students haven't actually thought very deeply about what they're learning and why it's worthwhile to learn. And chances are, their professors haven't been regularly encouraging them to do so.
Why so meta?
Knowing why we're learning music theory makes it relevant.
Knowing why we're learning music theory gives us a sense of purpose and drive.
Knowing why we're learning music theory inspires our curiosity and our creativity.
Knowing why we're learning music theory helps us remember things better, because we want to remember things better... and not only for the sake of our grades.
Knowing why is important. Not because your teacher tells you "here's why it's important," but because you individually, on a deep, emotional level, really believe it's important. That deep understanding is not something you can gain by simply parroting what a teacher or textbook informs you of. It comes through deep introspection, through discussion, and not just once but regularly throughout your studies.
But what is music theory???
The trouble is that many of us can't even articulate what music theory is in the first place, let alone why we're learning it.
And the more we learn, the more our understanding of what music theory is can change.
And the more our understanding of what music theory is changes, the more our reasons for learning it can change, as well.
As our knowledge grows, so do we... or, at least, we should...
So this semester, I'm going to try something that I haven't done before. I'm going to regularly challenge my students, throughout the semester, to evaluate and re-evaluate what they think music theory is and why they're excited to learn it. Social media will play a crucial role in that process.
First class: What is Music?
This is why, on the very first day of class, I devoted our entire session to debating the meaning of the word "music." If you didn't read my blog post about that class, check it out. How can we know what music theory is, if we don't even know what music is?
Spending a full hour debating what "music" is may seem trite, or even laughable. But it gets us to think critically. It gets us to look inward and challenge our previous ideas and beliefs. And it sets the stage for further reflection in the weeks and months to come.
First Homework: What is Music Theory?
Now that we've had two weeks of classes, I gave my students the following assignment:
Watch the following four YouTube videos. They talk about what music theory is and why it’s important to study, but each from a different perspective. Write a one-page essay explaining what you agree and disagree with in each video, what you personally think music theory is, and why you personally think music theory is important to study.
In hindsight, I probably should have assigned a fifth video as well, by Dr. Kate Sekula, which offers the most traditional academic conception of music theory: "the study of the structure of music, [... which means learning] how to identify and describe all of the elements that make musical sounds happen." In this PowerPoint-style video, Dr. Sekula explains the five fundamental components of music theory – melody, harmony, rhythm, form, and texture – and how understanding these elements can help us to better perform, compose, arrange, teach, and talk about music. Check it out below - it's well worth the three minutes:
Nour Sharif's video has a similar focus, explaining over 15 ways that understanding the basic rules and principles of music theory can help us to better make, hear, discuss, and think about music:
Not Right Music expands this rule-based conception of music theory beyond the realm of classical music, and even beyond musical notation. Defining music theory as "the rules that make a style what it is," he argues that every genre has its own unique music theory. Pirate metal has its own music theory. Polka has its own music theory. Chance music has its own music theory. Even if we don't typically think of a particular genre as having "rules" or "theory" per se, every genre comes with prerequisite knowledge, skills, and expectations. Understanding those prerequisites – whether a deep understanding of chromatic harmony, or how to work a digital audio workstation (DAW), or how to make your voice sound raw and grungy – can bolster one's fluency and creativity in a particular style:
Samurai Guitarist expands this line of thinking even further by addressing this common question: "If music theory is so important to all genres of music, what about Genius Performer X or Brilliant Songwriter Y who never studied music theory but made such incredible music?" He argues that music theory is not (only) a set of rules that one learns in a classroom, but more broadly our entire way of understanding music. That understanding can be learned entirely outside of an academic setting by simply listening to great music in your genre, by imitating it, by creatively figuring out what sounds good and bad, etc. In other words, Genius Performer X and Brilliant Songwriter Y actually did learn a huge amount of music theory... it's just that they learned it through experience, experimentation, and tons of listening to good music, rather than by sitting and reading a textbook:
The last video I assigned, by Adam Neely, reframes the entire discussion in terms of "prescriptivism" and "descriptivism." Rather than thinking of music theory as a set of prescribed rules that everyone must follow (why many people think learning music theory hinders creativity), he instead urges us to think of it as simply a way of describing and understanding our music. As in the other videos I've mentioned, Neely criticizes those who pride themselves on not knowing music theory. Why celebrate your ignorance about something you claim to love? Why be proud of not being able to talk intelligently about something you might be devoting your entire career to? It's not about rules; it's about understanding:
So that's the assignment! I've asked my students to watch these videos and write a 1-page paper  comparing and contrasting the viewpoints they've heard,  coming up with their own definition of music theory, and  articulating the reasons why they think it's important for themselves to learn music theory.
So far, one student has already e-mailed me to say that she's totally confused after watching the videos, because they all say different things, and she's not sure who's right. Good! That's the point! The point is that there isn't a single right answer, and that people legitimately disagree over this, and that it can be really, really hard to figure out what we actually believe ourselves.
Learning is not about receiving truths from the hands of our teachers. It's about struggle. It's about confusion. It's about disagreement. And it's about perseverance through all that struggle, confusion, and disagreement so that we can figure out what we think. And it's about the courage to challenge even our own beliefs as we revisit the same questions throughout our studies, and throughout our lives.
I'll let you know how the essays turn out! I'm also planning to have a 10-minute discussion in class about it, after they've turned in their essays, so that students can hear each other's ideas, too.
Until then, as always, I'm eager to know what you think! (even – especially – if you disagree with me!)
Cheers from Rhode Island,
Our second class was devoted to the basics of rhythm and meter. It was fun! Most of the students had no idea what measures, bar lines, quarter notes, etc, are (although they'd grown up hearing and making music), so we were really starting from scratch.
After presenting a frontal lecture on the basic concepts and notations, I did what a lot of teachers do: sight-clapping.
But this time, I did it differently.
Usually, what I would do (and what many of my colleagues do) is either write a rhythm on the board or pass out a handout, ask the class to clap it, and then do another one, and another, and another. Sometimes, I've asked my students to write their own rhythms on the board for everyone else to clap, or I've given them handouts with polyphonic rhythms that they can clap together in groups.
But this time, I did it differently.
"Bernadette Teaches Music"
So, there's this fabulous YouTube channel called "Bernadette Teaches Music." Bernadette is a Japan-based ukulele player with a master's degree in education, and most of her videos deal with playing the ukulele. But she also made a series of rhythmic clapping videos which I found to be incredibly useful in my music theory classroom.
The videos are marked "Level 1," "Level 2," and "Level 3."
Level 1 deals only with quarter notes and quarter rests.
Level 2 introduces eighth notes.
Level 3 introduces half notes.
As you can see in the videos above and below (and do watch them; they're less than 2 minutes each...) the videos take us through a series of rhythmic clapping exercises, with constant drumming in the background. Each measure flows straight into the next, and an arrow moves along to each beat, directing our attention and helping us to not fall behind.
So basically, I just played these videos in class and had the students clap along.
The result was pretty cool.
First of all, it was really engaging. The constancy of it, the pulse of it, the moving arrow, the captivating background drumming, the way that it just flowed from one measure to the next, along with the occasional breaks to catch our breath made the whole thing go by in a jiffy.
Second, the background drum beat was confusing... but in a good way! Rather than just banging out "1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4" the background drumming is actually complex, and it usually accents beats 2 and 4 rather than 1 and 3. Occasionally, it even switches suddenly to only accenting beat 2, or only accenting beat 4. The students pointed out that this made it even more difficult for them. But you know what? That's a good thing! In real life, when we're making and listening to real music, how often do we just have a straight "boom boom boom boom, 1 2 3 4, boom boom boom boom" going on in the background? Rarely - so why do we do that in the classroom? Usually, in the real world, we have multiple rhythms going on in the background, and often they will accent more than just beats 1 and 3. Part of learning to keep a sense of rhythm is learning how to do so when there's lots of other stuff going on in the background.
Third, gamifying these videos made them super addictive! As you can see when you watch the videos yourself, each video is broken up into six sections, labeled A through F. I laughed along with the students as things got harder and harder, and we joked about "losing life" when they made mistakes. We braced ourselves for "the boss" (section F) in each video, and breathed a sigh of relief when we beat it (no pun intended). But here's the best part: my students were so engaged that they ultimately insisted on doing more than I had planned. Although I had only planned to do Levels 1 and 2, one of my groups INSISTED on doing Level 3, as well. Be honest, how often do your students insist on doing more than you assign? Mine just did!
Fourth, because these videos are on YouTube, the students can revisit them from home. In fact, for homework, I asked them to practice all three videos so that they'd feel comfortable doing them again in our next class.
Fifth, because these videos are on YouTube, it was much easier for me as a teacher. I didn't have to prepare my own examples, nor did I need to take time to write everything on the board, nor did I need to waste paper and ink with the photocopier.
Not a Secret Sauce
To be clear, this is not the "secret sauce" method for teaching rhythm. It's only one of many tools that can be used in combination. I do still believe in the power of asking students to write and clap their own rhythms for each other, as this engages their sense of creativity and ensures that they're mastering the conventions of rhythmic notation. I do still believe in the power of creating my own rhythmic exercises for the students, as this allows me to tailor our assignments to the needs of the students.
And, in any case, this series of YouTube videos has only three levels, and does not go beyond half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes in quadruple meter.
Nevertheless, I found it to be a wonderful (and wonderfully engaging) tool in my music theory classroom, and would encourage others to give it a shot!
To that end, I'd also be curious to know:
If you've tried this in your classroom, how did it go?
And if you haven't tried it yet, but aren't sure you'll actually do it, what's holding you back?