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,