Blog Posts Composition & Orchestration Pedagogy Teaching Materials

Better Feedback on Creative Projects

A post by David MacDonald that is worth re-posting; I intend to direct my composition and orchestration students to this in the future.

Better Feedback on Creative Projects

Blog Posts Composition & Orchestration Pedagogy Teaching Materials

Journaling for Composition Lessons

Ten out of ten composition lessons that I teach end with me jotting down a short list of repertoire for the student to study over the coming week. Most often, these pieces are chosen because their instrumentation or compositional approach is similar to that being used by the student. They also tend to have the secondary goal of broadening the student’s experience and leading them toward more adventurous and distinctive writing.

As far as I can tell, my students almost never follow through. To the professor (that’s me, but I think most composition professors do this), it is one of the essential parts of the lesson. To the student, it seems like extra work when all they really want to do is sit down and make stuff up.

With this in mind, I decided to create this page and direct students to it. What follows is a list of questions that must be answered for each piece of music assigned as listening. Some of them are “due diligence” to make sure that a score and recording were, in fact, located and perused. Others are designed to help guide the student’s study of the score and suggest practical ways that hearing new music can help a musician progress as a learner and gain new tools for composition.

Blog Posts Harmony Modulation Pedagogy Teaching Materials

Key Modulation: Elgar’s “Moths and Butterflies”


Learning to follow key changes is not easy for many students, especially when they are asked to locate modulations themselves and distinguish between different methods of modulation. Here is a step-by-step guide that uses a charming example of Romantic music: Edward Elgar’s Moths and Butterflies from The Wand of Youth Second Suite. More practice is also available on this site in “Modulation Practice: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.”

Step One: Get to know the music

Begin by hearing a recording [here’s one on YouTube] while reading the sheet music [it’s on — Moths and Butterflies is the third movement]. Please note that this piano reduction has two mistakes! The right hand chord on beat 1 of bar 3 should have a D♯, not a C♯. In that same bar, the left hand should return to bass clef; its two notes are both E, and the bass clef continues until treble is restored in bar 5 as shown.

Blog Posts Harmony Modulation Pedagogy

Modulation: Don’t Believe What You’ve Been Told!

I love teaching modulation, but I am not satisfied with the common approaches to teaching it. We used to use Kostka & Payne at WCU (my experience with this book stops at the fifth edition, which is what I quote below), which is the text I learned from as a student. They seem to represent the consensus, that there are two kinds of modulation-by-pivot techniques:

Pivot modulations

Modulation by common chord. This is always taught first, which reveals a bias toward classical practice. It gets lots of ink in the textbook because it is something that can be broken down into steps and explained ad nauseum. The technique is to find the first harmony that works for the new key (usually its dominant) and back up to find the pivot harmony that works equally well in both keys. Students hate this… they never can remember that a common chord is common to both tonalities. But who can blame them? To a listener, the modulation begins with a chromatic shift.

Aural Skills Blog Posts Pedagogy Teaching Materials

How to Practice Melodic Dictation

quillI am frequently asked by students how to build skills in melodic dictation, and while there is no “magic answer” (I think many of them want to have an instant solution that requires no time-commitment), I think skills can be built using a dedicated program of four approaches:

Blog Posts Online instruction Pedagogy

Crowd-source teaching: extra credit “challenges”

Last year, I tried out a technique for enhancing student engagement in online courses: crowd-sourcing representative examples of course topics.

Responding to a complaint from students that online quizzes were too difficult and extra credit options were needed, I offered students an opportunity to demonstrate comprehension by locating their own musical examples. This can be a tedious part of my work — finding “exemplary” musical passages that demonstrate each facet of a lesson. This way, I open up the possibility of getting something out of it, too; the best submissions can be incorporated into my course materials.

The process is simple: I create a Dropbox folder for each lesson in which students may submit three examples that fit specified constraints. One task, for example, was to submit (on annotated sheet music) three examples of musical modulations that exhibited different approaches: pivot modulation by common chord, direct modulation, and pivot modulation by change of chord quality. To earn full extra credit, they needed to find one of each and they needed to be correct and correctly labeled. Their examples also had to be unique among the class; no choosing a passage that had already been used by another student. If examples did not earn extra credit, the student may submit more batches of examples until they get it right, but only before the weekly unit quiz.

Once I received their files, I would add markup comments on their PDFs to show if each example was correct or incorrect, and make a note about why it was a good or weak example. Since the Dropbox folder is public, students could then examine their peers’ examples and learn from the successes and shortfalls.

In the end, a few problems sullied the process:

Blog Posts Pedagogy

Teaching the Perfect Tune

A starting point for engaging students is picking a great example. With the right music, a student’s curiosity can be piqued and a great piece of music engaged. For almost any topic, I tend to follow these principles:

  1. Find a single piece or whole section that illustrates all (or most) of the concepts of the lesson. Little excerpts don’t give students a chance to appreciate how the topic can affect a musical whole. It’s fun to analyze a whole piece or section of music since it feels like you are really unpacking the music; it’s hard to engage a single phrase of music and then another… and then another… and feel like you are doing much more than identification.
  2. Famous tunes give the impression that theory class applies to “real” music (sorry:  songs from Winterreise aren’t famous in most student circles). Children’s songs are often terrific. There is a chance that students might recognize Classical war-horses from having heard them in another class, a commercial, as a ring-tone (Turkish Rondo, anyone?).
Blog Posts Harmony Pedagogy Teaching Materials

Chord Inversions: They’re Not Just For Labeling Anymore

A Little Background

Chord inversions are the second thing music students learn about chords, right after how to spell chords over a given root (what the pitches of D Major or F♯ Diminished is). For those who are new to the topic, follow this link.

Chord inversions are mostly taught by looking at chords in the easiest possible manner: as close-position triads or as block chords in simple four-voice chorales. When they are studied like this, students can quickly learn how to identify a chord’s position (either root position or inversion) and assign it a numeric label: 5/3 or 7 for root position, 6 or 6/5 for first inversion, and so forth.

It is much more difficult to apply the concept of inversions to music that doesn’t move in block chords, and in most music, the bass is elaborated in some way, complicating the matter. Sometimes they are ornamented with passing tones and such between “structural” tones, and when a bass line is genuinely florid (as in much classical or jazz music) it becomes very tricky indeed.

So, Why Do They Matter?

Why do we study chord inversions? To many students, it’s tedious busywork to parse the pitches that make up a chord, figure out which is lowest, and assign a numeric label. Some of the point may be to dwell a while on spelling chords. It is also an introduction to the idea of following one note of a chord to the next, which introduces the subject of voice-leading, which is often a primary concern of harmony courses (though that is increasing being considered “old-fashioned”).

Blog Posts Pedagogy Rhythm

Rhythms are Boring; Rhythm Is Fascinating

spiralWhat do students learn about rhythm? Mostly these things, which are all essentials:

  • Rhythm (in most music…) is based on a series of steady “beats,” which are somehow organized into metric patterns (duple or triple, simple or compound, and so forth) based on surface patterns in the music.
  • Musical notes indicate relative duration: a whole note = two half notes = four quarter notes = eight eighth notes, and so on.
  • These notes may be organized to “play nicely” with the meter, or to “rub against” it, which would indicate a “pick-up,” a syncopation, or something called hemiola. Students should be able to define hemiola once and are not asked about it after their second week of school until the third semester, in which they will point it out in music by Brahms.

But that’s pretty much where rhythm ends in textbooks. Steven Laitz goes a little further by writing a few paragraphs on what makes rhythm… well… what makes rhythm. There is harmonic rhythm (patterns made from when harmony moves from chord to chord), there is change of musical patterning, and a few others based on changes in texture, dynamics, and register. It’s accompanied by a confusing diagram of eight bars from a Mozart sonata.

Blog Posts Form & Melody Pedagogy

Motive: Beyond Simple Identification

My students frequently don’t “get” what I try to convey for analyzing motive in musical compositions. The challenge is that there are two things that are important for this topic:

  1. That motives can be located and that their transformations can be identified (look! it’s the motive from the beginning of the song! and it’s inverted!).
  2. That motives can be a structural element of music, that they can be used cleverly, and that their appearances can help to bring grace, drama, and “logic” to music.

The first item is fairly easy for me to teach and fairly easy for my students to learn. I introduce a series of terms (transposition, inversion, retrograde, elaboration, truncation/fragmentation, and so forth) and isolate musical motives in a passage of music. If the examples are clear enough, any student can identify a method of transformation.

But the second item on that list is harder; it demands thoughtful musical analysis, making the student look within phrases, across phrases, up and down the musical texture, compare melody to harmony, and more. It’s a real challenge. And I haven’t figured out a great way to make this “testable.” Mostly what I tend to do is give a song in lead-sheet format (Mancini & Mercer’s Moon River and Rodgers & Hart’s Bewitched are favorites) and ask students this question:

Aural Skills Blog Posts Pedagogy

Melodic Orientation vs. Dictation

Melodic Dictation

If ear training textbooks with CDs and various online musical trainers fairly represent standard practice, “traditional” melodic dictation is typically a four-bar exercise in which a starting pitch is given, a count-off is sounded, and a series of notes that resemble a melody is played on piano. I have some problems with this…

  1. If there is no accompaniment,  students miss out on a valuable asset for orienting metrically and tonality. How many melodic dictations have I seen that get “off” by a beat or are consistently a step (or two, or three) too high after a leap is missed?
  2. The best students are bored silly waiting for the rest of the class to finish.
  3. The most challenged students struggle with the first notes and never get to the end; they are discouraged seeing the top students wait and are likely hampered by the pressure of holding up the class.
  4. Dictation takes a long time and leaves little opportunity for giving/getting feedback. Even when I walk around looking over students’ shoulders, it’s hard to guide students without revealing details to others nearby.
  5. Little mistakes (a skipped beat, a missed leap, a chromatic step written as a diatonic step) can cause big trouble and a lot of wasted time.
  6. Dictation doesn’t build some basic skills (most important among them, I think, being how to orient tonally without being given a tonic or starting pitch).

Melodic Dictation Orientation

My favorite type of dictation activity turns many of these problems on their head. I call these elegant little exercises melodic orientations, and they look like this:

Notate the first eight tones of this melody, adding all necessary information for notation. The key signature has four sharps.staves
Blog Posts Online instruction Pedagogy

Syllabus boilerplate: Guidelines for email correspondence

mailNote: since I began including this in syllabi (and pointing it out at the beginning of each semester), emails from students have become… slightly… better. The good ones remember this when emailing me. The others can be ignored and referred back to the syllabus. Any other good solutions out there for elevating the tone of student/teacher e-correspondence?

Blog Posts Pedagogy

Theory Class Rocks!

Who doesn’t love the same music you do? Your students, probably.

None of your students cares what this man sang forty years ago.
None of your students cares what this man sang forty years ago.

First of all, let’s address the elephant in the room: popular music brought into the classroom by a professor will never be a student favorite. If a timely hit is brought to class to illustrate a point, it will soon enough be out of date. A classroom of students represents a spectrum of tastes, so while you are reaching the Zeppelin fans of the class, you are making the Beyoncé fans roll their eyes.

I think, though, that students appreciate learning from a variety of sources (rock and pop among them) since this illustrates an important concept:

Music theory embraces universal principles, not just irrelevant techniques of long-dead, elite composers.