When I began teaching at The College of Idaho, a small liberal arts college, the music curriculum utilized a standard four-semester theory sequence. This curricular model presented some practical problems for both students and the institution. Several other authors in this volume describe related challenges at their own institutions (Lavengood 2020, Peebles 2020). As I attempted to find solutions, I also began to consider what a liberal arts approach to the undergraduate music theory core would look like. Changing the underlying structure requires a close reassessment of the core learning outcomes and the necessary course content to deliver those outcomes.

The Practical Problems

As the only theorist at my institution, I am responsible for teaching the entire music theory sequence as well as some upper-division elective courses. Because of this teaching load, I can only offer a single section of each core course in a given year. The lack of scheduling flexibility presents a dilemma: students have a single opportunity to take each music theory course or fall behind a year. With many students pursuing double majors or deciding to major in music after their first year of college, scheduling becomes challenging.

The lack of flexibility also creates institutional difficulties. Each core theory course must be offered each year, even in the event of a low-enrollment year where the class size may have it flagged to be cancelled. The music department is then put in the position of requiring an exception to ensure students can graduate on time.

For both students and the institution, a desequenced theory core provides the needed flexibility. The challenge, then, is to determine how to deliver an undergraduate theory curriculum in a non-sequential, non-cumulative manner. As I examined the learning outcomes for each semester of the core, the one skill that prevented a non-sequential approach was part writing. What follows is a description of a non-sequenced theory core that attempts to preserve the concepts and content of a traditional theory curriculum, but delivered using methods of teaching and assessment other than part writing.

Why (Not to) Part Write

Since part writing has been one of the primary means for content delivery and assessment in the undergraduate theory curriculum, reducing its prominence or removing it entirely warrants discussion before taking a closer look at the individual courses within the redesigned undergraduate core. The role of part writing in music theory pedagogy has been discussed in previous volumes of Engaging Students (Kulma and Naxer 2014), The Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy (Follet 2013), and blog posts (Von Kampen 2017, Snodgrass 2016). Mastery of part writing and understanding it as an abstraction have great analytical utility. As noted by Peter Schubert (2011), however, students often will not make the connection from the abstractions to real music even when it is pointed out to them. Schubert also advocates for having our students engage with real music rather than simplified paradigms or other abstractions. The curricular difficulty is to determine how the needed skills can be taught and assessed without using part writing as a conveyance. In the proposed model, engagement with scholarly writing, model composition, and analysis of real music are the primary tools for theory content and skill acquisition. Additionally, removing part writing creates space to explore academic literature about music theory topics from multiple fields of study and introduce writing and information literacy skills.

A Liberal Arts Model

Curricular Considerations

Besides the practical considerations, I wanted the curricular design to have a liberal arts identity. The previous curriculum was similar to those at conservatories with little connection to the liberal arts philosophy of the college. I focused on three elements in particular: first, adding interdisciplinary content to demonstrate connections between disciplines; second, including the music theory coursework in a scaffolded approach to develop writing skills through the music major; and third, adding information literacy content to meet institutional learning outcomes.

Another motivating factor behind this curricular revision and the inclusion of learning outcomes that are not specific to music theory is the unique general education framework at the College of Idaho. In 2010, the college replaced its liberal arts core with what we call the PEAK program where the liberal arts requirements are fulfilled through a major and three minors in different academic divisions. Since there are no longer any general education courses, the college-wide learning outcomes must be met through the individual majors and minors. These outcomes continue to be revised through assessment processes, but at the time included the following:

  1. Students explore and experience the breadth of a liberal arts education and can differentiate and integrate a variety of interdisciplinary ways of knowing;
  2. Students effectively communicate in writing, for a variety of audiences, according to appropriate disciplinary and technological conventions; and
  3. Students exhibit information literacy, knowing how to locate, use, and evaluate information.

Interdisciplinary Content

In adding readings from a variety of disciplines, I had a few goals in mind. The first was to address the institutional learning outcome of students being able to differentiate and integrate a variety of interdisciplinary ways of knowing. Within most liberal arts contexts, this outcome can be met simply by requiring that students have basic competencies in several different fields of study. I wanted to go further and show how music theory, other fields within music studies, and disciplines outside of music inform each other. Besides attempting to follow a liberal arts philosophy, I thought this would be a way to add interest to fundamentals topics. Many of the music majors at my institution are double majors, so this type of interdisciplinary study would allow them to see how scholars from other disciplines approach musical topics, or how ideas from music theory are adapted to and from other areas. The main challenge with adding interdisciplinary components is finding materials that are accessible to undergraduate students and that I feel comfortable presenting to a class. Those constraints appear in a bias towards articles related to math and the sciences, although others adopting a similar approach may rely more on other areas of interest such as cultural studies.

The Writing Scaffold

Thesis-based writing is an important, transferable skill that helps students develop critical and analytical thinking. In the proposed curriculum, it serves as a tool for both practice and assessment of music analysis. Bakker and Chenette (2014) recognize that an academic paper requires a large set of skills and suggest that it may be worthwhile to focus on individual skills. Developing these skills in smaller, focused assignments in the theory core helps support the writing expected of students in upper-division courses (Miyake 2014). Each course emphasizes specific writing skills that provide a foundation for writing research papers in upper-division coursework. This focus on skills rather than progressively larger writing tasks serves two functions: it fits within a non-sequential framework and it keeps the workload at a manageable level for both the students and instructor. Additionally, the skills developed in the music theory courses contribute to further development of writing in the capstone and music history courses.

Information Literacy

Similar to writing skills, information literacy is a necessary skill for academic research and is becoming increasingly important in a digital world where information (both good and bad) is at one's fingertips. Both the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and the Music Library Association provide guidelines and learning outcomes for information literacy. The approach used to add information literacy skills was similar to the scaffolded approach to writing, with each course focusing on just a few, specific outcomes. For each course, I attempted to select the skills that would work synergistically with the writing and disciplinary (or interdisciplinary) content.

The Revised Curriculum

Figure 1. Model for the Undergraduate Music Theory Curriculum at the College of Idaho

Introduction to music theory and sound studies, which branches out into diatonic harmony, chromatic harmony, and post-tonal analysis, all of which are co-equal.

Introduction to Music Theory and Sound Studies

The new curriculum, illustrated here as Figure 1, begins with a single course that serves as the sole prerequisite for the following three semesters, which can then be completed in any order. The knowledge base developed in the introductory course includes proficiency with music fundamentals, harmonic function (e.g., T, PD, and D), and the phrase model. Additional objectives for this course include developing the first level of writing skills, introducing concepts from the ACRL Information Literacy Framework, and providing a broad, interdisciplinary context for the academic study of music.

The course begins with guided discussion and readings that ask the students to consider basic definitions—similar to the interrogation of "seemingly obvious music-theoretical constructs" suggested by Jeremy Day-O'Connell (2020) or the focus on core elements of music described by Kristina Knowles (2020):

  • What is music?
  • Is music distinct from sound, and if so how?
  • How can music and sound be studied?
  • What is music theory?
  • How has music theory and its position within the liberal arts tradition changed over time?
  • What are the basic features of music that music theory examines (e.g., pitch, rhythm, timbre, form/structure, etc.)?

Table 1 provides a list of topics, supporting readings, and ACRL frames as they are distributed throughout our 12-week semester.

In order to prepare students to proceed into either Diatonic Harmony or Chromatic Harmony, the introductory course does include harmonic function and phrase structure, so students are expected to provide a Roman numeral analysis, identify function at the phrase level (including basic types of harmonic expansion), and identify cadences. Without the part writing element, students do require additional practice to achieve fluency in chord spelling and recognition. This additional practice is provided with timed quizzes and worksheets.

Table 1. Schedule of topics and selected readings from Introduction to Music Theory and Sound Studies
WeekFundamentals ContentAdditional Discussion TopicsSupplemental ReadingsACRL Frames
1Pitch, Clefs, Major ScalesMusic Theory as a Liberal Arts DisciplineR. Murray Schafer "Soundscapes", GTTM ch. 1, Metaphors We Live By chs. 1–4, CHOWMUT ch. 5Authority is Constructed and Contextual, Information Creation as a Process
2Major Key Signatures, IntervalsUsing music theory concepts in other disciplines"Dinner Tables and Concentric Circles"Scholarship as Conversation
3–4Rhythm/MeterHow other disciplines approach musicThe Geometry of Musical Rhythm (excerpts), CHOWMUT ch. 20, Krebs "Metrical Consonance and Dissonance", Rockwell "Time on the Crooked Road", Current Biology metric entrainment in animalsAuthority is Constructed and Contextual, Scholarship as Conversation
5Minor ScalesStudent engagement with real music and contribution to scholarly conversation"Turning the Beat Around"Information has Value, Scholarship as Conversation
6–7Triads, Seventh chordsPattern recognition, teleologyMusical Forces ch. 1
8–10Harmonic Function, PhrasesRelationship between analysis and performanceMusical Forces ch. 2, Phrase Rhythm in Tonal Music chs. 1–2
11–12ReviewStudent presentationsArticles related to earlier readings and class discussion

In addition to fluency in the fundamentals topics, the learning objectives for this course include some that are specific to the ACRL framework and writing development. These additional learning outcomes are:

  1. Students will be able to identify types and formats of information sources.
    1. Identify purpose and audience
    2. Differentiate primary, secondary, and tertiary sources
  2. Students will be able to evaluate information sources.
    1. Evaluate reliability, authority, and bias
    2. Summarize main ideas
    3. Analyze structure and logic of supporting arguments and methods
    4. Recognize cultural and physical context of information creation
    5. Recognize information sources as part of scholarly discussion

An assignment on Chapter 20 from The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory can easily support the introduction of information literacy concepts. In particular, the frame "Scholarship as Conversation" focuses on the idea that research and the development of new ideas is discursive. By asking students to identify the ideas introduced in the rhythmic notation systems of John of Garland, Franco of Cologne, Jehan des Murs, and Marchetto of Padua and how these concepts are represented in our modern system of notation, the class can then realize and discuss how knowledge is created through an ongoing scholarly discourse.

Diatonic Harmony

Since the introductory course is the most unique in its pedagogical structure, the discussion of the remaining courses will be shorter and focus on topics, assessment tools, and learning outcomes. The course on diatonic harmony begins with two-voice counterpoint and follows with an exploration of galant schemata, tonicization, modulation, phrase form (sentences and periods), binary form, variations, and ternary form. Assessment tools for these topics include analysis, model compositions, timed quizzes, and worksheets. The information literacy and writing outcomes for this course focus on music-specific outcomes from the Music Library Association's Information Literacy Instructional Objectives, such as how to locate, evaluate, and cite scores and recordings.

Some of the topics included in this course may seem out of place for a diatonic harmony course, particularly the inclusion of tonicization, modulation, and form. Since Diatonic Harmony relies heavily on the analysis and composition of galant-style dance movements, some knowledge of tonicization and modulation to closely related keys in the context of binary form is necessary. More extensive study of chromatic techniques is left for Chromatic Harmony.

This course does not contain the same interdisciplinary focus as the introductory course, partly because the disciplinary content requires more time, and partly because I haven't had the time to work out how such content could be incorporated in a meaningful way. Additionally, limiting the number of changes makes it easier to assess whether the various aspects of the revised curriculum are successful. Data gathered over the next few years will inform any future changes.

Chromatic Harmony

The chromatic harmony class is designed as a repertoire-based course where students learn primarily through analysis. Most recently, I taught the course using Dichterliebe, supplemented by other art songs, but the repertoire of study is not fixed. Although the focus is on chromatic harmonies and techniques (particularly expressive chromaticism, chromatic predominants, and tonal ambiguity), there is some redundancy with Diatonic Harmony since phrase structure, tonicization, and modulation are addressed in both courses. The primary assessment tool is analysis of excerpts and full pieces. For writing and information literacy, students are expected to create thesis statements supported by their analyses and adjust the presentation of information to fit audience and format.

Since students are expected to recognize chromatic harmonies and techniques, without the additional task of spelling and resolving in four voices, it is possible for students to take this course before Diatonic Harmony if the need arose. For example, if students understand and recognize chromatic alterations in an excerpt, they can then identify a Ger+6 and its enharmonic resolution as a dominant to a new tonic. The ability to enharmonically spell and resolve a Ger+6 in four voices is a related, but separate skill.

Before the curricular revision, I had used model compositions in the unit on chromatic harmony, but that assessment tool is no longer feasible for students that don't have the contrapuntal and voice-leading skills from the diatonic harmony course. Instead, this course focuses on the separate skills of developing an interpretation based on analysis, and considering performance implications of those interpretations. These skills work well with the writing skills of developing and supporting a thesis statement. It also provides an opportunity for students to connect the work done in theory with their performance activities. Students are also asked to compare different recordings and postulate how the performance decisions made may alter analysis and interpretation.

Post-Tonal Analysis

This course is a stylistic survey of post-tonal music and analytical approaches to this music. The focus on post-tonal music makes this course the easiest to desequence, as the theoretical tools are quite distinct from tonal music. Styles studied include the many –isms of musical impressionism, serialism, neoromanticism, minimalism, postmodernism, as well as free atonality, popular music, and film music. Assessment is completed using worksheets, quizzes, analysis, and stylistic composition. The writing and information literacy topics include developing a research question and locating sources.

Aural Skills

Deciding what to do with the aural skills courses was one of the most challenging aspects of this process since progressive skills, such as those developed with increasingly complex and difficult singing and dictation exercises, require a carefully planned sequence. There is still a separate aural skills course that is a co-requisite with Intro to Music Theory, but the other courses integrate aural skills activities into the regular course. In Diatonic Harmony, for example, students are expected to sing their counterpoint, complete a two-voice counterpoint example via dictation, and identify form without looking at a score. The most significant difference is the absence of traditional harmonic dictation since it is closely connected with part writing. Students are still expected, however, to identify harmonic function or important harmonic moments aurally. In this way, aural skills is treated similarly to writing with specific, course-appropriate skills emphasized rather than a cumulative process over several courses.

Something that is lost with the revision, is that there is little sight singing of chromatic melodies and none for post-tonal melodies. Sight singing is a progressively developed skill, and I have not yet determined an effective way to desequence it. Also, for our student population, the practicality of post-tonal sight singing is questionable. Students are expected, however, to aurally recognize and identify chromatic harmonies, and make stylistic distinctions based solely on aural information. For the smaller subset of students that need additional aural skills training (e.g., music education students), there is a separate course available that provides these skills as well as information about different solfege systems, rhythmic solmization, and error detection in group performance situations.


The curricular reform described here is an ongoing experiment that is actively changing based on student achievement and course evaluation responses. The first course is the greatest departure from standard practice, appropriately so since it provides the context for the more focused semesters that follow. Students appreciated the opportunity to see real music theory scholarship applied to their everyday musical experiences as early as their first semester of study.

There is limited data at this point to judge whether this curricular approach is successful, but the minuets composed by students in Diatonic Harmony this past year were more musical and stylistically appropriate than the minuets composed in the previous Theory II courses. To date, only a single student has taken a course out of the regular sequence, taking Post-Tonal Analysis after Intro to Music Theory with no apparent negative impact on the student experience. Evaluation of the writing and information literacy components will be a longer-term process as students continue into upper-division courses.

This desequenced theory core will not be feasible or desirable for all institutions, but for the needs of our students and institution it seems to be a good fit. Hopefully the growing number of schools embracing different curricular models will lead to a greater diversity of course materials and textbooks to make this process easier for others interested in reforming their curricula.


I'd like to thank Megan Lavengood and Crystal Peebles for their advice through the curricular revision process and continuing collaboration in preparing for both conference presentation and publication. This article also benefitted from the careful reading and helpful suggestions of Sarah Sarver and Scott Strovas during the editing process.


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