Connecting with the broader public constitutes an integral part of many musicians' professional lives, and these skills are often first developed at the university level. In fact, the missions of many institutions' music departments specifically mention training "cultural leaders" who can serve as "cultural ambassadors for music." Teachers of music performance and education courses can find opportunities for community engagement somewhat easily. Music theory's technical nature, however, can prove challenging for the instructor who seeks to incorporate public engagement within the context of the theory and aural skills core curriculum.

In response, a growing contingent of scholars have published models for integrating community-focused activities into a theory curriculum. Jenkins (2017) developed a graduate Public Music Theory course that taught students to disseminate theoretical concepts to the public. Bourne (2017), Peebles (2017), and Williams (2017), on the other hand, proposed large-scale "Community-Engaged Learning" (CEL) projects designed for the undergraduate core.

While these articles offer fruitful ways to engage students in public music theory (hereafter PMT), they are not without complicating issues. Most pressing is the time commitment required by many of the suggested activities. Our goal, therefore, is to extend these authors' work by suggesting three ways to carry out small-scale PMT projects throughout the semester that can be inserted into nearly any curriculum with minimal fuss: program notes, newspaper articles, and teaching demonstrations.

We see several benefits to this approach. From a practical perspective, modern musicians are increasingly being asked to market themselves, fundraise, give pre-concert talks, and interact with the broader public beyond traditional concert performances. PMT activities build these skills, but, as Jenkins (2017) demonstrates in regard to program notes, their development requires practice—an observation supported by our own experience. In addition to providing opportunities to train these skills, smaller PMT assignments offer an ideal way for students to build mastery of core theory concepts, since explaining concepts to non-experts requires a thorough understanding of material. These activities also have positive effects on student attitudes towards learning, as research suggests that providing authentic, real-world tasks that allow students to "vividly and concretely see the relevance and value of otherwise abstract concepts and theories" (Ambrose et al. 2010) engenders intrinsic motivation. Finally, these activities can easily be adapted to emphasize an important subtype of PMT: service learning. Indeed, the latter has been shown to boost intrinsic motivation among a host of other pedagogical benefits (Moely, McFarland, Miron, Mercer, and Ilustre 2002 & Eyler, Giles, Stenson, and Gray 2001).

Program Notes

Analytical program notes provide students short, informal opportunities to develop their PMT and writing skills. Because these notes typically consist of only 500–1000 words, they can be assigned frequently as either stand-alone assignments or as addendums to analytical homework, allowing students to constantly be improving both skills throughout the semester. As such, these assignments make tremendous stepping stones to larger, end-of-semester term papers or PMT projects.

We have found ways to implement program note assignments in both the written theory and aural skills classroom. In one form and analysis class, for instance, we had students write 500–1000 word program notes on a piece the students were preparing for their sophomore juries. Students were instructed to focus on formal concepts for their program notes, which were to be written for an audience with some musical background but little theoretical training. The program note also lends itself well to model composition assignments. Rather than asking students for a short summary analysis of their compositions, students can draft program notes that analyze their compositions in layman's terms. Writing the program note gives students a chance to constructively reflect on their work after writing model compositions. Our aim is to create a feedback loop in which students can then go back and revise their compositions after having to describe their intentions in prose. Similar assignments can be created in the aural-skills classroom, emphasizing listening skills. In one case, we first asked our students to do an analysis of Mozart's "12 Variations on 'Ah, vous dirai-je maman,'" noting the character changes and variation techniques within each variation, largely by ear. We then asked students to summarize their analytical findings in a program note for a fictitious performance of the piece.

In all cases, the best student work adeptly combined researched historical information with analytical observations. For example, well-done examples of the form and analysis assignment first briefly discussed historical context, then explained the work's large-scale formal structure by giving the audience listening cues related to texture, tempo, dynamics, and rhythm, while avoiding technical terms like "retransition" or "S-space." Less successful examples tended to focus exclusively on historical or performance concerns, relied heavily on technical language, or revealed an underlying misunderstanding of theoretical concepts. This last issue, however, should be viewed positively, as it affords the opportunity to review within the context of an assignment that is directly relevant to many students' careers, clearly showing the applicability of theory to their professional lives.

To ensure students have an understanding of the flexibility of the program note format, we provided contrasting models that ranged from the Toronto Symphony's Visual Listening Guides to the more traditional program note from a local symphony. Donald Francis Tovey's (1935) Essays in Music Analysis also offer a good point of departure. With more time, the class could read and discuss scholarship on the benefits and limitations of program notes such as Margulis (2010), as suggested by Jenkins (2017).

Newspaper Articles

Newspaper concert announcements offer another option for short-term writing assignments. These announcements, which can range comfortably from 200–750 words, promote many of the same learning outcomes as the program note, but also develop publicity skills helpful for professional musicians. Specifically, such assignments teach students to combine descriptive and analytical writing, while preparing documents that can actually be submitted to their local newspaper.

For one assignment, we first asked students to analyze the formal structure of the fourth movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in C minor, op. 18, no. 4 (a seven-part rondo). Then, students prepared a 200-250 word newspaper blurb that: a) provided details of a fictitious performance of the movement, and b) conveyed at least one theoretical concept in a way that non-musicians would find helpful. We purposefully kept the instructions to a minimum in order to allow students as much flexibility as possible. Moreover, the word limit and format ensured that students could comfortably accomplish the assignment in a short period of time rather than over the course of a week.

Many students responded enthusiastically to this prompt, and developed novel and sophisticated ways of explaining rondo form. Several students compared rondo form to the contrasting verse-chorus form familiar from many rock and pop tunes, latching on to the repetition central to both formal paradigms. Other students created more abstract metaphors. One student compared the experience of listening to a rondo to the phenomenon of continually hitting snooze on her alarm clock after being repeatedly awoken from different dreams—the process of waking up and re-entering reality being akin to hearing the rondo's refrain, while the different dreams are analogous to contrasting episodes.

Less successful submissions attempted to translate the analysis directly to the newspaper article. These submissions explained rondo using the theoretical terminology developed in class, often resorting to the familiar letter strings A1, B1, A2, C, etc. that most general audiences would find meaningless and sterile. Such issues should resolve themselves over time through repeated feedback from assigning this type of exercise multiple times, but could also be avoided in the future by screening rough drafts.

One could extend the assignment by having students write newspaper blurbs for actual upcoming performances at their institutions and submit them to either the student or local community newspaper. This activity could also be done in groups, with the class generating one newspaper blurb, or several groups generating 3 or 4, with the best blurb (determined by popular vote) being submitted to the newspaper. Additionally, the form of this assignment is quite malleable. We chose a short, newspaper announcement similar to a letter to the editor, but instructors should feel free to experiment with different formats (e.g., an op-ed or music critique) and word lengths depending on the class, the performance, and the time allotted to the assignment.

Lesson Plans and Teaching Demos

Finally, PMT assignments can also take the form of short lesson plans and teaching demos aimed at non-experts. The sciences already prioritize this type of training as explored in Brownell et al. 2013 and Schwingel 2018, but so far this has not been explicitly prioritized in published work on music theory curricula. Such activities are useful because students must first comprehensively understand a concept in order to distill it into accessible language and then teach it. Furthermore, many students will, at one point in their professional careers, be asked to teach musical and theoretical concepts to non-experts whether that be at pre-concert talks, radio or TV interviews, or even parent-teacher conferences. As such, this activity is especially relevant for many institutions where most music students major in music education, as these assignments offer students the opportunity to practice their pedagogy while directly relating theory to their career path.

The assignment can take many forms. A useful first step is for students to create 20-minute lesson plans that introduce a topic covered in class. By focusing on the lesson plan and not the execution, time can be spent honing the language used to describe fundamental concepts, giving feedback on class activities, and discussing proper sequencing of material. We have had students generate lesson plans that teach non-experts concepts ranging from the twelve-bar blues to the modes and Neo-Riemannian harmonic transformations.

Though many students excelled, two common problems warrant attention. The first involved students simply regurgitating the textbook without considering topic ordering or classroom engagement. Fixing this issue involved talking to students about the process of learning. Such discussions not only addressed the pedagogical concerns, but also often resulted in students refining their own learning process. The second problem consisted of students who could not avoid copious theoretical jargon. These students often lacked a comprehensive understanding of the topic or misunderstood a prior fundamental concept. As such, shoring up this knowledge often resolved the issue.

With more time, instructors could have students actually teach the prepared lessons. Doing so not only gives students more experience with the act of bringing a lesson plan to life, but benefits both the teacher and the students in various ways. For example, when a few of our students presented lessons on text painting, the variety of examples—everything from depictions of height in "You Raise Me Up" to the illustrations of "slowness" in "Despacito"—helped inspire the entire class to further their knowledge of the concept as a whole and created a truly memorable learning experience. Furthermore, the peer feedback helped the "teachers" more easily see where their explanations needed clarification and identified any holes in their knowledge.


PMT projects encourage students to connect music theory to their musical lives outside the classroom. In making our classes more outward facing, we not only engender intrinsic motivation in our students, but also provide them with invaluable career training, writing skills, and a way to engage the community all while requiring relatively little classroom time. As institutions reform their theory curricula in response to the rapidly changing professional world and student needs, we believe that PMT should be at the forefront of the conversation.


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