Recent discussions surrounding curricular reform have focused on approaches for increasing the inclusivity and diversity of repertoire studied while ensuring that content is relevant for the evolving needs of students. A number of databases focusing on works by female and minority composers have appeared in recent years, and a growing number of pedagogy articles are being published with materials and lesson plans for incorporating jazz (Stover 2018) and popular music (Chenette 2017; Osborn 2018) into the classroom. While these resources are valuable, the problem of how to balance the traditional Western Art canon with the desire to incorporate a wider range of repertoire from different musical traditions remains. One possible solution is to organize courses around topics that are applicable to a wide variety of repertoires. By placing emphasis on broader concepts such as pitch structures, timbre, meter, and form, students can still learn the central concepts and skills that theorists seek to impart through the core curriculum but do so through a variety of musical styles and traditions. Decentering the Western Art Music canon in this way will necessitate careful consideration concerning which components of the traditional undergraduate curriculum are essential and which can be eliminated or de-emphasized. Such an approach comes closer to representing the current status of the field and encourages instructors to engage with recent theories and analytical methods for popular, jazz, and world music in addition to Western Art Music.

In this article I will describe my efforts to incorporate this philosophy towards curricular reform within the context of a fourth semester course on twentieth-century music that I taught this spring. More specifically, I will discuss the two main features of this course: the organization of course material around broad musical concepts, and the incorporation of a wide range of musical activities and projects, extending beyond analysis to include improvisation, arranging, performance, composition, and research. The goal of this latter component of the course was to increase the relevance of the material for students and help them connect the content of the curriculum to their individual instruments and degree programs.

The course in question was organized into five units, each focusing on a core element of music: notation and transcription, pitch structures, timbre, rhythm and meter, and form. The flexibility of the course is derived from the kinds of repertoires that can be addressed within each of these units. While one can easily explore each of these topics through the traditional post-tonal canon, I treated twentieth-century music as a broad category encompassing post-tonal and avant garde music alongside jazz, popular, and world music. By focusing the course around broad musical elements, students were encouraged to investigate these concepts theoretically and analytically, with consideration for the nature of these components, how they are organized, created, and used by composers, and how they are perceived, understood, and interpreted by listeners and performers.

For example, in a unit on notation and transcription, students investigated the relationship between sound and symbol through the comparative analysis of a variety of scores that included traditional Western notational practices, graphic scores, and jazz lead sheets. Activities such as ten times two (Zachary 2014, 17-22) encouraged students to make lists of observations concerning what information was captured by notation. These lists were then used to make comparisons across different notational practices and draw larger conclusions about what aspects of sound can be successfully captured symbolically as well as how much room for interpretation is left open for the performer. Incorporating class performances of jazz lead sheets alongside comparative listenings of different renditions of jazz standards allowed us to discuss the idea of performance practices that may not be encoded in a score, such as swing ratios in the performance of notated eighth notes (Benadon 2006) and varying interpretations of notated phrase rhythms. Although not incorporated into this particular course, digital audio workstations such as Ableton Live or GarageBand could be included as yet another method for symbolically representing sound and may provide interesting comparisons to various approaches taken by contemporary composers creating graphic scores.

Students also explored the other side of the notation equation, completing a reading (Rusch, Salley, and Stover 2016) on jazz transcription to facilitate a discussion on the individualized nature of both listening and analysis, fostering the view that transcription is a notated interpretation of a recording. These concepts were then applied to various individual and group transcription activities. For example, students worked in groups to complete a class transcription of a popular song (Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean") that they then performed, using found objects to create the timbres for the different instrumental parts. Students also completed an individual assignment in which they transcribed 16 bars of a piece that they chose (with the requirement that it come from the twentieth or twenty-first century ) and wrote a short reflective paper describing the process they went through to create the transcription and the choices they made about what aspects of the recording to represent in notation.

While this unit featured an even balance between twentieth-century art music, jazz, and popular music, other units were weighted more heavily towards pieces from the canon. For example, the unit on pitch structures covered symmetrical scales, modes, and an introduction to set classes and twelve-tone rows. Consequently, more time was spent looking at music by composers like Claude Debussy, Béla Bartók, Lili Boulanger, Arnold Schoenberg, and Anton Webern, though I made a point to include examples of modes and symmetrical scales in popular and jazz styles by artists such as Miles Davis, the Beatles, and Meshuggah where possible.

However, students were given opportunities to explore these concepts through improvisation, composition, and research, in addition to analysis. One of two projects for the unit gave students the choice between composing a short piece using modes and symmetrical scales or writing a short research paper on a scale or pitch collection that had not been discussed in class. Students then either performed their piece or gave a short presentation on their research in class. Providing different options allowed students to engage with the core concept while pursuing their own individual interests, and the use of a detailed instruction sheet and rubric helped clarify expectations and ensured students had clear directions for how to complete either option. Though the majority of students chose to write compositions (most writing for their own instrument), approximately 25% opted for the research paper, with topics ranging from the Indonesian pelog scale to the double harmonic major scale.

Incorporating a variety of projects in addition to the traditional model composition (Rogers 2013)––or newer variations thereof (Alcalde 2018)––gives students greater opportunity to meaningfully connect the concepts learned in class to their own interests, increasing the relevance of the theory curriculum for their respective musical careers. I believe that using projects which incorporate a level of flexibility or multiple choices provides a valuable opportunity for students to engage with course content as well as increasing intrinsic motivation (Ambrose et al 2010).

For example, I designed an open-ended creative project to accompany the units on timbre and rhythm and meter. As a final project, students were free to choose their own creative project in regard to topic, music (with the restriction that it must have been written after 1900), and medium, so long as it engaged at a significant and meaningful level with the topics of timbre and/or rhythm and meter. A detailed instruction sheet provided some initial ideas for students along with general guidelines and an analytic rubric. Before embarking on their projects, students had to first run their ideas by me, either via email or in-person appointment. This allowed me to provide some level of guidance and ensure that student ideas were both feasible and on target in terms of topic.

The results of this project were stunning in their range and creativity. A student with a double major in engineering created their own analog synthesizer, a music therapist researched and presented a protocol on appropriate timbres to use in a NICU, a musical theatre student analyzed the contribution of timbre and rhythmic gesture to character development in a musical by Stephen Sondheim, while a jazz performance major conducted an informal study on the effects of timbre in jazz solos on audiences. Many students ran short on time when presenting the results of their project to their colleagues, and several students mentioned the project in course evaluations as an important activity that helped them realize the relevance of theory for their own individual studies. This approach to curricular reform is not without problems, the most prevalent one being the danger of exchanging depth for breadth. In order to make space for units on timbre, rhythm and meter, and notation and transcription, I had to substantially reduce the amount of time spent on set theory and serialism to just three weeks. Consequently, this unit primarily consisted of a brief introduction to the basic concepts and relevant analytical techniques, with topics such as hexachordal combinatoriality omitted entirely. While the final unit enabled the examination of various pieces and concepts under the broad umbrella of form––along with discussions of how pitch, timbre, rhythm, meter, and texture contribute to the articulation of formal sections––it also resulted in a rushed introduction of numerous compositional techniques with little time for in-depth examination. In future iterations of the course, I plan on experimenting with the amount of time spent on each unit, potentially making minor cuts to the timbre and rhythm and meter units to create a little more time for set classes and serialism, and choosing only two or three compositional techniques to focus on during the form unit. I also plan to continue to broaden the repertoire I use, gradually incorporating more pieces by minority and female composers along with examples from a variety of genres.

Despite these difficulties, the results from this initial effort at curricular reform are promising, and come closer to meeting the needs of students. I teach at a large, research-oriented state school, and our incoming students range in musical experience from high-scorers in AP music theory to those new to reading notation. We also have a wide range of degree programs, with robust music therapy, music education, musical theatre, jazz, and performance programs, and a new popular music program on the way. Given the variety of interests and backgrounds, ensuring relevancy in the theory curriculum has been and continues to be a difficult endeavor. Broadening the range of repertoire engaged with and incorporating both reflective writing activities and creative projects makes it easier for students to connect the course to their own degree programs and career interests. Those teaching in a conservatory context can adjust projects to place greater emphasis on performing and composing activities and can incorporate more avant garde pieces while encouraging their students to think more critically about the use of timbre and rhythm in their own repertoire. The various reflective writing assignments can also be built upon for those teaching at SLACs, either adding a final analysis paper or lengthening the short reflective essay for the creative project and including either a student showcase or miniconference (Attas 2016) where students can share their work. Writing assignments and projects can also be adopted to encourage students to engage with communities and connect concepts learned in music theory to other areas of their musical lives (Belcher and Grant 2020).

In short, organizing a course around broad theoretical topics that are applicable to a range of musical styles enabled me to meaningfully increase the diversity and inclusivity of the repertoire studied and provided a fair degree of flexibility, allowing me to make adjustments to the length and number of units as well as the content in future versions. The mix of traditional activities such as analysis and model composition with creative projects that provided students a greater range of options in how they engage with topics proved successful, and I plan to explore ways to incorporate both components of this course in the other semesters of the theory core.


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