"[A]ll aspects of theory teaching—from the presentation of lecture material and drill practice to the construction of curricular models and statements of objectives—should be patterned by design and not by chance."

"While a philosophy may remain unspoken, it should never remain unknown."

These statements come from the second edition of Michael Rogers's (2004, 15–16, emphasis added) foundational book on music theory pedagogy. They emphasize, much like the book more broadly, the importance of intention in every aspect of teaching: lessons, practice, curricula, and learning goals. These are indeed laudable, almost superfluous aims in teaching, and yet the book, and indeed the field more broadly, has not developed them evenly. While the field of music theory pedagogy has flourished in the development of innovative and effective ways of teaching, I argue that it has grossly neglected learning goals. There is a critical lack of research in music theory to assist in selecting or articulating them. I hypothesize that articulating learning goals is especially challenging because many common music-theory tasks do not fit neatly in the most commonly used model for creating learning goals, the Bloom taxonomy. Finally, I provide sample learning goals and critique real-world examples of learning goals at three levels of learning—assignment, course, and curriculum.

Education researchers distinguish between learning objectives and learning outcomes, both of which are examples of goal-setting for learning. Learning objectives focus on a specific skill and are most appropriate at the lesson- or assignment-level, whereas learning outcomes focus on more synthetic skill sets and are most appropriate at the course- or curriculum-level. In the literature, these are treated as distinct categories. Individual studies and articles tend to address either objectives or outcomes. I have found it helpful in my own teaching, however, to group them together. I understand objectives and outcomes as different by degree, but not in kind, and will use "learning goal" as an umbrella term to refer to goal-setting for learning at any level. Learning goals are statements of the knowledge and skills that students are expected to demonstrate as a result of learning. They can address learning at any level, from individual lessons and assignments to whole courses and curricula. Thinking of learning goals more holistically is helpful in coordinating different levels of teaching, ensuring a good fit between curricular and course goals on the one hand and day to day classroom activities on the other.

According to renowned specialist in course design Allen Miller (1987), learning goals serve three main purposes. They (1) clarify for students the instructor's expectations of learning so that students can direct their efforts and monitor their own progress, (2) assist instructors in selecting and organizing appropriate teaching and learning activities, and (3) assist instructors in selecting appropriate ways to assess student-learning. In addition to this, I would add that they (4) can also be used to coordinate instructors, both across sections of a single course and across a curriculum to ensure students are prepared for subsequent courses.

In music theory pedagogy, we have no foundational references to assist with selecting or articulating learning goals. Anna Gawboy (2013) confronts the issue in a syllabus-writing workshop. She is stumped by its most fundamental question, "What do you want your students to be able to do after taking your class?" Gawboy seeks models from the syllabi of courses she has taken and ones her colleagues taught, but finds that none describe the course from the perspective of student-doing. Instead, she finds descriptions of what the class will cover, answering a related, but different question, "What do you want your students to know after taking your class?" Essentially, Gawboy is describing a common confusion between content goals and learning goals. The difference is subtle: one frames a class from the perspective of teacher-input (this is what I will teach you), while the other frames it with student-output (this is what you will be able to do because of what you have learned). Without adequate models and resources, Gawboy frames the course she is designing at the workshop with content-goals instead of learning-goals, and realizes retrospectively that in so doing she "managed to sidestep the most profound question facing every theory teacher."

Had she looked to contemporary music theory literature for guidance, she would have found only two sources, neither of which would have been much help. Rogers (2004) underscores the importance of learning goals with statements such as those quoted at the outset of this article, but does not go into enough detail to even provide a workable definition. Deborah Rifkin and Phillip Stoecker (2011) address learning from a student-doing perspective, but they only address the aural skills classroom in their model. Indeed, music theory literature on learning goals remains an underrepresented area. Editors Rachel Lumsden and Jeffrey Swinkin (2018) include over twenty essays on music theory pedagogy, only one of which address learning goals with any intentionality. Although they are central to Brian Alegant's chapter, readers would not know to look for them based on the title, "Teaching Post-Tonal Aural Skills." Echoes of the concept of learning goals are also present in essays by Janet Bourne and Elizabeth West Marvin, but learning goals are not the central point of any chapter. Leigh VanHandel (2020) similarly lacks dedicated essays on learning goals. Searches of keywords "goal," "objective," and "outcome" return no hits on the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy's website. Perhaps it is telling that the two sources that foreground learning goals, do so in relation to aural skills pedagogy. Maybe we feel that skills classes are where students do things, as opposed to learn things. This is a false distinction, however, because learning should always be framed as something students can do because of information, reflection, teaching, and so on.

Designing Learning Goals

Most recommendations for articulating learning goals emphasize three main issues. Learning goals should (1) be student-centered, (2) emphasize the appropriate cognitive task using codified verbs, and (3) name the applicable course content. Some also recommend (4) clarifying any constraints, such as time, approved reference material, etc., and (5) listing the specific instruction that prepares students, such as a lesson, reading, module, course, etc. To read a few examples parsed according to these categories, please see Example 2.

One of the most crucial elements of a learning goal is a verb that clearly defines the intended task. These verbs both focus attention on student-doing and indicate possible methods of assessment. The most commonly referred to taxonomy of such verbs is by learning theorists Harold Bloom and David Krathwohl (1956), updated by Lorin Anderson and David Krathwohl (2001). Their taxonomy codifies six hierarchical categories of knowledge, each of which is named by a "hallmark" verb and exemplified by similar verbs. Each category subsumes all categories to its left, modeling increased processing of information, incorporation of educated opinions, use of originality, and general cognitive load with each leftward category. Example 1 reproduces an especially concise list, although the information in the taxonomy is widely available in a variety of formats, including automated builders, and in Rifkin and Stoecker (2011) with modifications for aural-skills tasks.

Example 1. Cognitive-Process Verbs from Ambrose et al. (2010, 248), after Bloom and Krathwohl (1956) and Anderson and Krathwhol (2001).
ArrangeAssociateCalculateBreak downAppraiseAssemble
RecognizeParaphraseSketchOrganizeRateSet up

Designing Music Theory Learning Goals

Two special issues confront teachers of music theory who wish to write clear learning goals: verb-fit for music theory learning and unfamiliarity with appropriate models of goals at various levels of learning.

Verb-Fit for Music Theory

Choosing appropriate verbs is essential to the success and clarity of learning goals, yet there are issues with applying Bloom-verbs to music theory. One challenge is that many common music theory tasks are actually quite complex, relying on multiple component cognitive tasks. Labeling nonchord tones, for example, requires an understanding of Roman numerals, which itself requires an understanding of keys, scales, chords, and inversions. We might think that naming nonchord tones is an "Understand" task, when in most contexts it would more likely be an "Evaluate" task. Other music theory tasks may also be surprisingly complex to instructors, including stylistic composition ("Create"), harmonic dictation and sight singing ("Evaluate," where the most complex element involves judging the fit between the given stimulus and what the student produces), or resolving chordal 7ths properly ("Apply").

A second complication with using Bloom verbs in music theory is that "Analyze" is a category unto itself. Analysis is perhaps the quintessential music theory task, one we know, love, and assign frequently. Yet as my previous example suggests, we must be careful not to conflate analytical tasks with "Analyze" tasks. Here are some common analytical tasks that are not "Analyze" tasks:

  1. Analyzing Roman numerals in contexts without nonchord tones; analyzing pre-segmented set classes ("Understand")
  2. Analyzing or realizing figured bass ("Apply")
  3. Analyzing Roman numerals in contexts with nonchord tones; set class analysis where the segmentation is not given; analyzing form ("Evaluate")
  4. Schenkerian analysis; analytical essays ("Create")

A final complication for using Bloom verbs in music theory is that some of the most common music theoretical tasks, such as "harmonization," "sight singing," and "notate" are not represented in the verb list at all. Instructors are on their own to determine where these fit. Below, I present a method to aid in determining the most appropriate Bloom verb for common music theory tasks.

To identify where a given task falls on the Bloom chart, one must carefully determine the subskills involved, perhaps through listing them, rewording the task using only verbs from the Bloom chart (imagining that you can't say "harmonize," for example), or finding substitute verbs from the Bloom chart. Next, determine which of the subskills involved in the target task is the most leftward on the Bloom chart. Finally, reword the target task using a verb from the appropriate category. Additionally, it will be helpful to students and instructors alike if the traditional music theory verb also appears in the learning goal, perhaps in parentheses, to clarify instructor expectations. Example 2 shows some common music theory tasks articulated first with the traditional music theory verb and the most appropriate Bloom verb in parentheses.

Example 2. Sample Music Theory Learning Goals with Clarifying Bloom Verb
1. Student-Centered2. Music Theory verb (and Bloom verb)3. Course Content4. Constraints, as applicable5. Associated Instruction, as applicable
Students willdiagram ("Analyze")the form of a movementafter listening onceusing techniques covered in the lecture on diagramming form.
You willhamonize ("Select")a short diatonic melodyin keyboard style, using appropriate progressions, inversions, and voice leadingat the end of the course.
Students will be able tosight sing ("Generate" or "Judge")a notated chromatic melodyat sight on solfege, given 30 seconds to prepare and sing into the key.
You will be able toimprovise vocally ("Produce")an original melodythat clearly establishes a minor key and simple meter.
Students willdescribe orally or in writing ("Critique" for analytical content; "Create" for writing)norms and deviationsCommon Practice, rock/pop, and jazz harmonyby the end of the course.
You willwrite on analytical paper or paragraph ("Create" for writing, "Critique" for analytical content)demonstrating effective use of analytical evidence in support of an argument.
Students willidentify and describe ("Interpret")connections between texts, ideas, cultural artifacts, and the human experience.
Students will be able toerror-detect ("Judge")discrepancies in pitch or rhythm between a notated and heard excerptafter three hearings.

Assignment-Level Learning Goals

Learning goals at the assignment level should use carefully chosen verbs and make the learning task as explicit as possible. The models above do this by including common music theory verbs that are not on Bloom lists, as well as a representative Bloom verb, and puts that verb in the second position of the learning goal. Michaelsen 2020 discusses ways to assess progress on learning goals using the concept of mastery learning. Below, I demonstrate how to revise existing learning goals, using examples from Daniel Stevens's keynote for the Pedagogy into Practice conference in May 2019.

His handouts use the heading "Outcome" for a series of five tasks he asked participants to do. Two of these are reproduced below as Example 3. The presence of outcomes at the top of the handout shows that Stevens is thoughtful and intentional about his purpose, yet the clarity of those outcomes varies. Example 3a is excellent: It is "participant-centered," focuses on an appropriate verb, and includes information about constraints. This learning goal could be strengthened by emphasizing the action-verb. The "Compare" version, which I have written, suggests one way to focus on the main verb by reordering. Example 3b is somewhat less clearly articulated. The main verb is "track," with modifiers for where (a sonata-form development) and how (by ear). "Track," however, is not a clearly defined learning task—What does it mean to "track by ear?"—and it is not a Bloom verb, either. Additionally, "large-scale harmonic design" could be more specific. The "Compare" version suggests a revision that clarifies the intended task and highlights the main verb.

Example 3. Learning Goals at the Assignment Level (Stevens)

  1. Outcome for Challenge 2:
    Participants will "break" a poetic text and recombine its phonetic and rhythmic materials to create a new piece of music.

    Participants will create a new piece of music by "breaking" and recombining the phonetic and rhythmic materials of a poetic text.
  2. Outcome for Challenge 5:
    Participants will track the large-scale harmonic design of a sonata-form development section by ear.

    Participants will sing do or ti while listening to a sonata-form development section to track changes in tonic.

To be fair, Stevens is an expert at articulating clearly stated, measurable learning goals—he includes nine of them on his rubric for Challenge 2.

Course-Level Learning Goals

At the course level, it is important to balance different ways of demonstrating learning. Ideally, no course is only about "Remembering" or "Creating," but rather blends and cultivates different kinds of knowing. Cognitive science research, summarized in Brown, Roedinger, and McDaniel (2014), suggests that using knowledge in different ways strengthens the learning and makes it more durable.

One way to ensure a balanced course is to choose tasks from at least four Bloom categories. Example 4a compares course descriptions of a single course as it transitions from content goals (2014) to learning goals (2019). The course is Music Theory I, taught by Timothy Chenette. First, notice Chenette's verb choices (underlined). The 2014 actions are "learn" or "gain," verbs that emphasize learning and improvement and are even called "learning objectives" on the syllabus. They are actually framing content goals, however, because they are largely saying students will learn about some abstract concept (voice leading, harmonic progressions, etc.), rather than learn to do something concrete with knowledge. Neither verb is included in the list of codified verbs. The 2019 actions are much more varied, and all clearly align with a cognitive category. Relatedly, notice how much more clearly the tasks themselves are defined in 2019 of Example 4a. What would it mean to know "how diatonic harmony works," or to "gain in your appreciation of common-practice music?" Those are completely valid things for students to learn, but in 2014 they are framed too broadly and without attention to how the learning might be evaluated to serve as learning goals.

Example 4a. Learning-Goals at the Course Level (Chenette) - Content-Goals transitioning to Learning-Goals
Spring 2014Spring 2019
The course is structured around the learning objectives described here:By the end of the semester you will be able to:
  1. You will learn to pay attention to subtle voice-to-voice relationships both in sound and in notation, a skill needed by all sensitive musicians. You will do so largely through writing two- and four-voice textures yourself, and then singing or playing the results.
  2. You will learn how diatonic harmony works in common-practice music and, to some extent, within popular music: how not all harmonies or inversions are equal, and how they usually relate within phrases. This will be done both through composition and through analysis.
  3. You will learn about phrase structure and how it can help us understand larger spans of music. Here we will mostly be doing analysis, but there will be some composition as well.
  4. You will learn to critique and effectively express ideas verbally, both in writing and orally. We will talk about the components of these skills, and then practice them both individually and in groups.
  5. Finally, you will gain in your appreciation of common-practice music through our study of voice relationships and harmony, and through our analysis of already-composed music.
  1. Construct and identify the diatonic modes;
  2. Describe norms of "common practice," rock/pop, and jazz harmony and identify their use (and deviations) in a piece of music;
  3. Compose a hymn setting and a vocal jazz arrangement in four parts using appropriate voice leading;
  4. Describe the use of period and sentence structures in short excerpts of music;
  5. Write a paragraph demonstrating effective use of analytical evidence in support of an argument;
  6. Write a paper that presents and justifies an aesthetic assertion.

Example 4b provides a framework for evaluating the balance of learning tasks in a course. Learning-goal verbs for Chenette's 2019 syllabus are listed in the left column and the corresponding category name from the Cognitive-Process Verbs in Example 1 are on the right. This course has five types of tasks (verbs) that correspond to four or five different Bloom categories. (The difference between four and five will rely on the types of context in which "Describe" is used, whether it is oriented more toward "Listing" or "Explaining.") This represents an excellent balance of types of learning, which suggests that it will help students develop robust, durable knowledge that they can readily apply in different ways.

Example 4b. Balance of Learning Goals at the Course Level (Chenette, Spring 2019)
Course-Learning VerbsCognitive-Task Category
Write ("Argue," based on context)Evaluate


At the level of the entire music theory curriculum, learning goals tend to be broader than those at the course level. Curricular learning goals are helpful because they provide an element of cohesion among courses with different types of content and levels of detail and also because they can help prepare students for a robust future in their discipline. Several essays in this volume demonstrate the value of goal-setting at various levels of learning when updating the curriculum (Gades 2020, Lavengood 2020, and Peebles 2020).

To meet such broad goals, curricular goals are ideally comprehensive, but also visionary and actionable: they should identify wide-ranging priorities that will help students be resilient. The process of generating curricular goals should also include a discussion of how they relate to individual courses.

Example 5 reproduces the curricular learning goals by Ann Stutes and Scott Strovas (2019) for the four-semester music theory sequence at Wayland Baptist University. It has several visionary, future-oriented elements, including its emphasis on communication, collaboration, and problem-solving in different situations. These are varied enough that they could apply to aural skills and written courses, introductory and capstone courses alike, and they are ultimately transferable skills. These curricular goals would be stronger, however, if they used cognitive verbs to clarify the goals ("progress," "navigate," "engage" are unnecessarily vague), and especially if they clarified the connection to courses. Such a connection could be made through a statement that recommends, for example, that each course have at least one course learning goal that supports each curricular learning goal. Ideally, individual curricular goals would be met through multiple courses. While curricular goals may or may not be widely known or intentionally incorporated into courses at any given institution or by any given instructor, building in a connection between curricular learning goals and course learning goals helps to prevent the curriculum from becoming divorced from practice.

Example 5. Curricular Learning Goals (Stutes and Strovas)

Through conceptual inquiry into and hands-on engagement with assigned music literature, individuals actively preparing for the profession will progress in their ability to…

  1. Communicate effectively in the language of the profession of music;
  2. Critically engage in the craft of music as informed listeners and creative artists;
  3. Collaborate with peers in solving musical problems through an evolving collective understanding of musical material;
  4. Navigate musical situations confronted in the applied studio, in ensembles, through professional opportunities, and through independent creative exploration


This article focuses on the importance of considering learning goals in the process of curriculum reform. This is useful whether that change is oriented toward broadening the types of music we study, incorporating more socially or ecologically conscious analytical perspectives, or including opportunities for student-choice. Using clear, verb-oriented learning goals at every stage of planning for learning (lessons, assignments, courses, and curricula) is a concrete way of turning a vision into a formal curriculum, while emphasizing learning. Furthermore, learning goals are most effective when they are coordinated across all levels of learning, from curriculum to course to assignment and even to lessons, and that coordination is easiest to implement in the curricular-redesign phase. Without actively, intentionally choosing learning goals, we risk treating student-learning as a byproduct of our teaching, rather than its main purpose, and leaving what is arguably the most important part of what we do "unknown" and "patterned by chance."


This content was initially delivered in workshop format for the Pedagogy into Practice conference in Santa Barbara. I would like to thank the participants of that workshop for their probing and engaged discussions on this topic and for an especially provocative debate on the cognitive tasks involved in sight singing.


Return to Top of Page


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2020 Sara Bakker

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Beginning with Volume 7 (2019), Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy is published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license unless otherwise indicated.

Volumes 1 (2013) – 6 (2018) were published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License unless otherwise indicated.

Volumes 1–6 are openly available here.

Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy is published by The Ohio State University Libraries.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact

ISSN: 2689‐2871