I distinctly remember sitting through professional development seminars during the 2005-2006 academic year where faculty members in attendance were challenged to think about the class of 2020. All of the speakers emphasized how faculty needed to restructure curricula and redesign classrooms in order to better meet the needs of the 21st century learner. As I sat through all those seminars, I really couldn't comprehend the year 2020, much less begin to think of its graduating class. It just seemed so far away. However, thanks to those initial professional development opportunities, I began to research classroom environments and curricula in order to better understand the steps that faculty needed to take to prepare for the class of 2020. In rereading through my own presentations and research from over a decade ago, I am fascinated to see that many of my predictions came to pass. The class of 2020:

  • is interested in collaborative learning
  • is interested in video games in education
  • places strong emphasis on learning a second language
  • places strong emphasis on diversity
  • places continued emphasis on the environment and how to be earth friendly
  • is interested in classwork/degrees as preparation for the workplace

In one particular presentation, I focused on how the university would change by the year 2020 through teaching methods and tools such as:

  • Web-based videoconferencing
  • Collaborative writing software
  • Far-reaching institutional collaboration
  • Student-centered learning

Most of the points listed above are now realities on our campuses and in our classrooms. Instructors from all disciplines are introducing more collaborative learning into their classes. Topics on diversity and sustainability are at the forefront of most administrator's priorities. Students are most interested in their coursework as preparation for a professional career, and they challenge instructors to implement material that can be readily transferred into their career after graduation. We use Google Docs and Zoom to communicate, and many of our professional development workshops now focus on the student learning experience and faculty's responsibility to create engaging classrooms through methods that are creative and applicable.

The class of 2020 just received their diplomas and the question remains: have we really prepared them to their potential for the real world? Have we altered our curricula and course content in such a way as to better train them for the ever-changing field of music?

Even with all the research in general pedagogy from the first decade of this century and emerging research in the field of music theory pedagogy, the field of music theory has been slow to embrace some of these curricular ideals. Not to be confused with examples of new approaches to teaching a certain subject, curriculum refers to all of the academic content (including courses, course outlines, pacing and schedules of individual courses, etc.) that are taught within a specific program. So, why do so many university music curricula look exactly like they did 40 years ago?

Before any changes in curricula are discussed, each faculty member as an individual, and music faculties as a whole need to answer the question of why curricular changes are essential for their student population. Too often we begin with the nuts and bolts of curriculum, such as "what are we going to take out of aural skills to make room for more improvisation? Or "How can we fit Sonata Form into five lessons?" Perhaps this isn't the best way to begin the conversation. Perhaps we need to start with the question, "Why do we want to implement curriculum changes?" According to motivational speaker Simon Sinek, all successful innovators, leaders, and educators all think, act and communicate in a similar way in that they start with the question of "why," leaving the "what" until the end of the conversation or plan. Simon Sinek emphasizes this point by saying that everyone knows "what they do; some know "how" they do it, but very few know "why" they do it. As music theorists and educators, we certainly know what we do, but do we know why we do it?

Over the past few years, I have traveled the country gathering information from music theory instructors about their curricula, course content, and pedagogical approaches for my book Teaching Music Theory: New Voices and Approaches (Oxford University Press, 2020). One of the first questions I would ask these effective teachers is "Why is it important for students to study theory and aural skills?" Responses to this question varied, but the underlying purpose of music literacy and musical language was always present. Before any faculty begins to restructure course content or to even create new means of assessment, they must be able to answer this fundamental question of why the study of music theory and aural skills is essential to their specific student population.

During my travels, I had the opportunity to visit over sixty instructors of music theory in their element, observing both high-school and college-level educators teach effective lessons in both music theory and aural skills. The classrooms are interactive, collaborative, and students' voices matter in terms of the discussion. These effective teachers are facilitators and guides to their students' journeys toward mastery. But beyond their excellence as classroom teachers, they are committed to creating a curriculum that engages the student and prepares them for a multitude of careers. And they have been able to answer the question of why their curriculum is designed in a certain manner, not just because that is the way it has always been at their institution, or because this is a specific curriculum outline that was taught to them in graduate school.

Effective curricula include the traditional four semester sequence (Fundamentals, Diatonic Harmony, Chromatic Harmony, 20-21st Century Music along with four semesters of aural skills) or even the five-semester theory sequence (Diatonic Harmony, Chromatic Harmony, Form and Analysis, 19th Century Harmony, 20-21st Century Music). This basic curriculum design has been the standard for at least five decades at many institutions and for some institutions, it is working well. But is this the best curriculum for all music students?

I recently reviewed a curriculum at the California College of Music, a school that exclusively offers a music industry degree. Their core curriculum still consists of four semesters of written theory and aural skills, but includes courses on popular music theory and extended techniques. When I observed the popular music theory course in real time, I was in awe of how well these students could apply solfège and topics in rhythm and meter to the Bruno Mars song they were discussing that particular day. Their ability to talk through the concepts from the perspective of a recording engineer was not only applicable, but exciting. The instructors at CCM know their audience and also know exactly why they have designed their curriculum to meet the needs of their students.

I also recently reviewed the curriculum at the University of Delaware where the faculty feel so strongly about the concept of sound before sight that they have very little notation in their aural skills classes until the second semester. Theory I also does not begin until the spring semester. Daniel Stevens, coordinator of the theory program puts it this way: "We want to foster the top down listening approach and we want our students listening to real music from the very beginning." The faculty also commented that their music education faculty were noticing that education majors as a whole are singing better (more musically, confidently, and accurately) and are doing much better in improvisation activities based on these changes. This faculty also knew their why well before they began to challenge some of the more traditional curriculum tracks and course content.

At Appalachian State University, members of the theory faculty (Myself, Hiu-Wah Au, Greg McCandless, and Andrew Hannon), just completed the task of redesigning the entire theory core based not only on the needs of our students, but a mandate from the North Carolina General Assembly that we cut eight hours from our program. This was no small task and required almost two years of work in order to create programs of study and courses that not only served our student population but also would be approved by our full-time music faculty of over forty-five. By surveying alumni and current students and evaluating curricula from around the country we were able to create a curriculum that included three theory courses in a traditional core along with music theory electives such as Analysis of Band and Orchestral Literature, Songwriting, and Analysis of Popular Music. In this process, we started with the question of "why" for every single existing course before we began to create or remove any new or existing courses. As a music theory faculty, we talked about where we were, where we are, and where would like to be. Before we ever took any of our proposals to committee vote, we met with other music faculty and discussed what they would like to see taught in the core. While time-consuming and sometimes overwhelming, this process enabled us, as a unified theory faculty, to better understand our student population, to see emerging trends in content, and to evaluate how our alumni are using the skills (or not using the skills) that we are teaching in the classroom.

This volume of Engaging Students highlights some of the emerging trends in curricular issues in the field of music theory that go well beyond new teaching approaches for one topic or unit. Many of the articles will challenge readers to ask why we may need to alter a particular curriculum or how we are engaging with our students through that curriculum. In "A Music Theory Curriculum for the 99%," for example, Trevor DeClerq suggests that the first semester of the theory core should only include musical examples of popular music, including Hip-Hop/Rap, Pop, Rock, R&B, Latin, Country, EDM, and Reggae in order to address the issue of diversity in the theory curriculum. Continuing the theme of veering from the traditional theory core, Crystal Peebles discusses the changes in the curriculum at Ithaca College in her essay, "Inclusion and Agency in the Undergraduate Theory Core." Peebles highlights the faculty's deliberate decision to move the focus away from part writing in exchange for the inclusion of new electives in relation to tonal analysis. Echoing that theme of curriculum overhaul, Megan Lavengood's article, "Bespoke Music Theory A Modular Core Curriculum Designed for Audio Engineers, Classical Violinists, and Everyone in Between" highlights the importance of student choice and how a new modular core curriculum at George Mason University emphasizes performance along with a diversity of musical styles. Other themes presented in the volume include: modularity, diversity in repertoire, student choice and agency, and faculty changes made on behalf of student learning. Collectively, these essays will help faculty members to better assess their own curricula by learning from others in the field and perhaps move closer to their reasoning of why curricular reform may or may not be needed.

The class of 2020 left our campuses this May; in some ways we have served them well and in other ways, perhaps not as much. We must be ready to teach the next generation that will be in our 8 am theory classes in the fall. What type of curriculum will help them to be better performers, leaders, educators, therapists, and executives as we move towards the next decade? But more importantly, how could a redesigned curriculum aid a student to be a more informed musician? There is no one-size-fits-all curriculum and it is up to the faculty at each institution to begin these discussions in order to best meet the needs of its unique student population. This volume of Engaging Students provides a wealth of material to get the conversation started.

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Copyright (c) 2020 Jennifer Snodgrass

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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.

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ISSN: 2689‐2871