Music theory has a bad reputation. To generalize: students (and to a lesser extent teachers) regularly misunderstand its epistemology and scope (e.g., Hein 2013), find it intimidating and difficult (Piilonen 2018), and fail to see its relevance to their career goals (Campbell et al. 2014). These common complaints have led to many theorists adopting new curricula that respond to the new demands placed on a 21st-century music professional, a number of which are described in this volume (Snodgrass 2016, Day-O'Connell 2020, deClercq 2020, Peebles 2020, Gades 2020). In this essay, I outline my own solution: the modular music theory curriculum I have implemented at George Mason University, which works to address these negative perceptions through a combination of redesigned coursework and empowerment of students.

In my view, the most exciting aspect of our new curriculum is that, after taking a 100-level course covering fundamentals and species counterpoint, students may take our three 200-level courses—Theory for Pop & Jazz Music, Theory for 18th-c. Music, and Theory for 20th-/21st-c. Music—in any order. Our only established 300-level course, Baroque- and Classical-Era Forms, requires Theory for 18th-c. Music as a prerequisite. This totals five theory courses (hereafter referred to as Intro, Pop/Jazz, 20th-c., 18th-c., and Form), and since most students at Mason do not need five semesters of theory, students custom-tailor their core theory curriculum to their individual needs. The options are best explained visually, as I have done below. Any path connected with arrowheads is viable. As an example, most B.M. degrees at Mason require 4 semesters of theory (see Appendix); students in these degree programs could take each 200-level course, or they could emphasize 18th-century music by taking Form and skipping either Pop/Jazz or 20th-c.

Example 1. Flowchart of possible paths through the theory curriculum at Mason

Intro points to a circle of arrows followed by 2-headed arrows leading to Pop/Jazz, 18th-c, and 20th-/21st-c. 18th-c points to Form. More description above.

Our new curriculum also features two significant changes in course content. First, courses are now explicitly organized around specific repertoires, allowing students to pursue music relevant to them. And second, each course foregrounds connections to music performance, which has clear connections with many career paths. Because this curriculum is designed to honor student agency, students should feel more invested in their "bespoke" curriculum, which I argue will lead to higher rates of student success.

Project origins

Professors enjoy bringing their research into the classroom and teaching their expertise. As a pop music specialist, I have much to share with students about harmony, timbre, rhythm, lyrics, social issues, and form in pop music—more than enough to fill an entire semester. But at Mason we do not have the physical classroom space nor the credit hours available for students to take music theory electives, so I began to brainstorm ways of getting this content into the core curriculum. My first thought was to replace our traditional Theory 3 (chromatic harmony, Lieder, Sonata Theory) with a jazz/pop version of Theory 3, which could easily cover chromatic harmony and form (though form would be quite different in this music than in Classical sonatas).

I discussed this with Andrew Gades (also featured in this volume, 2020), who also deals with limited time and coursework in his small liberal arts college, and he quickly pointed out that with a jazz/pop Theory 3, there might not be any need to have Theory 2 as its prerequisite at all—a student probably does not need to have mastery over 18th-century voice leading to learn and think critically about pop harmony like Shaffer et al. (2018), form like de Clercq (2017), or rhythm like Biamonte (2014). After learning more about Gades's modular design, I saw it was also possible to design a 20th-/21st-century music course that does not require mastery over chromatic harmony (or jazz and pop!) in order to learn about the diverse approaches of 20th-/21st-century compositions. These realizations led to the development of the three independently conceived 200-level courses.

With the help of a university grant, I formed a team with Dr. Elaine Rendler, the other full-time theory instructor at Mason; Dr. Tom Owens, our department's Director of Undergraduate Studies; Prof. June Huang, our Director of Strings; and myself. I selected these faculty to represent a variety of perspectives on student needs. We determined that in addition to a modular design and the incorporation of a pop/jazz course, some students would still need a focus on classical music, so we added an option for a 300-level course in Baroque and Classical forms, which would have 18th-c. as its prerequisite. Our discussions led to a curriculum that I believe responds to each of the three problems I listed in this essay's outset: it relates more clearly and obviously to each student's particular goals (or, more colloquially, it focuses on "real music"), clarifies the scope and context of each course, and reduces the gatekeeping aspects of the theory sequence to improve recruitment and retention.

"Real music" in music theory

Music theorists see clearly the significance of theory for every kind of music major; each teacher could wax poetic on the many important skills that theory imparts to students. Students, unfortunately, don't always see it the same way, as Peter Schubert points out:

Knowing that many different styles have underlying similarities is probably a good goal in upper-level courses, but we mustn't forget that for beginners, style is what makes music intelligible. … (Imagine if [the student fell in love with a person], and we said "yes, but think about your beloved's skeleton first; see, it's like so many others!"). (2011, 224–5)

Schubert argues it's best to teach our students "real music" from the beginning of their theory education, not as an upper-level elective. In our team meetings while designing this new curriculum, a similar and common refrain was that most students would also appreciate a clearer tie to music performance in the theory classroom. With this in mind, I'll consider two aspects of our new theory curriculum that bring more emphasis to "real music": one, emphasizing music performance, and two, offering courses in several repertoires so that students can learn about the music they will encounter most in their particular careers.

Of course, not all students dream of a performance career, but regardless of students' individual emphases, all are required to take some type of applied lesson, and usually either solo or ensemble performance is what brought our students into the major in the first place. In light of this, explicitly tying theory to performance works to make theory seem more "real." While a performance emphasis is certainly possible in a traditional curriculum, when every student participates in the same sequence, an instructor may fall into the trap of assuming students will get experience integrating theory with performance in a later course. A modular curriculum, by contrast, compels instructors to understand their learning outcomes for each individual semester, since students are not guaranteed to take that hypothetical later course. Our modular curriculum therefore unequivocally emphasizes performance within each of the five courses. For Intro to Music Theory, this means in-class performance of counterpoint (another concept borrowed from Schubert [2013]) and quizzes on performing fundamentals in addition to writing/identifying them (for example, students have to notate intervals, interpret intervals from notation, and also play intervals on their instrument). For the other courses, this mainly takes the form of model compositions (of minuets, blues tunes, free atonality, and so on) and their in-class performances, as well as arranging in-class performances of pieces for analysis. Students find the performance experience is engaging, exciting, pleasant, builds rapport, and engenders a respect for theory as a musical discipline.

Mason has a very diverse student population in every sense of the word, including diverse musical interests, so making our courses' repertoire more relevant to students was not as simple as incorporating pop music. Mason has an orchestra and a vibrant strings area, but about one-third of music majors are in the music technology program, and these two groups of students likely want entirely different things from their college music education and their music theory coursework. Because B.A. students only need to take two theory classes, in the traditional theory sequence (such as the one Mason used to have—see Appendix) this would mean all B.A. students quit studying theory just after learning all about 18th-century harmony—valuable knowledge, of course, but hardly the most relevant topic for an aspiring producer getting a B.A. in music technology. This modular approach serves them particularly well, as now, after Intro to Music Theory, they can proceed directly to a course on pop and jazz. But in our meetings, our team also acknowledged that students who pursue a traditional career as a performing orchestral musician may not benefit as much from this pop/jazz course as they would from further study of classical repertoires, and so we added the 300-level Baroque- and Classical-Era Forms course.

Contextualizing music theory

In our curriculum, three of the "new" classes are actually renamed versions of Theory 1, 2, and 4 that have not been substantially altered. The course titles have been changed because the curriculum is de-sequenced: for students, it does not make sense to call things Theory 1 through Theory 4 if they don't have to proceed in order. As an added benefit, the titles of each course circumscribe the course's content within a particular time period and style. I prefer the new naming scheme and advocate it even within a sequenced curriculum, because the titles communicate better to the student what repertoire will be addressed.

Theory 2 at Mason (now 18th-c.) contains the content that is usually the scapegoat for student dissatisfaction at every institution: functional harmony and four-part composition in a strict style. Students often get the impression that instructors believe they are teaching immutable laws of right and wrong—even if we repeat endlessly that we are teaching stylistic norms. I would suggest that titling a course in a very general way, as in "Theory 2" or "Harmony," contributes to this misconception. A title like "Theory for 18th-c. Music" makes clear what music this applies to (within the restrictions imposed on course title length at Mason) and, more importantly, what it does not apply to.

Recruitment and Retention

Mason is located about 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C., so there is no shortage of schools nearby: other music programs in the region include those of Howard University, Catholic University, Peabody Conservatory, University of Maryland, University of Mary Washington, James Madison University, and Virginia Tech, to name a few. Many of these schools, frankly, have better name recognition than Mason does. Music theory is typically not a big selling point for recruitment, but Mason's music theory program now distinguishes itself from these other schools by offering an innovative curriculum that emphasizes performance in the classroom and permits students an uncommon measure of choice in their core coursework.

This modular curriculum also mitigates retention problems in two ways. First of all, students feel a greater sense of ownership over their curriculum, as they've selected these particular courses out of a menu of options, and the selection allows the student to tailor their curriculum to fit their needs. Secondly, because the 100-level Intro is the only prerequisite for all three 200-level courses, students can fail a course without completely derailing their degree plan. Even with 200-level courses only offered in the fall or spring, a student can fail a spring semester 200-level course and still take another in the fall. Then, the student can go on to retake the failed course, or possibly even come up with a new path that does not require that course at all. This sets up music tech and other B.A. students for success, since they can choose courses better aligned with their backgrounds and goals. Furthermore, when a student fails a theory class, they often suffer from demotivation. A modular design lessens gatekeeping and the punishment for failure while still maintaining high standards for student success. As the curriculum begins in the Fall 2019 semester, I will be working with Mason's Office of Institutional Effectiveness to trace statistics on such students.

Challenges and possibilities

While the modular design solves many problems, it also generates a few of its own. Some people question whether taking courses out of chronological order will actually be to a student's detriment, because they won't see a historical evolution or dialogue between these different styles. Because my new curriculum is in its infancy, I have not been able to observe whether or not this will be an issue. I suspect the opposite will be true, however: I believe students will generate more meaningful interconnections between courses, as different students will bring different experience to the discussion. If a student were to take 20th-/21st-c. or Pop/Jazz before 18th-c., wouldn't that lead to a unique kind of perspective in the 18th-c. course? Students aware of the significance of planing in Debussy or power chords in rock music would be well-equipped to understand the importance of context when learning that parallel fifths are "forbidden." Furthermore, the capstone course that must be completed by all music majors should work against the tendency to compartmentalize; the effectiveness of this has been proposed as a solution in the modular curricula of other disciplines (Rust 2000).

Another potential issue has to do with staffing. For example, I am the only faculty member equipped to teach the pop/jazz course. But I actually do not see this as a problem at all, because the goal in this modular design is to teach the faculty's expertise, not to check off a specific box. Pop/Jazz serves my institution particularly well because there is a strong interest in these musics, but other schools may be better off creating a course on band music, musical theater, Renaissance music, video game music, or something else. Similarly, more 300-level courses may be added someday that build on the 200-level courses, like the Form class but for other repertoires. Perhaps the most obvious addition to Mason's current curriculum would be to re-incorporate 19th-century music as a 300-level course with 18th-c. as a prerequisite. The decision to skip 19th-century repertoire was made mainly due to practical constraints on faculty, time, and space, rather than from a philosophical opposition to 19th-century music. Other schools with more resources may very well keep this course.

One may question whether students, many of whom are brand new to the formal study of music, will actually choose courses that are best for their long-term professional and academic goals. Couldn't a student sign up for courses that are "wrong" for them (in one sense or another)? This can be resolved through a commitment to good advising. Students should always work closely with advisors to choose their path to graduation; music theory, in this curriculum, is no exception. Advisors can help students balance a desire to specialize and focus on their personal goals with the need to broaden one's horizons by learning new repertoire.

One still-lingering question is how theory will now align with aural skills and keyboard skills. I have not yet tackled this issue, as aural skills is currently quite separate from theory at Mason. I hope to eventually either establish co-requisite skills courses dealing with similar repertoires as those of the theory courses, or even integrate theory and aural skills into a comprehensive 5-day-a-week course. It may be more achievable, though, to design a skills curriculum that remains genre-neutral (one-size-fits-all vs. bespoke, if you will) and focuses on building ear training and keyboard skills apart from a historical context.

I do not pretend to have all the answers to these questions. I intend to collaborate with other scholars implementing a modular curriculum on a report of our results once those results become clear (Gades 2020, Peebles 2020). But when it comes to making progress in curriculum design, we have to start somewhere—and I am excited about what we've begun at Mason. I believe these changes will rehabilitate music theory's bad reputation, but moreover, they will result in more empowered, successful, and career-ready student musicians.


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