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Teaching Music in the 21st Century

Jennifer Snodgrass (Appalachian State University), Chair

Team-Based Cross-disciplinary Inquiry in Music Theory

Juan Chattah (University of Miami)


While most research in the arts and humanities has embraced specialization, music theory has a rich history of transcending disciplinary boundaries. Since the latter part of the 20th century, research within music theory has experienced an expansion fueled by fruitful conversations with linguistics, mathematics, computer science, psychology, literary theory, philosophy, gender studies, semiotics, and many other fields, borrowing their concepts, perspectives, methods, and theories. As a result, today’s research in music theory is intrinsically cross-disciplinary, unbound by the barriers that define historically sharp divisions between the arts, the humanities, and the sciences.

However, most cross-disciplinary inquiry in music theory has been the product of individuals working alone and has neglected team-based cross-disciplinary research, where scholars from all sides of campus exchange expertise and collaborate to produce new knowledge. Solo cross-disciplinary work, though relevant and necessary, is insufficient by itself to address the complex and pressing research questions that demand our attention. Team-based cross-disciplinary work, instead, drives bold advances in knowledge, bridging the methodological, perspectival, and rhetorical disciplinary divides, and propelling innovative solutions to the urgent threats and extraordinary challenges of the new century. Continuing to allow music theory to forsake team-based cross-disciplinary research, therefore, may potentially undermine its relevance for offering the kinds of insights our 21st century requires. 

Team-based cross-disciplinary work presents us with an opportunity to unlock a renewed relevance of music theory. This is an opportunity we must seize. Engaging our students in team-based cross-disciplinary inquiry will afford them unique opportunities to apply knowledge, prepare them for modes of inquiry necessary for graduate-level and beyond-academic-boundaries research, lead them to seek a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of problems, and give them the translational tools and skills needed to become agents of change working within a complex, global, rapidly evolving society.

This brief talk is by no means a critical evaluation of the current state of research in music theory. Instead, it attempts to broaden the conversation about music theory pedagogy by recognizing how our discipline functions within the overall scheme of team-based cross-disciplinary research, bridging the space between academia and society. It presents personal insights, snapshots, and suggestions that may serve as inspiration for faculty seeking to integrate and foster team-based cross-disciplinary inquiry within our 21st-century undergraduate and graduate curricula.

World Musics: The Final Frontier

Jane Piper Clendinning (Florida State University)


With exploration of 20th- and 21st-century Western concert music and popular musics well underway, and an established trajectory of study and teaching of European music practices of prior centuries, world music might be considered the final frontier for music theorists and pedagogues.  In the twenty-first century, musics from around the globe are more accessible than ever, with performances and practitioners closer to us than at any time before through technology, including print and recorded resources now online, videos on YouTube, and communication platforms, such as email, messaging apps, and Zoom. As was the case with prior expansions of the canon, world musics hold the potential to widen our understanding of all musics and to lead to new theoretical and analytical approaches.

Engagement of world musics presents difficulties in that there are many practices worldwide, both current and historical, each with its own organizational system and conceptual framework; explorers also face language and cultural barriers, creating opportunities for misinterpretation or misappropriation.  As world music analysis is not currently a part of most graduate music theory curricula, world musics are unfamiliar and the learning curve can be steep.  Furthermore, concepts and frameworks associated with world music genres may conflict with the way we currently summarize Western art music, especially in courses for undergraduates, making it challenging to simply insert some world music examples into a course about other musical genres. My presentation considers some of the challenges and also potential benefits of engaging world music within the music theory classroom.

Beyond the High-Brow Lens: A Pragmatic Approach to the Fundamental Revision in the Undergraduate Music Theory Core

John Covach (Eastman School of Music)


This presentation begins with a review of the “traditionalist,” “mild revision,” “fundamental revision” approaches to curriculum reform in undergraduate theory teaching; particular attention is given to the high-brow/low-brow culture divide and how prioritizing classical music can create a “high-brow lens” that complicates the inclusion of music outside the Western canon of classical music. I then spell out briefly but specifically how a fundamental revision in the core theory curriculum could work in a pragmatic sense, using my own courses at the University of Rochester as a work-in-progress example. My approach employs five broad theoretical dimensions, all applicable (to a certain degree) to the music studied in the course. These are harmony, melody, rhythm and meter, form, and texture. Students analyze entire movements or songs (in almost all cases) and contrasting styles are considered in light of each of these five theoretical dimensions. I argue that such an approach can serve to flatten the high-brow/low-brow divide, since non-classical music is not viewed through a high-brow lens formed by the stylistic norms and practices of common practice period music. Such revision can be broad enough to be inclusive (not privileging any particular style), rigorous enough to provide depth in the learning experience (not a “watering down” of traditional teaching), and flexible enough to account for a wide variety of repertory (and differing repertory knowledge, expertise, and experience among theory faculty). 

Thoughts on Teaching with Technology: What Works? What Doesn’t?

Cynthia I. Gonzales (Texas State University)


In 2010, I presented a paper titled “Looking for an Aural Skills Tutor? Try SmartMusic.” Now as then, interacting with technology to increase skills and knowledge is an integral component of my teaching, whether as preparation for in-class activities, repetition, reinforcement, or assessment. When designing technology-assisted learning activities, the primary questions remain “What can technology do well?” and “What does technology not do well?” 

A primary advantage of engaging technology remains to delete the “fear factor” of performing in class when learners are still acquiring knowledge and skills. After sufficient private practice, “fear factor” can transform into “showmanship.” And when a student still struggles when performing in class, classmates become encouraging teammates who cheer hard-earned success. This is particularly true of aural skills, which due to its abstract and elusive nature, require that students create a unified whole from three discrete entities: sound, notation, and label. Most often, I encounter students who have linked notation and label, or sound and label, but rarely all three, such that they readily sight read, transcribe music, and detect errors in the rendition of a score.  

While the growing collection of instructional music software programs and apps are effective electronic tutors that detect student errors, the challenge remains that they guide acquiring skills and knowledge that are transferable in new and more difficult contexts, as excellent teachers strive to do.

Model Composition in the Gospel Classroom

Braxton D. Shelley (Yale University)


As music departments work to expand course offerings to include a more representative range of genres and styles, the task of immersing students in unfamiliar repertoires grows all the more urgent. While reading, writing, and listening assignments are common fare in many music classrooms, model composition is an underutilized and valuable tool for helping students to grasp the fundaments of an increasingly diverse set of musical traditions. In this presentation, I discuss model composition’s contributions to the historical, theoretical, and analytical skills students develop in my courses on black gospel music. This approach has proved fruitful for undergraduate and graduate students, in-person and on zoom, and for students with a range of backgrounds who entered the course with vastly different forms of musical preparation. After outlining my approach to these assignments and describing both the students’ semester-long creative processes and final products, I will reflect on a few of the lessons I learned in the gospel classroom.

The 21st-Century Theory Graduate Student

Leigh VanHandel (University of British Columbia)


This presentation considers what it means to be a graduate student in music theory in the 21st century. Discussion of curricular reform at the undergraduate level is well underway, but there has been much less discussion of the graduate-level curriculum and requirements. The discipline is evolving and changing, so how have graduate programs adapted, and how can a graduate program best prepare students for academic or non-academic positions?