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Hear It. See It. Play It. — Innovative Approach to Teaching Music Theory Increases Relevancy, Accessibility for Music Students

Starting this Fall, McNally Smith College of Music is rolling out a completely redesigned music theory curriculum that makes the time-honored subject more relevant and accessible to contemporary music students. This curriculum update is another significant example of the College’s broader Teaching For Tomorrow initiative, which aims to redefine music education for the 21st century to best prepare students for success in the future music industry.

Unlike music theory programs taught in traditional colleges and conservatories, McNally Smith’s new curriculum starts with how music actually sounds rather than how it looks on the staff. In an effort to “show rather than tell,” faculty has expanded the use of digital platforms like YouTube to access primary source material, providing valuable context for students as they learn how music works. By listening to examples of theoretical concepts within a variety of contemporary musical styles, students are more likely to comprehend and engage with what is, historically, very difficult and abstract subject matter.

“The way music theory is traditionally taught, students often feel like you’re forcing something on them that’s completely new, even though there usually isn’t a theory topic they haven’t heard or played already,” says Dr. Jay Fuchs, McNally Smith’s longtime Music Theory Department Head and architect of the recent curricular overhaul. “So we start by listening. For instance, the implication of two chords played next to each other — they have a certain relationship that we hear. Then we can look at those chords on the staff and unpack that relationship further. Then, most importantly, we actually play the chords on the keyboard. It’s simple: Hear it. See it. Play it. If any one of those three elements are missing, I find the students don’t really get it.”

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Dr. Fuchs launched a pilot run of his new curriculum last year, collected feedback on what connected with students, and incorporated their input into the final product. This open dialogue convinced him to place a heavier emphasis on functionality. Music Theory, Ear Training and Keyboard Labs are now completely integrated from day one, helping students directly apply and retain new information, while project-based assignments help students grasp concepts by having them compose and play their own music.

“The new curriculum definitely has an increased emphasis on practicality,” says Jordan Binder, an Omaha, Nebraska native who just stared his 4th semester at the College. A Bachelor of Arts in Music major, Binder writes his own jazz and pop songs on piano, and he finds that his Music Theory classroom exercises have made an immediate impact on his original compositions. “Every topic that we study, we actually use in a creative fashion right away, so we really get a first-hand understanding of what it is, why it’s important, and how it can be used in our own work so that we can make better music.”

“We might have a harmonization project where I’ll give the students a melody in D Major and they have to create their own left-hand accompaniment,” Fuchs explains. “As part of that project, they’ll have to play the D Major scale. So they’ll be learning that scale in a hands-on, practical way rather than in an abstract way. They’re not just repeating a lesson. They realize in a relevant, meaningful way why learning that scale can be useful to them in the future — they really get to know which notes are in each chord.”

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When deciding how to structure and prioritize the content of the new courses, Fuchs compared and contrasted McNally Smith’s past music theory curriculum with his own career as an active performer. This exercise ultimately led to major changes, as heavier emphasis was placed on information that is most relevant for musicians who work in contemporary styles.

“If there was something I was teaching students that I found I never used, it got set aside,” says Fuchs, who performs over 100 shows a year. “We used to use a standard theory textbook that focused heavily on classical music, which is a common approach. It wasn’t until the very end of the book that students would learn 9th chords, suspended chords and many other musical building blocks that you hear being used every day in pop music. So the more contemporary elements have all been pushed up earlier into the required courses. This way the specifically classical material isn’t forced on everyone, and the students who so choose can still take an elective class that covers traditional theory.”

Fuchs wrote all the new material for McNally Smith’s revamped music theory curriculum, save for the ear training books, written by accomplished keyboard player, composer and educator Dr. Dan Musselman. The McNally Smith music theory faculty boasts a deep roster of renowned Twin Cities and nationally recognized performers, including Adam Meckler, Scott Agster, Chris Olson, Reid Kennedy, Gary Gratz and Mike Menard.

“When I was in college, music theory had a strong academic vibe. For the most part, my teachers were not professional performers,” Fuchs says. “I think that hurts from a credibility standpoint. That’s why I made sure everyone in my department is a full-time player, too — they understand what we’re trying to achieve with these classes. Theory is not just some hoop that all our students have to jump through. It’s relevant to every other class they take at McNally Smith, and the knowledge they gain in these courses is powerful. It will increase their overall skill set and their ability to enjoy a successful, lasting career in music. And in my experience, it’s much easier for students to buy in to learning theory if their teachers are also great, active players. That’s been really important at the college.”

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