What is Music Theory & Teaching

Music is an art. Music is a language. Music is therapy. Music is a clinical tool. Music is a weapon. Music is an area of humanistic inquiry. Music is math. Music is neuroscience. Music is communal. Music is deeply personal. Music is bug spray. Music is religion. Music is identity formation. Music is culture. Music is psychology.

Music is nearly unparalleled in its ability to engage just about every facet of our lives. Perhaps only language has the same reach into our biology, psychology, individual identity, and social community. Music both frames, and is dependent on, our memory. Music both affects and flows from our emotions. Music both embodies and transcends cultural prejudice. And despite all we know about these aspects of music, even professional musicians treat it with an air of mystery.

One goal of music theory courses is to help aspiring professional musicians learn where this mystery comes from — how the magic happens. Music theory helps musicians understand the ways in which a variety of types of music are constructed, and what meanings can be attached to those structures. It helps them become fluent in a variety of styles of music, so that they can make music with artistry and communicate their insights with clarity and nuance.

– Kris Shaffer, Ph.D.

(Photo by linh.ngan)

March Happenings: Teaching

In this issue we focus on the teaching escapades of our music theory faculty.

coffeeReading roasts?? … Once a month we meet with our theory graduate students over coffee. A different faculty member chooses a reading and leads discussion each time. 2014–15 reading roasts have tackled phrase and cadence, perception and voice-leading, Jembe music from Mali, motion in music, and 19th-century chromaticism.

Hybrid courses – College firsts. Music theory faculty were the first to develop and offer hybrid courses (a mixture of in-person and online instruction) in the College of Music: Kris Shaffer (Computational Analysis of Pop/Rock Music, summer 2014) and Keith Waters (History of Jazz, spring 2015).

Steven Bruns teachingSteven Bruns received CU–Boulder’s Outstanding Graduate Student Mentor Faculty Award (2014). Most graduate students work closely with a faculty advisor on thesis and dissertation projects. Bruns’s former advisees are now faculty members at the University of Iowa, University of Oklahoma, Whitman College, James Madison University, Lehman College (CUNY), University of Calgary, and others.

While performing as jazz artist at the Elon University Jazz Festival in February 2015, Keith Waters also taught there two undergraduate music theory courses: “Text and music in Irving Berlin and Franz Schubert” and “Meter and Form in Blues and Jazz.” In March, he taught a class at the Graz University for Performing Arts (Austria) entitled “Visions of Utopia in Popular Music.” In April he led an Analytical Techniques class (via Skype) at the University of Illinois-Chicago for students reading his analytical article on jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. And he is serving as external reader for a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.

Kris Shaffer is developing a new online course in Music Cognition through CU’s Department of Continuing Education, to be offered for the first time this June. Though open to all eligible, this course is designed to help undergraduate psychology majors complete their degrees online.  Kris is also working with colleagues in Florida and Delaware to organize a music theory pedagogy conference this summer. Details will be announced soon at FlipCamp.org. Kris also has a new article on music theory pedagogy out in Music Theory Online“Hacking the Music Theory Classroom.”

Yonatan Malin has been wearing two hats recently, one as a traditional music theorist working on German Lieder (art songs) and another in the vanguard of analytical approaches to world music. He gave a guest lecture at the University of Victoria on Fanny Hensel’s song “Warum sind denn die Rosen so Blass?” (Why then are the roses so pale?). And in a graduate seminar on analytical approaches to world music, Yonatan and his students have been exploring West African rhythm, klezmer, Arabic maqamat (modes), and more.

In March Philip Chang organized a theory workshop for high-school music teachers, featuring Dr. Nancy Rogers (Florida State University) on “Harnessing Unconscious Knowledge.” We thank Bill Elliott, whose generous funding made this workshop possible. We may build this initial offering into an ongoing series of workshops for theory teachers in our community.

Daphne Leong received CU–Boulder’s 2013 Excellence in Teaching Award. Anonymous student comments on official course evaluation forms regularly include the like of “one of the best-taught courses I’ve taken in my grad studies” (Performance and Analysis doctoral seminar) and, “To be frank, I used to think the music we’re approaching was crap that I would never be interested in or find the ‘art’ of. This class has completely changed that. You clearly explain how to approach the music and keep it interesting while allowing us to discover what makes this music great” (post-tonal theory).


“How I Hear It: Patterns in Sounded and Unsounded Dimensions of African Traditional Music”
David Locke, Tufts University (Mass.)

April 6, 2015, 2pm
Imig Music Bldg., Chamber Hall (C199)

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