Studying Art Song

Preparing to teach a unit on Copland’s Twelve Poems Of Emily Dickinson to a class of composers who will, in turn, compose the “thirteenth song” as a style-study exercise. Thanks to Robert Maggio for the genesis of this unit and for most of these ideas!

And, for a quick link, here are the complete poems of Emily Dickinson.

When studying these songs, be sure to consider…

What characteristics make the song “special” or “distinctive”

Accompaniment texture:

  • Types/approaches to composing for piano
  • Variety, pacing of changes, and relationship of changes to vocal phrases
  • Use of ornaments or effects
  • Registral span and use of middles or extremes
  • Connections (or lack thereof) between voice and piano
  • Harmony, voice-leading, use of seconds or dissonant tones
  • Chord voicings
  • Moments when there is piano but no voice


  • How syllabic aligns accent (or does not align) with meter; use of syncopation
  • Registral span and use of middles or extremes
  • Leaps vs. stepwise singing
  • Use of melisma
  • Moments when there is unaccompanied voice
  • Moments when melody resolves but piano does not
  • Repetition of text
  • If phrases begin on, before, or after downbeat for good effect
  • If voice creates closure (or if that is left to piano)

Text painting

Meter & changing phrase lengths

Modulations: abrupt? brief? smooth?

Staff Input for Online Course Work

Does this exist? For music theory online courses, I would like a simple interface that allows students to put notes on a staff, like in the exercises on It should be able to plug into my LMS (maybe Google Forms?) and allow students to (at minimum) spell chords and (even better) complete melodic dictation.

If this does not exist, please pass this message along to the good people at Noteflight or other code monkeys who might want to make some music professors very happy.

Video Solfège Submission Instructions

Revised August 2014. For pedagogical context on solfège-to-video, you may wish to read the posting “Video Solfège: Creepy, But Effective!” on this site.

Each week’s prepared singing must be submitted to D2L Dropbox for credit. Here is an overview of the procedure:

  1. Practice the melodies.
  2. Video-record yourself performing a melody.
  3. Upload the file to D2L Dropbox in the corresponding folder.
  4. Repeat until all melodies due are submitted.

How to perform the melodies

  1. Announce the melody number and/or title. Your video should have no other introductory chatter.
  2. Orient in a key by playing a tonic pitch or series of chords on an instrument. Do not use the instrument to locate a non-tonic starting pitch (do this in your head).
  3. Conduct while singing.
  4. Each melody must be sung at an appropriate tempo, without stopping or restarting.
  5. You are welcome to start over and re-record a melody as many times as you like until it is fully polished; only one video per melody should be submitted, however.

How to record and submit the melodies

  1. On the “Course Home” page of your D2L section, there is a Kaltura module; click its “Contribute Media” link and follow instructions for video submissions there.
  2. Videos must be submitted before the class in which they are due. Late submissions will not be accepted.
  3. Many options are available for recording videos:
    • Kaltura is able to access a computer’s video camera and microphone to record videos. Upload the video to the correct D2L Dropbox folder via the Kaltura module.
    • If recording using Apple Photo Booth: Record the video, then export (File > Export) as a .mov file. Upload the video to the correct D2L Dropbox folder via the Kaltura module.
    • If recording using iPhone or iPad: Record the video and then upload the file directly from the device by logging in to D2L using your phone’s web browser, selecting the “desktop version” of the site and selecting the file from your photo library. NOTE: the auto-rotate feature on these devices may cause a video to play back upside down online unless you observe the following orientation rules:
      • On an iPad, use the camera with the screen facing you and be sure the iPad button is on the LEFT.
      • On an iPhone, use the camera with the screen facing you and be sure the iPad button is on the RIGHT.
    • If using other recording tools, check with your instructor to make sure that your submission files are acceptable.

How performances are evaluated

  1. After the submission deadline, your professor will scan videos from each student to be sure they are being successfully received and can be viewed.
  2. At mid-term, the professor will spot-check two videos per student at random and assign a single grade for the pair. The professor will provide feedback to each student, including noting which videos were reviewed.
  3. At end-of-semester, the professor will spot-check two videos per student at random and assign a single grade for the pair. The professor will provide feedback to each student, including noting which videos were reviewed.
  4. Incomplete or non-functioning videos will earn a score of zero.

Some Things Composers Think About

Style: Relationship between any given piece and a musical genre

Technique: Difficulty of a composition • Amount of time it may take (or is allotted) to prepare for its performance

Harmony: Use of traditional vs. non-traditional harmonies • Use of tense/harsh/brash/complex harmonies vs. serene/pretty/simple harmonies • Stylistic connotations of harmonic types • Types of harmonic progression • Rate/naturalness/shock of harmonic change

Rhythm: Tempo • Musical spirit/character • Consistency/changing of spirit/character

Melody: Memorable vs. less-distinctive vs. absent melody • Melody’s integration with other musical layers • Melodic relationships from one passage to the next

Texture: Foreground vs. Background • Tone Colors • Counterpoint • Use/absence of purely rhythmic layers • Instrument combinations

Drama: Flow vs. pause • Continuity vs. surprise • Articulation and degrees of punctuation • Rates of change • Stability vs. instability • Balance • Overall duration


  • Beginning: How to begin • How the beginning leads into transition/continuation
  • Continuation: Contrast from one section to the next • Suspense
  • Climax: How climactic should it be? • Should the climax sustain, or should it depart quickly from it strongest point? • Should there be a dénouement?
  • Ending: How/if the ending relates to the other sections • How affirmative or ambiguous is the ending • What the final gesture should be

Crowd-source teaching: extra credit “challenges”

Last year, I tried out a technique for enhancing student engagement in online courses: crowd-sourcing representative examples of course topics.

Responding to a complaint from students that online quizzes were too difficult and extra credit options were needed, I offered students an opportunity to demonstrate comprehension by locating their own musical examples. This can be a tedious part of my work — finding “exemplary” musical passages that demonstrate each facet of a lesson. This way, I open up the possibility of getting something out of it, too; the best submissions can be incorporated into my course materials.

The process is simple: I create a Dropbox folder for each lesson in which students may submit three examples that fit specified constraints. One task, for example, was to submit (on annotated sheet music) three examples of musical modulations that exhibited different approaches: pivot modulation by common chord, direct modulation, and pivot modulation by change of chord quality. To earn full extra credit, they needed to find one of each and they needed to be correct and correctly labeled. Their examples also had to be unique among the class; no choosing a passage that had already been used by another student. If examples did not earn extra credit, the student may submit more batches of examples until they get it right, but only before the weekly unit quiz.

Once I received their files, I would add markup comments on their PDFs to show if each example was correct or incorrect, and make a note about why it was a good or weak example. Since the Dropbox folder is public, students could then examine their peers’ examples and learn from the successes and shortfalls.

In the end, a few problems sullied the process:

Continue reading Crowd-source teaching: extra credit “challenges”

Teaching the Perfect Tune

A starting point for engaging students is picking a great example. With the right music, a student’s curiosity can be piqued and a great piece of music engaged. For almost any topic, I tend to follow these principles:

  1. Find a single piece or whole section that illustrates all (or most) of the concepts of the lesson. Little excerpts don’t give students a chance to appreciate how the topic can affect a musical whole. It’s fun to analyze a whole piece or section of music since it feels like you are really unpacking the music; it’s hard to engage a single phrase of music and then another… and then another… and feel like you are doing much more than identification.
  2. Famous tunes give the impression that theory class applies to “real” music (sorry:  songs from Winterreise aren’t famous in most student circles). Children’s songs are often terrific. There is a chance that students might recognize Classical war-horses from having heard them in another class, a commercial, as a ring-tone (Turkish Rondo, anyone?). Continue reading Teaching the Perfect Tune

Chord Inversions: They’re Not Just For Labeling Anymore

A Little Background

Chord inversions are the second thing music students learn about chords, right after how to spell chords over a given root (what the pitches of D Major or F♯ Diminished is). For those who are new to the topic, follow this link.

Chord inversions are mostly taught by looking at chords in the easiest possible manner: as close-position triads or as block chords in simple four-voice chorales. When they are studied like this, students can quickly learn how to identify a chord’s position (either root position or inversion) and assign it a numeric label: 5/3 or 7 for root position, 6 or 6/5 for first inversion, and so forth.

It is much more difficult to apply the concept of inversions to music that doesn’t move in block chords, and in most music, the bass is elaborated in some way, complicating the matter. Sometimes they are ornamented with passing tones and such between “structural” tones, and when a bass line is genuinely florid (as in much classical or jazz music) it becomes very tricky indeed.

So, Why Do They Matter?

Why do we study chord inversions? To many students, it’s tedious busywork to parse the pitches that make up a chord, figure out which is lowest, and assign a numeric label. Some of the point may be to dwell a while on spelling chords. It is also an introduction to the idea of following one note of a chord to the next, which introduces the subject of voice-leading, which is often a primary concern of harmony courses (though that is increasing being considered “old-fashioned”).

Continue reading Chord Inversions: They’re Not Just For Labeling Anymore

How to Interpret Chord Symbols

The ability to read a chord symbol and name the pitches of its chord is an essential skill for all musicians. I use it constantly in all of my music theory, analysis and orchestration courses to quickly describe musical harmony while dispensing of the need to suss out harmony from a written-out texture. It is, of course, also the foundation of jazz and pop improvisation.

Students of classical music often do not learn how to interpret these symbols beyond plain triads, so I am providing this lesson as an introduction for those students.

Continue reading How to Interpret Chord Symbols