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?).
  3. In music where students are being asked to read notes and identify harmony, grand staff is best and simple textures are essential. Schubert’s Tod und das Mädchen and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata are great models, as are rock songs with simple (or reduced) piano accompaniments. Find sources where non-chord tones are in the melody only and harmonies are complete.
  4. The music should sound amazing. It goes without saying that great music engages students (professors, too). That means it should have a great recording and should be a non-crusty piece of music.
  5. The music should span a single side of a single page; too much music seems scary. “Golden-era” song lead sheets are fantastic for studying first and second semester topics like melody, non-chord tones, harmonic progression, and have the added advantage of allowing students to analyze chords without the step of reading the notes. Music that spans two pages is OK… but the “K.I.S.S.” principle is a good one.

Favorite Classroom Music, By Topic: a list-in-progress


Good cadence examples have clear (or clever!) phrase endings and several different cadence types in a single tune or portion thereof.

  • A classic example with several different cadence types is the “Doxology” hymn Old Hundredth. It’s impossible to miss the cadences because each has a fermata over it… and it includes IAC, HC, DC, PAC and PC. A veritable jackpot.
  • I’ve Been Working On The Railroad is great because it has an IAC, a HC, a chromatic DC (I teach it as a “secondary half cadence”) and a PAC, all in four consecutive phrases.
  • Auld Lang Syne is home to the elusive plagal half cadence (cadence on IV) as well as the PC.
  • I teach cadences not just for harmonic labeling, but as a rich topic that shows how phrases are linked and divided. This includes teaching phrase elision (Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and The Beatles’ Julia work great here) and turnaround chords (Hoagy Carmichel’s Georgia On My Mind).

Chord Inversions

  • Real Emotional Girl (Randy Newman); I wrote a whole blog entry about it.
  • An die Musik (Franz Schubert). OK, it’s pretty crusty. It’s also pretty pretty and can be returned to when teaching secondary function harmonies.

Compositional Process (beauty in simplicity, esp. in minimalism)


Motive and Melodic Structure

These are non-classical examples of vocal literature. The usual classical examples (Bach’s Invention in C Major, Beethoven’s 5th mov. 1) are of course, fantastic. See also this blog post on approaches to teaching motive.

  • America The Beautiful (Bates); check out this episode of “What Makes It Great”
  • Bewitched (Rogers & Hart); includes motivic retrograde and augmentation
  • Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? (Gorney & Harburg); a classic tune to demonstrate melodic framework based on non-consecutive melody tones.
  • Imagination (Van Heusen)
  • Moon River (Mancini)
  • Over The Rainbow (Arlen); another classic tune to demonstrate melodic framework based on non-consecutive melody tones.

Non-Chord Tones

  • I Remember You (Schertzinger & Mercer)
  • Moon River (Mancini & Mercer)
  • Love theme from Romeo & Juliet (Tchaikovsky)
  • When I Am Laid in Earth “Dido’s Lament” (Henry Purcell)
  • Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs from Messiah (Handel). Five suspensions (of three different types) in just five bars!

Secondary Function Harmonies

  • Georgia On My Mind (Carmichael & Gorrell). In just two phrases, it has V7/vi, V7/IV, V7/ii, plus vii°/ii in the turnaround. It also has some non-functional dom7s (“Other arms reach out to ME / Other eyes smile tenderLY” followed by a dom7 that does its job “correctly” at “Still in peaceful dreams I SEE,” initiating a circle progression.
  • Take Me Out To The Ball Game (Von Tilzer & Norworth). Includes V7/ii, V7/V and V7/IV, plus, if you consult the 1906 edition, a passing Ger+6 on the lyric “two!”
  • Benedictus from Mass in E-flat, D. 950, bars 5-12 (Franz Schubert). Includes vii°6/iii (moves to I6/4!), V7/ii, vii°7/vi, V7/vi, and vii°7/V, all in the short span of six bars!


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