Category Archives: Online instruction

Counterpoint in Chord Symbols

Chord symbols do much more than show a chord root and quality; through close investigation, one can find hidden lines of counterpoint made explicit. This counterpoint is something that can be revealed and played with in performance, especially in jazz, where these chord symbols are treated as a springboard for creative expression.

Note that this activity can be completed online or as a print-out PDF (download here). If you choose to follow along online, you should have staff paper available to copy out and complete examples.

The tune we will use to explore this is Billie Holiday’s God Bless’ The Child listen to the song, following this lead sheet, before continuing.

To explore hidden chromatic lines in this tune, we will simplify the choral accompaniment to a simple four-voice “SATB” chorale texture. Please note that this is an exploration of implied melodic motion rather than “by-the-rules” polyphony, so our concern is not with part writing principles (such as parallel fifths, voice ranges, etc.).

Activity Part 1

The song begins with a harmonic pattern of EbMaj7 – Eb7 – Ab6. With the remaining voices as written, complete these chords by adding notes to the “alto” voice (top line, stems down). Note that the symbol “Ab6” is an A-flat major triad with an added major sixth above the root (F).

Check your work against the answer key before continuing and note the chromatic line that is revealed simply through completing the chord symbols.

Now continue by completing the missing voices in bars 3-10.

Activity Part 2

Again, check your work against the answer key. Return to the music and play through it on a piano, exploring the sounds created by these chromatic lines and accentuating them in your performance.

Activity: Part 3

Now try a section on your own by creating an SATB harmonization of this phrase. Note that the G7(b9) chord will require a fifth tone, or else you may omit the chord fifth. And remember that m7(b5) is jazz-code for a half-diminished seventh chord.

One possible realization is in the answer key (yours may differ based on how you voiced the chords).

Activity: Part 4

Common-tones may also be revealed through finding pitches in chord symbols. For instance, the symbols Dm7(b5)– G7(b9) may look complicated because of their alterations, but an investigation of the chords reveals that these alterations reflect a sonorous common-tone: Ab. This is a frequent trope in jazz harmony, especially in the minor mode since these tones refer to the diatonic sixth scale-degree. It is possible to hear this progression in a major mode, however, such as in bar 18 (notate chords for this bar):

Note that, in the answer key, the Bb7 chord has an extra “optional” inclusion of the chord fifth since doubling the Bb makes possible the resolution of the tense flat-fifth of the Fm7(b5) chord. 

Answer Key

ACTIVITY PART 1 SOLUTION

[back to the lesson]

ACTIVITY PART 2 SOLUTION

[back to the lesson]

ACTIVITY PART 3 SOLUTION

[back to the lesson]

ACTIVITY PART 4 SOLUTION

Dear Distance Education Students

This is a slightly-edited email that I just sent to a class of students in my online course that is  designed for graduate students who need to review (or learn for the first time) undergraduate music theory concepts. Course grades had been falling as material became more difficult. This course is made up of fourteen weekly lessons, each of which includes an activity, an assignment (self-graded with automatic release of a key upon submission), and a quiz. Quizzes are available all week, and must be done by midnight Sunday.

Dear students,

I see a disturbing trend: that most of you are submitting their assignments at the end of the weekly unit, and so aren’t making time for asking questions or for study before the quiz. Here’s what I found for the last five assignments:

Continue reading Dear Distance Education Students

Modulation Practice: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

I find that students often feel “thrown into the pool” when confronted with analysis of modulations in a full piece of music. It is one thing to describe modulations in the context of a short passage (especially when it is in a simple chord-by-chord format, as it was for most of my undergraduate theory education), and another thing altogether when in the context of real, textured music.

To bridge this gap, I offer this “play-by-play” analysis using an example from the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Here’s a PDF of the sheet music, which is in a piano reduction by the composer Paul Dukas. We’ll be looking at bars 39-76, which begin in the fourth bar of the third system of page 3. Here it is as a jpg, too (click to enlarge).

Continue reading Modulation Practice: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto

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 teoria.com. 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.

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”

Video Solfège: Creepy, But Effective!

Nobody practices solfèggio

Guido d'Arezzo
Guido d’Arezzo apologizes to a thousand years of students

Students don’t practice solfèggio for a panoply of reasons, most of which are good ones:

  • Practicing it is boring
  • They find it easy (they have good ears, good voices, and learn the syllables with little effort)
  • It is difficult for them and they are not motivated to do well (the “I’ll take the C” crowd)
  • They want to succeed but don’t have clear indicators to discern improvement. Some of these students practice a little, but not enough because they think they have “completed” practicing by running through exercises or because they give up in frustration.

Most students share the classic experience of sitting outside an office door, cramming melodies before performing for their professor, which is likely the only practice they put in before the exam. And, regardless of a student’s level of preparedness, many students will choke on a solfège exam because of bad nerves.

I’m going to take the following positions, which might not be shared by all music professors (but I imagine many of the points are common):

Syllabus boilerplate: Guidelines for email correspondence

mailNote: since I began including this in syllabi (and pointing it out at the beginning of each semester), emails from students have become… slightly… better. The good ones remember this when emailing me. The others can be ignored and referred back to the syllabus. Any other good solutions out there for elevating the tone of student/teacher e-correspondence?

Continue reading Syllabus boilerplate: Guidelines for email correspondence