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    Modular curricula

    Dear colleagues,

    My colleagues at JMU and I are redesigning our written theory core curriculum, and we're considering moving toward a modular, "menu-based" design rather than the sequence of four courses we currently offer. In other words, rather than moving through Theory 1-4 in order, students will choose courses that interest them from a menu of options that can be taken in (almost) any order. I know Megan Lavengood has done something similar to this at her institution, and I'm wondering: (1) how many others have switched to such a curriculum or something like it, and (2)  if you've gone through such a change, were there challenges you faced that you might share?



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    • 4 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • Hi John, and others! Be on the lookout for the next issue of Engaging Students where I will have an article describing this in more detail, and other people like Andrew Gades and Crystal Peebles I believe also describe their modular approaches, challenges, and successes.

      Megan L. Lavengood  |  Assistant Professor, George Mason University

    • For years I designed my theory curriculum and textbook around the idea that we could successfully teach first semester students a well rounded and complete introduction to tonal theory. I firmly believed we did not have to wait three or four semesters to talk about augmented sixth chords and the juicy nuggets of chromatic harmony. It does take three semesters to fully comprehend and appreciate advanced chromaticism but it can be introduced early so that students see the big picture. I only taught using complete pieces from the classical and American popular standard literature. The idea of teaching four-measure fragments is a total waste of time because all musical events must be viewed in context. I like the idea of a modular curriculum because a student does not have to know Bach and Mozart in order to appreciate Bartok and Stravinsky. Or, at least, they do not have to be taught in chronological order. The biggest problem is getting today's students to listen to the classical repertoire of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries before they attempt to analyze it. Today's students don't even know the Beatles let alone Beethoven.


    • I've thought a great deal about the benefits of this approach (use Theory I as an introduction to the basic elements of music, then offer subsequent courses applying the elements to different periods and/or styles of music more specific to student interests and career needs), but our program just isn't large enough for the resultant splitting of course enrollments to satisfy our administrators.

      Nathan Baker

      Music Theory Coordinator, Casper College, WY



    • University of Pittsburgh here! We actually also have a very small program, only running one section of Theories II, III and IV per year. The curriculum is still modular, though, in that theory II, III, and IV are revolving topics that can be taken in any order. Right now, II is rhythmic theory, III is counterpoint, and IV is contemporary composition techniques. 

      I think the biggest challenge has been a crisis around what an undergraduate education in theory means--if it's not getting pretty good at 4-part writing and chromatic harmony, what is it? But I think this is a crisis we absolutely need to be experiencing, and I've gotten so much from thinking about this for myself and discussing it with colleagues. My students, for instance, never really get into chromatic harmoy beyond secondary dominants and modal mixture. They also don't learn more than the rudiments of voice leading in 4-part writing. That makes sense given their musical interests and goals, but wouldn't be right for all students. My curriculum is also light on form right now. If we let go of the idea that voice leading and chromatic harmony is "everything," we have to let go of the idea that we're teaching everything, and make decisions based on our students and institutions. It's exciting! Happy to share materials with any interested parties.