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    Experience first, or last?

    Since my time as an undergrad music education major, I've believed strongly that, when teaching (most) music theoretical topics, the experience must come before the label/definition/technicalities.  I know very well that this belief is not unique to me.  To start a lesson on the Neapolitan chord, the approach is for the class to first encounter that chord in real piece of music, dissect its function within the phrase, its expressive effect, its voice leading, etc.  THEN apply a name to it, define it clearly, and define its typical voice leading.   Discovery learning; experience-first learning; pick your favorite term.

    In the last couple of years (admittedly small sample size, and casual observation only), I've noticed that many of my students seem to respond less well to this approach.  Blank stares through the initial example(s), attempts to generalize immediately, and then a sometimes-audible sigh of relief when the nuts-and-bolts are revealed.

    I'm wondering if any others have experienced this, or if I've just had a couple groups of students who prefer a different approach.  If others have experienced this, I'm curious about two things:  (1) If you think this is part of a larger trend, which might necessitate a philosophical change on my part, and (2) why you think this is happening?  I'm hesitant to draw a connection, but this seems similar to the "anything can be learned/taught through a five-minute YouTube video" idea that seems pretty common these days.

    Thanks for any thoughts you might have!



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    • 10 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
    • "Discovery learning," as I'm sure everyone here knows, is cognitively intensive and more difficult at the beginning.  Personally, I find it more fun.  But it's more work and requires students to take risks in figuring out the unfamiliar for themselves, so I'm not surprised they'd prefer a different approach.  And while I'd love to blame this on the "young generation today," my guess is that previous generations also preferred it when a teacher gave them a clearly articulated and straightforward method for doing something rather than a bunch of nebulous questions to get them thinking.  However, I do agree that people today are perhaps even more impatient with such stuff.

      An even bigger problem (in my experience) is that a lot of music students treat music analysis as some sort of "math problem," rather than a creative endeavor.  Thus, the labels and terms are actually treated by them (and, frankly, sometimes by theory teachers) as though they were real entities "in the music," rather than abstract classification schemes (often with some element of anachronism) imposed by modern theorists onto irregular art forms.  Placing a few labels becomes a proxy for actually understanding how the music works, as if putting a Roman numeral below the score "explains the piece" completely and thoroughly, like solving a problem.  Asking students to come up with their own terms and explanations thus seems counterintuitive to them.  It's like asking students to solve a new sort of algebra equation without telling them what the new symbols mean.

      I think it's difficult to escape this trap without revamping the way we teach analysis (i.e., not just "labeling") broadly.  Personally, I deal with the confused or annoyed responses to this exploration in class in several ways.  First, I'm constantly trying to point out the complexities of how music works beyond whatever formal labels or terms they're being drilled on.  At an exploratory level, this often includes more free-response homework questions (e.g., reacting to listening, focusing on particular moments, etc.) and then class discussion of those responses.  As we're doing analysis of a specific piece, I'll deliberately point out places where the labels and terms don't quite get at everything the music is "doing."  That gets them used to trying to think a bit more creatively about what analysis is.

      Second, I tend to introduce complexities LONG before we formalize them, hinting in passing that there's more to stuff.  I'd prefer to introduce historical examples with a #4 scale degree leading to 5 weeks if not months before we get to secondary dominants, for example.  (If the goal is to teach common practice music, I'd frankly introduce them near the beginning -- soon after teaching basic scales and chords -- since pure diatonicism rarely exists in practice in that style.)  So, by the time we get to a formal idea of secondary dominant chord, they've already seen dozens of examples of "those places where 5 gets its own leading tone."  Thus V/V is not a bizarre "new animal" to explain, but rather merely a label for something they've already seen many times before -- just not a focus of what we were doing then.

      Lastly, I switch things up and periodically give them the "nuts and bolts" lecture first.  Some students find that approach boring, but I know other students appreciate it.  And in some topics it's useful to put the theory first.  The most essential thing, though, is having at least a few students willing to take risks and get discussion going.  If you have that, it can work great.  Without even 2 or 3 of those, though, the impatience sets in.  As Mike Rogers noted, "priming the pump" by having them look at things in homework is helpful -- especially if you give them a few specific (but somewhat open-ended) questions and have them write those reactions down. 

    • Zac,

      My first reaction when you describe your approach is "gosh, that sounds time consuming." It's impossible to say for sure, not having seen how you do it, but I wonder if maybe the issue is just one of proportionality, spending too much time on the individual instance before getting to the theoretical concepts. I agree, as I'm sure most everyone does, that a music-first approach is best, because the students need a sense that what they are learning is connected to reality or it won't stick. But the trick is to do it without over-burdening one example when the students will be ultimately expected to know the theory and analytical techniques. I'm sure I have been guilty of this a lot: we all like to dig deep into individual pieces of music, even individual moments in those pieces, but this doesn't always line up perfectly with the demands of pedagogy.


      --Jason Yust


    • I wonder if this mindset comes from standardized testing, and the resultant (and unfortunate) "teach-to-the-test" mentality. Very often, I see students who just want to be able to stack notes and slap a label on them, without the "bother" of putting the sonority into a musical context. I try to mitigate this by teaching the listening experience (in absence of a notated score) first. Good luck! 

      Jena Root

      Associate Professor, Music Theory Coordinator

      Youngstown State University

    • Very interesting observations.  I also prefer a "discovery-based" pedagogical approach and have seen a similar shift occur.  For me, the discovery-based approach to new theoretical concepts is part of training students to use their critical faculties, which is central to my teaching philosophy in general.  One thing I have done is to actually address the issue directly, discussing with students specifically why I use this approach.  Nowadays I also tend to identify the new concept a little earlier in the lecture. 

      I agree that the internet contributes much to this trend.  We are accustomed to getting answers to all our questions very quickly.

      Rich Pellegrin

      University of Missouri

    • The students sitting in my classes today are not the same people who went to school with me. Now, admittedly, that was a half century ago, but times they are a changing. My current students wouldn't hear a Neapolitan 6th if they fell over it. This generation has grown up with popular music that has no phrase-based melodies or tonal harmonic progressions. They certainly have not been listening to the music of the common practice period and know almost nothing about the 20th century. The world of popular music was highjacked by hip-hop people with extremely limited musical training. At our school we admit very few classically trained performers. Because we are not a conservatory we have not seen an oboe player in decades. Ninety percent of the kids today play drums or guitar and are not musically literate. These are music majors we have to teach from the beginning. When I entered college in 1958 I already had 11 years of music lessons and had memorized dozens of symphonies. So my students and I do not speak the same musical language and what I hear they do not understand. I certainly agree that we must teach theory based on whole pieces so chords are not studied out of context. But, when my students hear Chopin for the first time they are strangers in paradise.




    • Thank you, Steve. We're dying of false equivalencies on many levels.


      I also teach the elements through musical examples and introduce them through HW analysis. The new "thing" (sec dom, N6, enharm reinterpretation, etc.) will be the only element they will not know. I will however often prime the pump by letting them know a new thing will be in there and to make the best of figuring it out.

      The next day, we will go over it and after examining the new element I will ask them to pretend they are writing a music theory treatise back when this new concept was first used and then describe the new element and give it a name that we will put in the theory books. They actually come up with some great stuff.

      Then I will tell them what it is actually called in text books. My hope is that by going through the process of analysis, discovery, and creative labeling, the new info will "stick" better. 

      The next few assignments will be designed to reinforce the new thing—notating on the staff out of context, part-writing two or three chords with the new thing, and then another analysis with the new concept in it once again. 


      Mike Rogers

      Abilene Christian University

    • Personally, I think that some music theory is not derived (entirely) from musical-experience.


      Isaac Malitz, Ph.D.




    • It's easy to blame this change on a lack of curiosity on the part of students (not necessarily accusing anyone on this thread of this position), but the more expensive college becomes, and the more necessary for a middle-class life, the more it is viewed as a commodity that one needs and deserves rather than an opportunity for learning. In the meantime, we could get some of the same benefits of "experience first" (creating a context for the knowledge and motivating students to want to know more) in other ways. These could include setting up a composerly or arranging problem (I want such aind such an effect in my harmonization here--how can I get it?) or even just by invoking intellectual curiosity around an issue.

    • I have not noticed that students today respond less well to the "experience-first" approach, and thus I do not think it is part of a larger trend. 

      The strategy I rely on most is to introduce a concept through listening or playing at least a week or two (at times, even much longer) before a concept is presented formally. The informal introduction to the topic might be brief at first; the class discusses the music and its features, and I conclude by saying something like "we'll discuss this in a week or so."

      The students might then nervously ask things like "but what do you call this chord? will this be on the test?" etc. and I respond "we'll get back to it" --I don't budge. I return to the concept briefly and informally a bunch of times, sometimes working it in to the classwork--but not discussing the nitty-gritty details. A few weeks later, by the time I assign them a reading and we formally discuss the issue in class, the students have already been introduced to the concept experientially in class long before.

      I notice a number of syllabi lay out ahead of time what is to be discussed in each class. That is fine, but there is no need to wait until the official class day to informally introduce a concept. Once students get the idea that the purpose of the class is not to rush immediately to the definitions and technical specifics, they calm down during the experiential discussions.  


      Poundie Burstein