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Teaching Music Theory: New Voices and Approaches

PDF Teaching Music Theory: New Voices and Approaches © Oxford University Press 2020

Book author
  1. Jennifer Snodgrass
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In recent years, music theory educators around the country have developed new and innovative teaching approaches, reintroducing a sense of purpose into their classrooms. In this book, author and veteran music theory educator Jennifer Snodgrass visits several of these teachers, observing them in their music theory classrooms and providing lesson plans that build upon their approaches. Based on three years of field study spanning seventeen states, coupled with reflections on her own teaching strategies, ÂTeaching Music Theory: New Voices and Approaches highlights real-life teaching approaches from effective (and sometimes award-winning) instructors from a wide range of institutions: high schools, community colleges, liberal arts colleges, and conservatories.

Throughout the book, Snodgrass focuses on topics like classroom environment, collaborative learning, undergraduate research and professional development, and curriculum reform. She also emphasizes the importance of a diverse, progressive, and inclusive teaching environment throughout, from encouraging student involvement in curriculum planning to designing lesson plans and assessments so that pedagogical concepts can easily be transferred to the applied studio, performance ensemble, and other courses outside of music. An accessible and valuable text designed with the needs of both students and faculty in mind,Teaching Music Theory provides teachers with a vital set of tools to rejuvenate the classroom and produce confident, empowered students.


In the past 20 years, the study of music theory pedagogy has become more relevant in our daily lives as music theorists in the classroom. Faculty and pedagogues are working to find new and innovative ways to teach concepts and are eager to present and disseminate information to both their students and colleagues using some of the new ideals presented in music theory pedagogy research. Based on the topics presented at the most recent Pedagogy into Practice conferences and articles found in publications such as the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy and Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, the time for dialogue regarding new philosophies, teaching approaches, and curricula is now. Teaching Music Theory: New Voices and Approaches seeks to continue that dialogue with a comprehensive text highlighting general approaches in teaching both music theory and aural skills, including topics in curriculum, assessment, classroom environment, and other points of relevance such as undergraduate research and professional development for the graduate student.

Effective Teaching Project

I was a fairly new professor when I first read Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Teachers Do. The book transformed my approach to the classroom, and it was this text, more than any other, that inspired me to think deeply about my pedagogical goals as a music theorist. And while Bain’s book helped me to develop some of my general teaching approaches in the classroom, I was eager to learn more about how others were teaching within my own discipline. After 20 years of teaching at the university level, I noticed I had more questions than answers. I decided to follow in Bain’s footsteps in order to better understand what effective teachers of music theory and aural skills are accomplishing in their classrooms to inspire their students in a meaningful way.

That decision led to the project that serves as the first premise for this text, an overview of classroom approaches and pedagogical philosophies of some highly effective teachers in our field. During the initial stages of my research, I sent out letters to 200 instructors of music theory, representing a wide variety of physical locations, school types, and faculty ranks. I chose teachers who were dedicated to the field of theory pedagogy and who had contributed scholarship in journals such as the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy or Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy. I also reached out to instructors who presented successful pedagogy sessions at the Society for Music Theory, the College Music Society, or the Pedagogy into Practice conferences. I sought out teachers who had won prestigious teaching awards at their university or were quarter-finalists for the GRAMMY Music Educator Award. Finally, and maybe most important, I reached out to instructors who I knew were making a difference in their classrooms based on conversations with alumni.

It is important to note that many effective theory instructors and, in fact, award-winning professors, were not contacted to participate in this initial study, and no one instructor was left out intentionally. Several instructors who are pioneers in the field of theory pedagogy are not represented in this portion of the project, and I have purposely cited their work both in the text and in the bibliography.

Of those 200 instructors who received a letter, 135 responded to a survey that sought to highlight individuals’ thoughts on content, student success, and general teaching practices. A copy of the survey and the initial letter can be found in the appendix of this text. Based on these responses, I chose approximately 90 instructors to highlight as effective teachers. I spent 2 years trav- eling to 17 states in order to watch over 60 of these accomplished instructors in their element, and in many cases I was able to interact with the students as well. Unlike Ken Bain, who observed some of his “best teachers” for a semester or more, I was only able to attend one or two class periods, so the commentary presented in this text represents a snapshot of the classroom environment and approach. In some cases, I contacted specific instructors because I wanted to see them teach a certain topic, such as aural skills in a popular music course or counterpoint in a conservatory environment. But, overall, I was more interested in seeing general teaching approaches, and the topic taught by each teacher was merely the unit planned for the day I could visit. For a few instructors involved in this portion of the project, I was unable to see them teach in real time, but I was able to interview them in person in order to expand on their responses to the survey. In many of these conversations, the topic of curriculum came to the forefront; based on input from these effective instructors, I decided to also include syllabi, course and degree outlines, and overall curriculum at several institutions within the text. It is my hope that these materials will prove to be helpful for those just beginning a career in music theory or those at institutions currently involved in conversations and dialogue regarding curriculum change. As my observations began, I chose to focus only on topics taught in the traditional undergraduate core, so this text is not meant to speak to the pedagogical approaches and practices of all topics taught in undergraduate and graduate classrooms, nor does the absence of these topics indicate a lack of importance in content.
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