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Lessons Learned from FIPSE Projects II - September 1993

Northwestern University

Redesigning the Content and Sequence of Instruction in Music Theory


To the faculty of the Northwestern University School of Music, the way music theory is usually taught--note by note and chord by chord--seemed to run counter to the way in which music is apprehended and appreciated by seasoned musicians, as a coherent whole rather than as the sum of disparate fragments. Simply put, where traditional theory instruction proceeds from the bottom up, real musicians approach compositions from the top down.

The faculty envisioned the process of musical comprehension and performance as a problem-solving task that includes aural, visual, kinesthetic, affective and chronological components. Accordingly, they set about developing a multi-media, real-time instructional approach that would allow the students to perceive these elements as an integrated whole.

The project focused on the freshman core curriculum, which consists of courses in musicianship and aural skills. Faculty identified four strategies that would result in the kind of musically sophisticated grasp of compositions that they wanted students to achieve. Each of the four strategies--memorization of compositions, modeling of musical structures through creating programs which "compose" these structures, analytic reading of musical scores, and analytic listening--became the province of a particular faculty member. Each strategy required in-class paper and pencil work on the part of the students, and all but the first one involved use of MacIntosh software developed by the faculty.

Two of these software systems, the ScoreScan/Imager system for teaching analytic reading scores, which includes a library of 200 scores for practice, and the EarWorks system for designing and delivering analytic listening lessons with commercial audio CDs, are now in regular use at Northwestern. The School of Music anticipates publishing the analytic listening and score analysis materials as textbooks and as computer-assisted instruction software for wider distribution.

As initially envisaged, the freshman curriculum was to revolve around a few core compositions which the students would visit time and again from different points of view. The computer would allow them to manipulate the music in a variety of ways, including revoicing and reorchestrating, and to compose new works based on the models studied.


Each aspect of the project was evaluated by the faculty member in charge of its development, and as a result, some changes were made to the original curriculum. Memorization was dropped after one term, without the benefit of formal appraisal, since faculty and students agreed that the musical gains were not worth the laboriousness of the approach. The modeling of musical structures through programming was also discontinued, since although students became adept at writing about their discipline, the musical quality of their projects was relatively low, and they spent a disproportionate amount of time working out programming difficulties.

In the analytic score reading component, students were given a pre-test in which they attained a mean of 57.3. The mean for quizzes administered during the course was 90.0. Even though this constitutes a comparison of different instruments, faculty believe that it confirms their own sense of students' improved abilities in reading scores.

Progress in analytic listening consists in moving from an initial perception of a musical work as a succession of events to a more synthetic apprehension of structural relationships between non-adjacent points in the work. In this component of the project, students' responses in a listening exercise at the beginning of the year were compared to their responses in a similar task two quarters later. In the initial exercise students commented mostly on descriptive features of the composition, such as a timbre and rhythm. In the later exercise, however, comments on the sonic and kinesthetic properties of the work decreased, and remarks on the formal qualities of the composition, such as harmony and melody, increased. This is all the more significant in that the exercise did not explicitly call for comments on structural features.

Analysis of qualitative data--student performance protocol and transcript files--has not been completed, but general observations tend to confirm the developments outlined in the listening exercises.

Major Insights And Lessons Learned

To the faculty who devised it, this project demonstrates the soundness of the "top-down" approach and the usefulness of computers in aiding students to progress towards a higher level of musicianship. Whereas initially the faculty had expected that a comprehensive curriculum centered on the computer would result, experience made it obvious that it was wiser and more realistic, given time and political constraints, to reserve the computer for very specific, high yield applications.


The project, which has prompted a score of papers and presentations, has attracted attention from a number of institutions, including Yale University, the Eastman School of Music, the University of Michigan, Indiana University, the University of Illinois and Arizona State University. The success of the software designed in conjunction with the project has enabled the School of Music to obtain funds for its MacIntosh laboratory from the Kemper and Wurlitzer Foundations as well as other private and corporate sources.

Available Information

Syllabi and course-related materials as well as copies of papers and presentations may be obtained from:

Richard Ashley
School of Music
Northwestern University
711 Elgin Road
Evanston, IL 60208-1200

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Last Modified: 02/22/2006