December 8, 2023

When it comes to music theory, how do we create a curriculum that reflects what our students are doing? How can we make music theory easier to access and understand? And what does that look like inside the classroom?

These are questions Jason Hooper, senior lecturer II and music theorist in the Department of Music and Dance, asked himself as he reworked the curriculum of his Music Theory I course to make it more inclusive and accessible for incoming music students.

“Music is what people do in community with one another. It’s not about looking at something out there; it’s about what we are creating in here.” (Jason Hooper)

The introductory course typically centered around eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European classical music, mostly based on traditional music notation and the piano.

Now, as Hooper teaches it, the class is based around twentieth- and twenty-first-century American popular music, focuses on music fundamentals and song writing, includes lead-sheet and tab notations, and most of the fundamentals are taught in the ‘fretboard space’ of the ukulele rather than the ‘keyboard space’ of the piano. It even comes with its own Spotify playlist, including songs from artists like Bruce Springsteen, Ella Fitzgerald, Coldplay, Bruno Mars, and Taylor Swift.

Music theory students around a table having a discussion.

“I am really enjoying the different view of classical music and the methods to teaching it,” says Leila Paredes, a rising sophomore music major who took the course. “It feels like I can relate to the music for once, and it’s music that I know outside of the classical realm.” 

Each song added to the curriculum is thoughtfully considered through the lenses of race, gender, disability, and nationality in an effort to help diversify a field of study that has been historically white.

“Music theory has undergone some rapid changes. There’s been a lot of consciousness raising,” Hooper explains. “These divides are sometimes perceived as high-culture classical music vs. pop culture. A lot of these binaries don’t work particularly well and are problematic in their own ways.”

In addition, music theory is often an abstract concept where students learn to examine, discuss, and appreciate music.

“But music is what people do in community with one another. It’s not about looking at something out there; it’s about what we are creating in here,” Hooper says. “I wanted to get [my students] making music and collaborating.”

To achieve that, Hooper sought an instrument that felt within reach for students. While a traditional music theory curriculum often uses the piano as its instrument of choice, Hooper chose the ukulele both because the instrument is more affordable for students (a new one can typically be purchased for about $50) and it’s small enough to be carried around campus (unlike a guitar or banjo).

A music theory student hard at work at a laptop.

By doing this, students now play an active and collaborative role in their learning.

“If you’re a student in this class, you’re now in a band of three students, and you’re learning to play the ukulele,” Hooper says. “A big theme in this course for me is to give students the tools to make things themselves.”

Students even finish the semester with musical production skills. Their final project tasks them with writing, recording, and performing an original, modern pop song.

These changes have helped transform the classroom from a typical lecture into a more collaborative space where faculty and students feel like equals.

For Paredes, it helped her develop “the mindset of trying to communicate with my future professors to better their understanding of me and what is going on in my life.” She continues, “Professor Hooper's style of teaching fits so many different peoples’ styles of learning that I will be able to bring the concepts I learned in theory with me to my future music courses.”

One promising sign following this shift in the classroom?

Grades have been higher in this version of the course than in the past, despite its exams being more difficult, Hooper explains.

“I’m trying to take myself out of the role of authority figure and act more like someone who’s guiding students to do their work in the way they want to do it,” Hooper says. “For me, this is about showing what students in the music program are capable of doing together.”