Building KU's Teaching and Learning Community

Pop Rock Pedagogy—Brad Osborn (2019)

Overview

A music professor uses popular music to transform introductory music theory courses into a space where musicianship extends beyond the canon of classical music. The course transformation aims to encompass a more holistic pursuit of composing that encompasses jazz and other styles.

 
Background

After several iterations of transformation, the freshman music theory courses have been “flipped” to use videos as textbook substitutes, stretched to include modern genres of music, and now, in this current project, these method and content changes have resulted in six new composition projects that were added to the existing assignment sequence.

Implementation

Three new projects were added to each course, MTHC 105 Theory 1 and MTHC 115 Theory 2, and although some of the assignment guidelines had obvious similarities, the specific requirements were updated in the second semester course to reflect new skills the students had learned. Overall, students were required to compose pop songs, film scores, and backing vocals with various instrumental and musical requirements.

Student Work

I have collected all of these performances on a continually updating YouTube Channel called KU Music Theory Projects. It gives all students instant, easy access to viewing their performance, and provides an easy way for them to share it with their friends and family. In this way, the projects address a range of activities that musicians and music majors will be asked to do, while simultaneously answering the question of how music theory courses fit within “real-world” musicianship.

Reflections

As a scholar of popular music myself, I view this project as one more (admittedly large) step in a series of modifications I’ve made over time to the undergraduate music theory curriculum that highlights popular music alongside Western classical music. This transformation is a full week of immersion in the popular music the students were familiar with before they even came to college to study music, and I like to think that this kind of experiential learning can help with skill acquisition and student engagement, while also having a positive impact on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and retention.


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BACKGROUND

Now in their fourth year of transformation, the freshman music theory courses (MTHC 105 Theory 1 and MTHC 115 Theory 2), required of all music majors, have become more focused on active learning, which adopts a student-centered approach. My transformation began with a grant from the Center for Teaching Excellence that allowed me to “flip” the classroom. To do this, I filmed about 50 videos to replace the textbook. Students watched the videos before attending class, and I created short quizzes to assess students’ understanding of these videos before class.

After flipping the classroom, the next year’s transformation addressed the following question: How can we broaden the horizons of music theory classes to include more recent genres, such as popular music? Students in the School of Music enter a number of fields, such as performance, education, and therapy. In previous years, music theory has concentrated on the canon of classical music (c. 1700-1820), but students, in their careers, will interact with this tradition to varying degrees, some not at all; in fact, many will deal more with popular music, jazz, and other styles.

My project for the 2016-17 academic year involved transforming music theory from just a required course into something that students perceived as related to real-world musicianship. A staple of most, if not all music theory courses, is a practice known as “model composition.” Over the course of some or all of a single class period, students compose a piece of music that satisfies a number of parameters being taught that day. My question was: what if we remove the “model” from model composition, and have the students write and perform “real” music?

To meet this aim, I designed six new composition projects, each of which asked students to use what they learned in class to accomplish diverse tasks that they might encounter in their lives. These projects—three per semester—were added to the already existing structure of assignments, quizzes, and exams. Students worked together on week-long collaborations and performed their pieces at the end of the week.


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IMPLEMENTATION

Timeline

I developed these new composition projects as part of the 2016 Best Practices Institute hosted by the KU Center for Teaching Excellence. They were ready and implemented shortly afterward in the 2016–17 year. Here are brief descriptions of the projects, as well as where they fall within the two-semester sequence:

MTHC 105 (Theory 1): Fall 2016

  • Week 6: Arrange a pop song for classical instruments
  • Week 12: Compose and perform a pop song
  • Week 16: Compose backing vocals for a pop song and perform them along with the original recording

MTHC 115 (Theory 2): Spring 2017

  • Week 6: Compose a film score and perform it along with the film
  • Week 12: Compose and perform a pop song
  • Week 16: Compose backing vocals for a pop song and perform them along with the original recording

While there is some duplication in the six projects—students are asked to compose pop songs and backing vocals in both Theory 1 and Theory 2—the specific requirements are updated in the second semester to reflect new skills the students have learned. Specifically, the students have a greater understanding of chromatic harmony (chords outside of the home key) in the second semester and must apply these new tools in the second semester version of the project.

Complete project descriptions, including rubrics for each, can be viewed here.

  1. Week 7: Arranging Project Guidelines and Rubric
  2. Week 7: Film Score and Performance Guidelines and Rubric
  3. Week 12: Standard Progression Project Guidelines and Rubric
  4. Week 13: Popular Music Composition and Performance Guidelines and Rubric

Revisions

I was so happy with the results of the 2016 projects that I changed virtually nothing in the second year. However, in Fall 2017 I noticed a big difference in the most successful pop song compositions. In the project description, I specify that each group must use a rhythm layer. I leave it up to them whether this is a real live drum set player, a programmed drum machine, or smaller percussion instruments. Most pop songs we hear on the radio use either a real drum set or a drum machine. The students who did this ended up with pop songs that actually sound commercially viable. The students who took the easier way out, only bringing in a tambourine or shaker, produced songs that did not sound commercially viable. Starting in Spring 2018, I began to require that students use either a drum set or drum machine. In order to require this, I had to spend some class time teaching students how to program Apple’s Garageband software, which can produce studio-quality drum sounds.

My original title for the Backing Vocals project was the Applied Chord Singalong. The word singalong in the title, and in the description, caused some unexpected problems in student understanding. Many students thought that they were supposed to sing along with the lead vocals in the pop song, rather than sing the backing vocals they composed. In Fall 2017, I changed the title of the project, and this has led to students understanding both the goals of the project and its real-world significance.

Snapshots of the process

Because I want students to be able to work together in their groups of four to five without the cacophony of music that comes from five such groups playing music together in the same room, I let the students meet wherever they’d like on the Monday–Thursday of project week. This also facilitates the students meeting wherever their large, non-moveable instruments (such as pianos, drum sets) may be housed.

To keep tabs on them throughout the week, I utilized Collaborate for the first two years, a tool which basically works like Skype, but gives the instructor more power to toggle between several different groups of students. I built a separate Collaborate room for each of the groups. Each morning of the project week, they would log on with a laptop, with the camera and microphone trained on the group as they worked. This served two functions. First, it allowed me to make sure that everybody in the group was present and contributing. Second, if there were problems, I could chime in (usually with a chat window) with assistance. The students could ask me questions through this mechanism as well. I’ve taken some screenshots of me interacting with the students through Collaborate, which you can view here.

For instructors looking to do this, I have several suggestions. Put each group in a separate tab in your web browser. This will allow you to mute all but one, so that you can listen to one individual group at a time without the noise of the other groups. Also, insist that students ask you questions only over the chat mechanism, and not using their mic. After all, the odds are that you will probably not be listening to that group when they ask the question!

In Spring 2018 all of this close electronic attention started to feel like I was running a surveillance state in my classroom. So, I decided to trust the students more. I asked that by 8:05 they simply email me a selfie of everyone in their group together, and, by 9:05 they email me two sentences: 1. one thing they accomplished today, and 2. one thing they’d like to accomplish by the end of the day tomorrow. Now in my second semester of this simple system, I see no diminishing returns in student work.

On Friday of project weeks, we all come back together to perform and listen to each other’s compositions. I try to do this in Swarthout Recital Hall as much as possible, in order to give the students the most realistic performance experience possible. Each of the performances is recorded. I’ve started (in Fall 2016) suggesting that students upload their work to YouTube to share with their friends and family. In the next section, I’ll link to some of those performances and discuss which ones are the most successful, and why.


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STUDENT WORK

I have collected all of these performances on a continually updating YouTube Channel called KU Music Theory Projects. It gives all students instant, easy access to viewing their performance, and provides an easy way for them to share it with their friends and family. Furthermore, it’s incredibly simple and quite nearly seamless from an instructor’s perspective. I record the performances on my iPad, then upload them from the YouTube app. Students can watch this video roughly ten minutes after their performance concludes. Finally, I do think of what we are doing in class as public-facing work. If a prospective student, or even a state taxpayer wanted to see what sorts of things were going on at the flagship institution, this provides an easy (and fun) way to check in.

I should note that I have foregone traditional waivers and release statements on my YouTube Channel. Such things are absolutely necessary if you’re hosting videos on a university server. After uploading, I send my students a statement saying “if anyone in your group wishes me to take this video down, for any reason, at any time, email me and it’s done, no questions asked.”

Findings

This project has helped alleviate fears I’ve harbored about undergraduate music theory for a long time: that students don’t see the connection between what they learn in the class and “real-world” application. Whether they major in music or not, most musicians will write a song. Most music majors will be asked at some point to arrange a song for a classical ensemble, and some will be asked to score a film. In this way, the projects address a range of activities that musicians and music majors will be asked to do.

From a more shallow perspective, I hoped that students would notice the real-world aspect of the course and that these observations would make their way into course evaluations. We’ve all seen comments like “I didn’t see the point of this class.” Now, I get comments like this from an anonymous reviewer: ““I especially liked the popular music and projects that he integrated into the class. It really helped me see my theory skills at use.”

Assessment

I distribute a rubric for each project to the students, but, to be honest, I rarely use it. First, I’m far more interested in the process than the product. If students show up and participate all week, I feel like they’ve earned an A. Second, a musical performance is such a qualitative project that it’s difficult to assess numerically—especially when I’m watching in real time and am positively thrilled at what’s happening. I lose the critical distance needed for real assessment. I’d suggest that instructors wishing to take on a more quantitative assessment would rewatch the video, perhaps days later, to gain such objectivity.

Future applications

I’m now in the third year of these projects and, aside from the tweaks regarding specifying “real” percussion and dropping the Collaborate surveillance, I haven’t changed much.

One possibility, especially if we continue to make use of the YouTube medium, would be to have students record and upload their own performance. Rather than have one chance in a ten-minute window in class, students could really take their time to get a performance they’re happy with. They could also record in a space that sounds better than the classroom, and one which has instruments such as drum sets and guitar amps that they are currently having to haul in. To make this work, I’d also have to give a crash course in recording techniques.

This extra day of outside class work (they would no longer come in on Friday) would also give the other students in the class the opportunity to comment (publicly, on YouTube) critically on the performance. Currently, when I ask for comments and questions in the classroom after one of these performances, the crickets come out, and I’ve essentially stopped asking. Other students in the class seem to either be nervous about their own presentations, or just waiting patiently for their chance to perform.


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Professor Brad Osborn

Brad Osborn

Reflections

As a scholar of popular music myself, I view this project as one more (admittedly large) step in a series of modifications I’ve made over time to the undergraduate music theory curriculum that highlights popular music alongside Western classical music. Other steps I’ve taken include changing many of the examples I use to demonstrate core music theoretical concepts. I can teach the submediant chord just as well (if not better) using a Rihanna song as I can a Beethoven sonata. Going deeper, I’ve also begun to interrogate those supposedly core music theoretical concepts themselves. Shouldn’t we be spending just as much time teaching verse/chorus and strophic forms (the stuff of Top-40 pop) as we do on the 18th-century “rondo” form?

While the answer to that question seems simple enough to me, most institutions do not take the time to do so. Part of the problem is that undergraduate textbooks (which most of us still rely on) are heavily skewed toward classical music. This is changing slowly, with authors typically adding new sections to pre-existing chapters, or adding new examples by popular musicians, musicians of color, or women every time a new edition is released. But these projects are more of a quantum leap. It’s a full week of immersion in the popular music the students were familiar with before they even came to college to study music.

With our school’s increasing focus on DEI and retention (which are, of course, related), I’d like to figure out ways to use what we’re doing in this class (specifically though these projects) as a way to aid in both of those efforts. Including more popular music in my class has also made it easy for me to include more music by minorities and women. The classical canon does not abound with many composers who are not white, cisgendered males. The more I can impress upon current and incoming students that we are studying music made by people who look and/or feel like they do, the more I have a chance of reaching them (and retaining them).

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio: cte@ku.edu.


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