Musical MOOC

Art by Nick Daniels

Art by Nick Daniels

Course: Fundamentals of Music Theory
School: University of Edinburgh, via Coursera (free).
Instructors: Dr Michael Edwards, Dr Zack Moir, Richard Worth, Dr Nikki Moran, Dr John Philip Kitchen
This course will introduce students to the theory of music, providing them with the skills needed to read and write Western music notation, as well as to understand, analyse, and listen informedly. It is suitable for those who have never studied music academically but will also be useful to experienced musicians who wish to extend and develop their practice through a grounding in the tools of Western music theory and notation. We assume no experience with notation whatsoever.
The course will provide the basis for the further study of music both from a theoretical and practical point of view: musicology, composition (both pastiche and free), analysis, performance, and aural skills. You will cover material such as pitches and scales, intervals, clefs, rhythm, form, meter, phrases and cadences, and basic harmony.

[Addendum: This course has been converted to the new Coursera platform; content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be different]

If that seems, to those with some musical training, like an awful lot of stuff to learn over 5 weeks… you’re right, it is.

I signed up for this course on impulse. I learned to read music – first self-taught, then from piano lessons, choral singing, and a high school music theory course – back in the 60s, but I’ve never been truly conversant in music. I’m not surprised; the same people who do well in math, also do well in music, since music itself – pitch, rhythm, tone – is made up of mathematical structures (just ask Vi Hart, whose musical “Folding Space-Time” video is one of my favorites). And of course, I do pretty poorly in both. My mathematical struggles are well-documented here, and, though I can sing pretty well once I’ve learned a part, I’m only a mediocre sight-reader, and I’ve never met an instrument I could actually play. A former boyfriend learned to play Beethoven’s Sonata (“Moonlight”) over the course of a month by watching me play one measure at a time – and memorizing which keys to hit. At the end of a month, he played it better than I did. I don’t think I ever forgave him for that.

And yet, music touches me deeply, as it does most people, I suppose. Most of my memories have added soundtracks. I associate people, courses, events with “theme songs” (though I never called them that until Ally McBeal came up with it). So I keep trying. I figured, since I’ve been devoting so much time to math, maybe my ability to analyze music had improved.

I figured wrong.

This was, for me, a hard course; I can’t imagine how hard it was for someone who’d never learned the basics of notation, where the G falls on the treble clef, what an eighth note is, the key signatures. I did all the quizzes, but I never did complete the final project (which was, in my defense, listed as “optional”), an analysis of a couple of pages of a Mozart string quartet. Really? after five weeks of music theory, you want me to work out the harmonic progressions and the phrase structure? I’ll be honest: I just didn’t want to work that hard, and that’s my fault; my motivation wasn’t there. I didn’t take this course out of a real desire to learn, or re-learn, music theory.

So why did I – and students struggling even harder than I – stick with it? Because the instructors worked so hard to teach, they inspired me to work a little harder to learn. The next time someone who’s never taken a MOOC writes an article about how an online course with 40,000 students can’t possibly match the “personal experience” of bricks-and-mortar college, here’s another example (just ask me, and I’ll list them all) of how personal and intense the MOOC experience can be.

Before the course even started, the twitter account (@musictheorymooc) was alive and kicking, sending and retweeting all sorts of clever things (like a Bobby McFerrin video about the universality of the pentatonic scale, and later, the Cycle of Fifths image used as header art above); both instructors and students were responsive and helpful. Throughout the course, new videos were made “on the fly” to respond to questions that cropped up frequently on the discussion forums. Google hangouts were scheduled for live interaction with instructors, quelling panic and increasing understanding. These are things that don’t show up in the course description, but which make a big difference to struggling students.

The effort the instructors put into actual teaching kept me active, and doing the weekly quizzes (which in most cases took at least an hour), until the very end. In that, it was as if the motivation of the instructors to teach was sufficient to keep me learning, in the absence of my own motivation. Not the way learning works best, but it was strong enough to keep me going; they made me want to do well in spite of myself.

So yes, it’s hard, but I can recommend it for those who are motivated to learn musical notation and theory. If you’re willing to put in some work, and you can tolerate a bit of frustration when you don’t understand something immediately, chances are you’ll learn quite a bit about what musicians talk about when they say things like “diminished seventh” and “modulation.” And you couldn’t be in better hands than with these folks from Edinburgh.

Even after all the MOOCs I’ve taken, I’m still not sure what makes the great ones work. Maybe it’s effectiveness in some combination of different elements: organization, presentation, inspiration, information, for instance. I’ve taken lecture-only courses, with no instructor involvement, that were terrific, maybe because I was highly interested in the subject matter (Fiction of Relationship, for example). I’ve taken courses that were incredibly hard for me – harder than this one – but I considered outstanding because they inspired me to learn more (Intro to Mathematical Thinking is the prime example). Sometimes, I start out pretty grumpy, but something happens during the course and I become a fanatic (I sulked through the first five weeks of Modpo, then caught on fire and became a more creative person as a result). Sometimes I admire the structure and design of the course (Corpus Linguistics) which perfectly dovetails the needs of rank beginners and practicing professionals; sometimes I’m inspired by the work that went into preparing materials for the class (SV Calculus), to the point where mastery of the material becomes a quest which I must complete, no matter how many times I have to repeat the course.

Like all MOOCs, it depends on what your goals are, and how much effort you’re willing to put into achieving those goals. The effort required here, of those with “no prior musical notation experience” as the course description says, is significant; just watching the videos won’t do it. Many of us spent a lot of time on which provides extensive exercises, and probably needs to be emphasized more in the course materials; that helped. Whether it’s worth it or not, is up to the student to decide. If you’re looking for a place to bullshit about “What is Music” or debate the relative merits of the Beatles vs Haydn, there are probably better courses (though there was some of that, particularly in the early weeks).

The value of this course for me lay outside mastering the technical material. I loved discovering that one instructor, Zach Moir, researched “The Impact of Cochlear Implants on Musical Experiences” as his doctoral dissertation, and composed and produced a show aimed at meeting the needs of this population; another, Nikki Moran, studied music as social interaction in India; instructor Michael Edwards specializes in musical composition algorithms through his adorably-named open source software, Slippery Chicken. I never realized academic music had such a wide scope, and I’m delighted to have discovered this.

And, for me, the course ended on a real high note.

On Monday, August 11, with my twitter feed full of the heartbreaking news of the death of Robin Williams and the tragedy of Ferguson, Missouri compounding by the hour, leaving me awash in fresh anger and sorrow with every photo and video clip, I dove into Music Theory: Week 5, Cadences. I figured it would tie my mind in knots and not leave any space for angst. But it did so much more than that.

Not only was it the most musically-relevant lecture in the course (cadences that feel “done”, versus “not done”; examples of chord progressions from actual music from Vivaldi to the Beatles; the course could use a few more examples like this), the very last video ended with instructor (and Edinburgh City Organist) John Kitchen’s lovely rendition of Bach’s C-major prelude (the accompaniment to one of the two most frequently performed Ave Marias) on harpsichord. It was a gift, a little flight into that other place music can take us to, a light, airy, ethereal place that fills the soul and makes us maybe a little better able to face reality. It reminded me what music is about for me – not which triad is half-diminished or how many dotted sixteenth notes and eighth note tuplets fit into a crotchet (if nothing else, I’m becoming a bilingual non-musican) but what music generates in us.

Thank you, musicians, for so generously sharing your gift with those of us who are not so blessed.

2 responses to “Musical MOOC

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