Ode to Joy MOOC

Course: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the 19th Century Orchestra
School/Platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: Thomas Forrest Kelly
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Harvard’s Thomas Forrest Kelly guides learners through all four movements of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, highlighting aspects of symphonic form, describing Beethoven’s composition process, the rehearsals and premiere performance, and the work’s continued relevance today.
You will learn the basics of musical form and analysis, the genres and styles used and the circumstances of this symphony’s first performance and subsequent history. Learners in this course need not have any prior musical experience.

Harvard music professor Thomas Forrest Kelly’s bookFirst Nights: Five Musical Premiers“, serves as a syllabus for his MOOC series. This is the second one I’ve taken, and it was just as enjoyable – and informative – as the first one on Handel’s Messiah (which I enthused about at length here).

These are gentle musical courses; at no point is it necessary to read music. There is some listening involved, recognizing themes or instruments. Mostly, it’s a detailed look at how the music is constructed to a specific purpose, in this case, to convey Beethoven’s frequent theme of light overcoming darkness.

Historical content is also included. True to the “First Night” title, each work’s premiere is covered: what the issues were, what it would’ve been like, the norms of the time. There’s a little biographical information as well. But the focus is on the music; in this case, on finding out why it’s considered a monumental work, what makes it different from other symphonies at the time, and the technical factors involved in creating the imagery and emotion that’s packed into the work. I actually thought they did a much more comprehensive job of this with the Handel, but that may be because the Beethoven encompasses a huge range of poetic, musical, social, psychological, and political elements; it’s a course designed for musical neophytes to complete in 5 weeks, so there is a limit to how much detail, of both breadth and depth, can be included.

I never took a single note during the Handel session; I’d intended it as a “recreational mooc.” I was going to pay more attention here, download the transcripts and significant screen shots, my usual approach with academic material. But I found that got in the way of the joy, and I wanted this to be about joy, not about work or achievement. I still did very well, score-wise; it’s a gut course, but a really good one. I love these courses. If Kelly’s book is followed, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring will be future courses. I’m somewhat familiar with Orfeo thanks to the Dartmouth opera course; it’s not my favorite music, but thanks to Prof. Steve Swayne, I understand why it’s of interest, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Prof. Kelly has to say. I’m looking forward to understanding more about Stravinsky and Berlioz as well; they’ve always been on the periphery of my musical tastes, but if anyone can ignite my interest and generate appreciation, Kelly can.

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Need a little Christmas? Handel and chill: Messiah MOOC

Course: First Nights: Handel’s Messiah and Baroque Oratorio
School: Harvard via edX
Instructors:
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While Italian opera set the standard in the Baroque era, German composer George Frederic Handel quickly gained popularity for his oratorios, which put operatic techniques to work in the service of sacred music. Handel’s Messiah premiered in Dublin on April 13, 1742, and remains popular to this day. Harvard’s Thomas Forrest Kelly (Morton B. Knafel Professor of Music) guides learners through Messiah’s musical highlights, while detailing Handel’s composition process, the preparations and rehearsals, and the premiere performance.
Learners in this module of First Nights need not have any prior musical experience. In this unit, you will learn the basics of musical form and analysis, the genres and styles used in Messiah, the circumstances of its first performance, and its subsequent history.

I hadn’t planned to take this course; I wasn’t even aware of it until one of my MOOCbuddies (hi, Richard!) mentioned it. I’ve sung most of The Messiah in bits and pieces over the years, not including the Hallelujah Chorus which I’ve performed (as soprano, alto, or tenor, as needed) about a dozen times in four different states – including one performance in a psychiatric hospital and one with a pick-up team of ESL tutors and our students in a nursing home, and one memorable year in which I performed it twice, once as soprano and once as tenor, with two different choruses. I always thought I was kind of sick of it.

But as it turned out, this was one of two perfect anecdotes to a world gone mad over the past weeks. No matter how bad the news, how crazy the antics of people who confuse reality and reality TV, I could relax for a short time in the evening with the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra and various members of the Holden Choir, the University Choir, and the teaching staff (another pick-up chorus of sorts, if a higher quality of pick-up) and the thoroughly charming Thomas Forrest Kelly – and Mr. Handel’s music.

No musical expertise is needed to enjoy the course. There’s a discussion of different types of composition styles – the various recitatives and choruses – but there’s plenty of demonstration. It’s also a look at the first performance from a historical point of view: where it was held, the customs of the day that would have prevailed (audiences were far less restrained), and a general discussion of musical authenticity. And there was music: small performances, granted, of the arias and choruses under discussion.

One of the discussions led to my finding the Claus Guth staged version on Youtube; it’s so bizarre, it’s like a different piece: sign language, a funeral, suicide, a christening, who knows what else. I have no idea what the thematic intention is, but it’s mesmerizing. And I never would’ve heard of it if I hadn’t signed up on impulse for this short, simple course – I never took a note, didn’t even open a file for it, missed a question or two, but still ended up with 105% somehow. This isn’t about rigorous academics: this is about truly appreciating music, something most music appreciation classes never bother with.

This course was exactly what I needed, at this time. And the best news is: it’s part of a whole First Night series; Beethoven’s 9th Symphony will be on the schedule in early 2016. Can’t wait!

Operatic MOOC

Dr. Swayne lectures from the Estates Theatre in Prague, where Mozart's Don Giovanni premiered

Dr. Swayne lectures from the Estates Theatre in Prague, where Mozart’s Don Giovanni premiered

Course: Introduction to Italian Opera
School: Dartmouth via edX
Instructors: Steve Swayne
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Want to listen to an opera for the first time? Have you been listening to opera for your entire life? This course is suited for beginners and advanced opera listeners alike!
This course is an introduction to Italian opera, focusing on giving you the tools and experiences to become better students of opera. Act I will give you a toolbox of skills to listen for specific moments and gestures in opera. Act II will focus applying these skills to listening activities with your favorite Italian composers. At the end of the course, we will help you to carry these experiences beyond the course, encouraging you to become lifelong listeners and lovers of opera.

I wouldn’t consider myself an opera fan specifically, but I do like a small subset of operas, most of which are indeed Italian. What I am is a proselytizer for MOOCs (while they’re still truly open; hurry, folks, because doors are slamming all over), and a writer friend told me he’d be interested in something on opera. So when I saw this on the edX schedule, I jumped at it. Turned out to be a good move; it was a great class. And it was nice to revisit some old favorites. It’s been a while.

The first three weeks introduced three analytic tools: the auditory microscope (close listening), the auditory telescope (historical development), and the auditory filters (structural conventions). The next three weeks used these tools to look, in turn, at bel canto operas, then Verdi, and finally Puccini and his contemporaries. I found the lectures fascinating; I’ve been listening to this music for years, but I had no idea so much was included in the opening duet of The Marriage of Figaro or the orchestration of La Traviata.

Grading was based on a variety of written assignments, some peer assessed, some self-reported. I decided to do this as a “recreational MOOC” so I didn’t do much of the writing, but the assignments were quite well-defined to develop listening and analytic skills introduced in the lectures, without demanding any specific knowledge of musical notation, theory, or composition. My impression is that they also allowed students with more musical background to work at their level as well.

Four sessions of “Office Hours” via Google Hangout were scheduled over the seven weeks, to answer questions raised in the forums. These were highly interesting; I enjoyed them greatly. Plenty of other resources for listening and exploring opera in various capacities were shared, both by staff and by students. The course Twitter feed was very active; in fact, the Dartmouth EdTech team was highly involved. I don’t go much for badges, but I do go for organizational support of MOOCs, and that was very evident here. I have another Dartmouth literature MOOC coming up in February, and I’ll be interested to see if the same thing holds.

Steven Swayne is a highly engaging lecturer; I wondered if he’d done any operatic performance himself, but it seems his performance strength is piano. He’s got that enthusiasm for the subject that so many good profs have. The material was well-organized and clear, the exercises relevant and just structured enough.

The “Finale” video, after all the lectures were lected and the assignments written and the course closed, was a beautiful example of how opera moves us, even when we aren’t aware of it as opera. The operatic scene from Philadelphia makes me cry every time I watch it – and I’m not even a Maria Callas fan! And I was reminded of Aretha’s peformance of “Nessun Dorma” at the Grammys back in the 90s: what a marvel. It was a lovely Thanksgiving present, and I’m grateful.

The course is going into Archive status, which means anyone can enroll and work the entire course at any pace, though not for any kind of certificate. Obviously there won’t be much (if any) forum activity, and there won’t be any peer assessment or new Office Hours – though I understand the videos of this session’s hangouts will be available.

I’m not sure the course will convert a symphonic specialist (or a Taylor Swift fan) to opera, but I once scoffed at opera until I was lucky enough to get a guided tour, so anything’s possible. In any case, I’d recommend this to anyone, at any level of musical expertise, as an enjoyable and informative overview of Italian opera.

Bravo! Hoping for a sequel on contemporary opera, or maybe even German opera (with these guys, I might even sit still for Wagner… nah, probably not), …

Musical History MOOC

Course: From the Repertoire: Western Music History through Performance
School: Curtis Institute of Music (PA) through Coursera (free)
Instructors: Jonathan Coopersmith, David Ludwig
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There are two goals for the course. The first is to understand a general survey of the development of Western classical music through the ages. By better understanding each piece we cover, you should arrive at the second and more important goal, which is to develop the skills and tools to research and understand other pieces of music on your own.

I signed up for this course on impulse, at the last minute, thinking it might make a nice relaxing complement to an intense schedule for this fall. As such, I decided going in I would approach it as “recreational learning” and would only do the assignments that interested me.

A lot of music, particularly that aimed at the non-musical public, tries to end on a “high note,” and this course certainly did; I fell in love in the last week, much to my surprise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Each week covered a different historical period. An overview of the pertinent social and musical history was followed by a biography of the featured composer and a “closer look” at a representative work, with detailed analysis of what happened musically in each performance. I especially liked that the pieces chosen weren’t the same things everyone’s heard a thousand times. For example: instead of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (which I dearly love), we looked at “the chaconne” from his violin partita; instead of a familiar Beethoven symphony, the Grosse Fuge was featured. I’m sure the experienced musicians in the class were familiar with these pieces, but they were new to me, and I enjoyed hearing them in the context of learning more about how they work. I could’ve found the Grosse Fuge on Youtube, but learning why it was a big deal is a different matter.

Of the seven periods (ancient and medieval, baroque, classical, early and late romantic, modern, post-modern), I expected to enjoy the first three the most; I’ve always had a fondness for Gregorian chants, motets, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. I did particularly enjoy the early-music week (I’m a fan of old stuff), but what surprised me was the thrill I found in the final week of post-modern music (what can I say, I like new stuff, too).

The highlight of the last week was an interview with contemporary American composer George Crumb. He made high-concept music seem perfectly reasonable. Too many times, artists talk in their own conceptual language, and leave the listener feeling stupid for not understanding (to wit, John Cage); that wasn’t the case here. I was quite enamored with the idea of “extended technique” – using instruments in atypical ways, such as singing into a flute, or strumming the strings of the piano instead of pressing the keys), and his graphic notation of the kind of new music is fascinating. I can’t say I’d put Vox Balaenae on my playlist, but it’s like conceptual poetry: understanding what’s going into it is incredible.

The course consisted of three main elements: video lectures, weekly quizzes, and three peer-assessment assignments. I watched every lecture and listened to each performance, and I did fine on all the quizzes, but I didn’t do the peer assessment assignments (which are ongoing as I post this – you can still enroll in the course if you’re interested in the materials, though of course you won’t get “grades”). The first one required the same kind of detailed musical analysis of technical details – modulations, theme developments, form – as the music theory course I took this summer, and, as before, I just didn’t want to work that hard. I would’ve liked to have done the second and third assignments – a biographical approach to the musical impact of a particular composer, and program notes – but since I’d already accepted I wouldn’t be “completing” the course with a certificate (I actually did earn a certificate, though not a Distinction mark), and because I needed the time in other courses, I skipped them as well.

I instead made additional effort to be more active on the message boards. I was virtually silent in the first weeks – I’m easily intimidated by those with more technical knowledge than I, and there’s a limit to how much “Do you like this? Oh, listen here…” I had time for. The staff did provide some interesting discussion questions and I participated in those with great enjoyment. Staff was active on the boards, always a good sign.

On the frivolous side, I give Curtis an award for best use of a logo in a video open on Coursera (though not necessarily all MOOCdom; I was also quite taken with one from an edX course). The music playing over the logo changed week to week to include the piece we would be studying = though it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that.

One of the best things about MOOCs is also what detractors see as a major flaw: a student can put as much or as little effort into them as desired (or as one has time for), which may or may not include “completing” the course (obtaining a certificate). Since I didn’t do the peer-assessment assignments, I didn’t complete (correction: turns out I earned a Certificate of Achievement after all, just didn’t get the “distinction.” ok). That’s fine with me; does anyone take a non-credit music course for a certificate? I enjoyed the course, and learned more about music; for me, it was a success.

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
 
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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 musictheory.net 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.