Rhythms of the World MOOC

Course: World Music: Global Rhythms
Length: 5 weeks, 5-6 hrs/wk
School/platform: MIT/edX
Instructor: Leslie A. Tilley

In this course, you’ll be learning about musical rhythm from across the world. You don’t have to read music notation to take this course; you don’t have to play an instrument. You don’t need to know any special musical terminology or theory to begin; You will learn all the concepts you need as we go… and the terminology and how it varies across the world. The course will explore music from all over the world and throughout time, from traditional African music, to Balinese Gamelan, to classical Japanese, Indian, and Western music, to contemporary reggaetone and punk music. You will learn how to recognize specific kinds of rhythms, and follow their development through time and around the world. You will also learn how different cultures developed different styles and ideas about rhythm, meter, melody and structure, and learn to start to distinguish some main ideas.

What Prof. Tilley does quite well here is encourage students to embody the rhythms she’s discussing, by embodying them herself. “Tap your foot!” she says, “shake your head, slap your thigh, clap, tap the table!” She has a good presence on camera without that deer-in-the-headlights stiffness so many mooc professors get when they lecture. She’s constantly in motion – tapping, nodding, clapping, running a clip, demonstrating kriya – hand motions used in Indian classical music – conducting a beat with one hand, tapping the rhythm with the other. It’s a very engaging methodology.

For those with less musical background: True to the teaser, at no point is reading music required; everything uses felt/heard rhythm. If terms like “monophony” seem scary, don’t worry, they’re well explained.

About half the music discussed was familiar to me, present if not originally from the Western world: European classical traditions, American jazz, rock, and pop, ballroom dance from Austria to Cuba to Argentina. And to that point, Tilley doesn’t miss the opportunity to point out how rhythms from Western Africa ended up in twentieth and twenty-first century American top-forty tunes:

Now, you’ll find elements of the tresillo rhythm in a bunch of important timelines all over Africa and Latin America. And a lot of this has to do, unfortunately, with slave trading. Many really, really great drumming traditions in sub-Saharan Africa, out of which rhythms like tresillo grew, come from West Africa, places like Ghana and Senegal. And many of the people who were stolen from their homes and forced into slavery in North America also came from West Africa. And their rhythms traveled with them. So rhythms like tresillo are ubiquitous in pop music now. But they have a much longer history, which I encourage you to learn more about.

She also mentions Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay “The Danger of a Single Story” – an essay I’ve mentioned in these pages before – in connection with habanera rhythm:

The wonderful Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, talks about what she calls the danger of the single story. When we know very little about a place or a people, the one thing we learn about them becomes a one-dimensional story of who they are. Not necessarily untrue, but definitely incomplete. And this is even more dangerous when there’s a power imbalance between the two sides as we inescapably get from a history of colonialism. The habanera rhythm in the 19th century became, in some ways, like a sonic, single story of Cuba and, by extension, the rest of Latin America and the Spanish-speaking world. And it became associated with characters like Carmen. And effective though that scene and that musical decision may be, she then becomes her own kind of single story and perpetuates stereotypes through that reduction. It’s a way to exoticize in a single sound. Lots to think about there and perhaps an online class isn’t quite the right forum to open up that particular Pandora’s box, but I hope you’ll listen to Chimamanda’s TED Talk and think about these important questions of representation in music and elsewhere.

In the I-Love-A-Good-Coincidence department: I usually have one old series going on Netflix at any given time as sleepy-time fare, and while I was taking this course, it was the comedy 30 Rock. Several times in the first season, I heard a habanera (S1E3,5:52; you don’t wanna know how long it took me to find that) – a different melody, but the rhythm was unmistakable.

Other topics included conducting motions for standard, cut, and three-four time; various kinds of multiple strands (monophony, biphony, homophony, and polyphony), syncopation, and density. Musical examples ranged from Asia to Africa and South America; although much of the music was Western, or at least Western-adopted, about half came from other places and showed the variety that might exist in, say, northern and southern India, eastern and western Africa.

The course consists of fourteen very short modules, each of which includes a couple of five-to-ten minute lecture/demonstrations, plus several activities: rhythm-matching applets (click the space bar on the beat; press p on the downbeat and q on the upbeat; etc), multiple-choice questions, discussion questions, self-graded essays. I took the audit course, so graded assessments were paywalled; for only $49 they can be unlocked. I found the rhythm matching exercises to be helpful, but difficult, since I can’t really tap my spacebar fast enough. And, perhaps the most important thing I learned from this course, it turns out I have a very poor sense of rhythm. Oh, I can handle four/four, three/four, six/eight time easily enough, but when it comes to other rhythms, I start to trip over myself. But it was fun to try.

I took this as a recreational mooc, meaning I didn’t work very hard at it (one of the benefits of moocs is that you can choose where to focus your efforts; here, I let it be fun, not work). I think it would be a great course for anyone producing their own music, whether as an artist or for use in videos or games. Even for me, with no delusions of being a songwriter, the ideas were swarming around – “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to use this and do that with it.” And it’s just interesting to see what music means in different places.

Music MOOCs are incredibly difficult to put together. I’ve taken several – including the Balinese Gamelan mooc by the same MIT World Music faculty – and I can tell you, it’s not easy to convey elements of musical technique, theory, or style to unknown students of varying backgrounds in asynchronous format. Sometimes it works, like it did here, for the purposes outlined.

Balinese Music: Gamelan mooc

Course: World Music: Balinese Rhythms
Length: 10? weeks, 6-7? hrs/wk
School/platform: edX/MIT
Instructor: Evan Ziporyn, Dewa Alit

This course provides an introduction to Balinese music, and the role of music in Balinese culture. Students will have the opportunity to both learn about and watch Balinese performances, as well as start to learn and practice the rhythms and techniques of Balinese gamelan online, using the “Jamelan” game. The “Jamelan” game, developed by MIT Professor of the Practice Eran Egozy, consists of rhythm recognition software similar to that used in ‘rhythm-based’ video games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band, which Egozy also developed. Using the Jamelan, learners’ progress is tracked and measured so that they can play along, hearing their accuracy audibly, but also having that accuracy measured digitally. By merging hands-on pedagogical tools based on traditional Balinese teaching methods, with new digital tools based on the gaming industry, the resulting learning experience is potent.

What, you never heard of Balinese gamelan music? Yeah, neither had I, and I’m still trying to process that MIT has a music department – and a music department deep enough to have a world music section, one that’s willing to put on a mooc, to boot.

It’s one of those courses that just drifted irresistibly across my feed, whispering enroll, you know you want to. I was a little daunted by the “10 weeks, 6-7 hours/week” time estimation, but I figured, what’s the worst that could happen, I don’t finish. In retrospect, I’m not sure where they got those numbers from. All the material is released at once; it’s a six-lecture course, with one or two videos totaling about 20 minutes, and two or three jamelan exercises each. The jamelan will take a while to get used to, and I found it helpful to repeat the exercises every day or so. Still, I would consider the time estimate wildly inflated: I finished it all in a little more than a week, a couple of hours a day at most.

Gamelan turns out to be a type of music involving predominantly percussion instruments, particularly various kinds of metal or bamboo marimba-like instruments. Sometimes dance is involved, either solo or group. There’s a small subset of gamelan that’s used to accompany shadow puppet plays. The music can have religious or secular purposes.

One of the most interesting aspects, and the one emphasized by the design of the mooc, is the way new musicians are taught. There’s no musical notation. Musicians might play their instruments, particularly the mid-size iron gangsa we used, with their very young children on their laps. Later, a student will sit across from a gangsa and imitate the instructor’s movements: the rhythms, the notes, and damping techniques to keep the sound crisp. For the purposes of this mooc, they created a digital gangsa (designed by the Guitar Hero guy, I discovered) dubbed the Jamelan for us to learn a few parts by imitating Dewa Alit, master gamelan musician and MIT Artist-in-Residence for the past decade. It was great fun. At times my aging fingers failed me, but it was still quite an experience.

Lectures were provided by Prof. Evan Ziporyn, who in 1993, founded Gamelan Galak Tika (get it? Say it fast), MIT’s gamelan ensemble. Yeah, here I go again, MIT has a gamelan ensemble and has had one for twenty-seven years?? I’ve got to get out more. He described some of the traditional and modern uses of gamelan, as well as musical elements such as the structure of interlocking parts and the importance of damping.

I struggled a bit with the lingo. It’s not just that it’s in an unfamiliar language; I found it hard to organize it all: this is a type of music, this is an instrument, this is a subset of that type. I posted a question on the discussion board, along with a crude outline of what I thought the divisions were, and received a prompt and helpful reply the next morning. My biggest confusion was about the word “gamelan” itself: is it a type of music, or a type of instrument? Turns out it’s sort of both, similar to how Western music might use the term “string quartet” to describe a type of music with a certain structure played by certain instruments. That helped a lot.

One of the extraordinary benefits of moocs – and one overlooked in the age of “get skills and a certificate to improve your job prospects” – is the ability to check out things you’ve never heard of before and might never have otherwise heard of. This mooc succeeds wildly on this dimension. It was one of those completely unexpected moocs that sometimes crop up, one of the best aspects of moocdom. I wouldn’t say it was the best mooc I’d taken, but you know what, teaching music is hard, putting up moocs is hard, and teaching music in asynchronous mode to people from all over with a wide range of musical experience is really hard. I love that they did this, and I love that they have other courses in the works.

19th Century European Opera MOOC: Prof. Kelly does it again

Course: 19th-Century Opera: Meyerbeer, Wagner, & Verdi
Length: 6 weeks, 3-5 hrs/wk
School/platform: Harvard, edX
Instructor: Thomas Forrest Kelly

Travel through central Europe in the 1800s to experience the premieres of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Wagner’s Das Rheingold, and Verdi’s Otello…. You’ll learn about the musical details of each opera and the cultural influence of the works by understanding the circumstances of its composition, premiere performance, and its legacy and significance today.
What you’ll learn:
▪ The technologies behind 1830s French opera performances
▪ The relationships among major players in the premiere of Les Huguenots
▪ How Romanticism differed from the optimism of the Enlightenment
▪ The different singing styles in French Grand Opera
▪ Innovations in staging between the three periods of opera.
▪ How Wagner represented characters and situations with musical themes
▪ How Wagner’s approach to opera influenced Verdi’s Otello
▪ How Act I of Otello looked and sounded at the premiere

At the start of this course, I had absolutely no knowledge of Meyerbeer, an active dislike of Wagner, and a great fondness for Verdi, recently stoked by Stephen Greenblatt’s mooc on Othello. I came away at the end of the course with a better understanding of all three. And, as in all his moocs, Prof. Kelly made the journey entertaining.

As I’ve said of these courses before (I’ve taken all seven, though I haven’t blogged each one), they’re only partly about the music. Kelly creates a comfortable gestalt of history, biography, technology, and music, including interviews with directors and recording historians, to present the works in a context of time and space. For instance, I didn’t know that Meyerbeer and the Grand Opera of the French 19th century expanded the technology of stagecraft; that Wagner built the Bayreuth theatre specifically for his Ring cycle, and had some unusual ideas about its presentation (lack of boxes for royalty and the upper crust, save a box for the Prince who helped fund the work, for one; a prohibition on applause between acts, for another); or that Verdi incorporated several of Wagner’s musical techniques into his Otello while still keeping his own signature approach.

Each lecture video is followed by a short set of questions. For this entry in the series, I didn’t even do my usual note-taking, but answered the questions while the videos were playing. The only tricky part were the musical recognition questions, few in number: which motif is this, what instrument is playing, that sort of thing. I also didn’t participate in discussion, but the forums were active with others who did.

I again recommend this course to anyone with even a little interest in the material; it has a way of grabbing your imagination as things go on. I tend to have a preference for more academic moocs, but for these, I make an exception: they’re wonderful little stories, and, for those who are motivated to take it all more seriously, additional resources are available.

Three years ago the first of Thomas Forrest Kelly’s music moocs popped up out of nowhere, delighting me with a charming, informative look at Handel’s Messiah. And now, the series, based on Kelly’s two “First Nights” books, wraps up with a look at three nineteenth-century operas from three European settings. I can only hope he brings some of his other books to moocdom.

Operamooc: First Nights of the 18th Century – Handel and Mozart

Course: 18th-Century Opera: Handel & Mozart
Length: 5 weeks, 3-4 hrs/wk
School/platform: HarvardX/edX
Instructor: Thomas Forrest Kelly

In this breathtaking course, you’ll get to know the music of two beautiful operas — both in their spellbinding artistry and colorful histories.
First, you’ll travel to London in 1724, where George Frederic Handel premiered his most famous opera, Giulio Cesare. Meet the performers and experience what it was like to attend the first production, all while gaining an appreciation for the typical characteristics of Italian opera represented in this popular Baroque opera seria.
Then fast-forward 63 years to the Estates Theatre in Prague for the premiere of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s enduring classic, Don Giovanni. Learn about the challenges Mozart faced during the rehearsal process and the revolutionary relationship he created between music and drama in this opera.

I’m not sure what it is about Prof. Kelly’s lecture style that makes his courses so much fun, but this is the sixth one I’ve taken and they’re all delightful. Here he focuses on 18th century opera through two very different approaches: the recitative/aria model used by Handel and others early in the period, and the more melodic and dramatic style that emerged later with Mozart, culminating in Don Giovanni.

No music background is required or expected. That isn’t to say that musicology is overlooked. We find out about key changes that came to characterize the classical period, the different structural parts of the music (ritornello, cavatina), and, most importantly, the ways the structure and sound of the music contribute to the emotional and dramatic whole of the piece (the discussion of “La Ci Darem La Mano” is not to be missed!). But everything is explained for those with little or no background in music or opera.

Overall the course is probably best described as music appreciation: a conversational approach to the music’s history, the stage presentation, the conventions of singing and stage performance at the time, explanations of why the opera was written to begin with, and details of the opening night performances. Much of it is told in an anecdotal manner rather than the typical lecture style. A few questions, mostly multiple choice (but a couple aiming for listening skills) follow each video. For me, it was a recreational mooc, a wonderful way to wind down for an hour or so at the end of the day.

Although I was primarily interested in classical singing – choral, art songs, madrigals – I hated opera until my late 20s, when I found ways to understand one work, then another and another. I still wouldn’t call myself an opera buff; I love a group of a half-dozen or so, and like some arias from another dozen, but you’d have to chain me to my seat to get me to sit through Fidelio again (the first time I saw it at least I was at Tanglewood, which is beautiful no matter what’s playing). The truism that understanding changes attitudes is a truism for a reason: it’s true. And if Prof. Kelly ever explains Wagner, well, I just might surprise myself by liking that, too. And oh, by the way – there’s a 19th century session in the works. I can’t wait!

Ode to Joy MOOC

Course: Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the 19th Century Orchestra
School/Platform: Harvard/edX
Instructors: Thomas Forrest Kelly

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.

Need a little Christmas? Handel and chill: Messiah MOOC

Course: First Nights: Handel’s Messiah and Baroque Oratorio
School: Harvard via edX

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

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
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
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.