1. Repetition Counts
  2. Consistency and Rigor Matter
  3. More Assessment Opportunities are Better than Fewer
  4. Prompt Feedback and Specific Grading Are Important for Learning
  5. Involve Students in Finding Examples
  6. Have Fun!

We chatted with Dr. Melissa Hoag on making music theory fundamentals musical, fun and relevant. She shared these six tips from her chapter "Putting the Music in 'Music Fundamentals'" in The Routledge Companion to Music Theory Pedagogy. To hear each one explained (and more), listen to the full episode on Putting Music in “Music Fundamentals” with Melissa Hoag:

Repetition Counts

In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus’ study of learning and memory resulted in the forgetting curve hypothesis – the moment you learn something, you have a 100% chance of getting it right, but if no attempt is made to retain the information, that chance quickly plummets with time. Each time we review a fundamental, or ask a question on a test, it’s a moment of learning that brings the students back up to 100%, and the curve falls at a more shallow rate with each moment of review. If fundamentals never leave, if we review and reassess topics already addressed, we significantly decrease the rate of forgetting, and conversely, increase the rate of retention for those topics.

Consistency and Rigor Matter

Hold the students to a consistent, high standard, and they will meet it. But if you only hold students to mediocracy, they will only meet that. Right from the start, be specific and consistent. Sharps have to be centered on the correct line. They don't need to be beautiful, but accurate. Students know if they don’t have a good grasp of music theory, and they don’t want to feel unprepared.

More Assessment Opportunities are Better than Fewer

Give students lots of assessment opportunities, rather than one behemoth, terrifying do-or-die test situation. Repeated chances means ample opportunities to raise a grade, demonstrate strengths and find and improve on weaknesses.

Prompt Feedback and Specific Grading Are Important for Learning

Try to turn things around by the next class period, so students have time to get feedback to improve before the next assignment is due. Better yet, turn to technology, like uTheory, for automatic grading, immediate feedback and individualized practice, so students don’t have to wait two days to find out whether they've written that scale correctly.

Involve Students in Finding Examples

Using music that your students are listening to is a great way to engage them. Ask your students for their current favorite music, and take a few minutes to listen and analyze it as a class. Better yet, tell students what to listen for, and invite them to bring those examples to you. It takes just a few minutes out of class, but it really helps the students feel engaged and know that you care about what they're interested in. And it's also a really easy way to diversify what you're teaching, or at least keep up with popular music.

Have Fun!

Use puns. Be silly. Use games. Be approachable. Use diversity of repertoire. Don’t just read, write and drill without applying it to real music. Invite the students to engage their own musicianship. We want students to discover how interesting and fun music theory is. Allow students to find the joy and excitement that comes with learning music theory.

Notes From The Staff is a podcast from the creators of uTheory. Join us for conversations about pedagogy, music theory, ear training, and music technology with members of the uTheory staff and thought leaders from the world of music education. Subscribe to Notes From The Staff on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.