MSU Music Theory Area Climbs to Signature Role in Field

December 1, 2019 - MSU Music Communications Office

With more representation at a national conference than any other participating institution, the Music Theory area in Michigan State University’s College of Music positioned itself as a leading voice in the teaching and practice of music theory.


Last spring, four faculty and two master’s students presented, led workshops and received awards at the Pedagogy Into Practice conference in Santa Barbara, California. The conference is considered the largest stage worldwide for sharing research on music theory pedagogy and brought together scholars from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, China, and Europe. The biennial gathering focuses on teaching in the 21st century and examines ways to diversify and modernize music theory curriculum and teaching.

“Our representation at the conference illustrates the prominence of MSU’s Music Theory area in the national conversation about music theory pedagogy—one of our signature areas of focus,” said Michael Callahan, associate professor and chair of Music Theory. “The Music Theory area at MSU is really firing on all cylinders.”

A focus on curriculum

Held in late May, Pedagogy Into Practice delved into current research and direct application of music theory in the classroom. Attendees also examined the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and best practices for music theory education. The team from the MSU Music Theory area included Callahan, assistant professors Cara Stroud and James Sullivan, associate professor Leigh VanHandel, and master’s degree students Zachary Lloyd and Stephanie Bilidas.PIP presentation

“I’m really excited by how much of a voice our music theory area has in the national arena,” said Callahan. “I’m especially excited that part of that voice belongs to our master’s students in music theory, who are launching their scholarly careers while at MSU.”

As co-presenters, Lloyd and Bilidas shared a spot on stage as well as top honors for their original research on creating inclusive assessments in the music theory classroom. The Best Student Paper award, Callahan said, comes with a guaranteed publication in the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy. For Lloyd, it also came with a sense of shock, awe and inspiration.

“As a first generation college student and first generation musician, I had no idea that theory professors existed, or that the world of music theory existed past key signatures and chord progressions,” admitted Lloyd, who started his undergraduate experience as a computer science major. “Being accepted to present at the conference was huge, but finding out that we had been awarded the best student paper award was incredible.”PIP presentation

Of the faculty, three presented research papers, while VanHandel conducted a workshop. Callahan’s research posed questions on “interleaving,” and invited participants to explore the impact of studying multiple topics at once on music theory pedagogy. Sullivan’s research looked at “warming up to post tonal aural skills,” while Stroud’s presentation examine d the advantages of “intertextuality” and making connections across musical styles in the music theory classroom.

“By presenting at the conference, I hope to contribute to the ongoing discussion about curricular changes in music theory pedagogy,” said Stroud. “I’ve already heard from a participant that he used one of my activities in his classroom, and that his students really enjoyed it. I’m excited to use some of the lesson plans others shared at the conference in my classroom, too.”

VanHandel said she was inspired by the prospect of presenting practices from MSU, and by returning to campus with contemporary and innovative approaches to teaching. About 50 people attended her workshop, where she led participants through pedagogical techniques for making music theory more accessible to students by reducing the cognitive load of the material.PIP presentation

“There’s such a wonderful, supportive environment at the conference,” VanHandel said. “Everyone there was interested in teaching, and in sharing what they’ve been working on, including new classroom activities, projects and curricular ideas.”

A powerhouse of scholarship

Callahan remarked that the Pedagogy Into Practice conference signifies the vibrancy of the Music Theory pedagogy area, and in particular, its students.

Since 2017, the area’s master degree students have become a research powerhouse, with 27 conference presentations, seven attendees of national and regional graduate student workshops, and three Best Student Paper awards and publications—including the award from this year’s conference.

“This level of productivity is more typical of seasoned doctoral students, and even there, that’s not universal,” said Callahan. “I’m very proud of our students for all the scholarly initiative they’ve taken.”

As a further testament to the area’s recent successes, MSU was selected as the next host of the Pedagogy Into Practice conference, scheduled for the early summer of 2021.PIP presentation

“It’s simply an incredibly exciting time for our area and for the discipline of music theory pedagogy,” said Callahan. “We have a fantastic community devoted to excellence, which ensures we can continue to help move the profession forward in new and innovative ways.”

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