Getting it down

February 28, 2019 - MSU Music Communications Office

Jackson Hall had zero background in music theory before he came to Michigan State University to study music education. But after his first semester, the college freshman stands grounded in the fundamentals he needs for advanced coursework.

Undergraduate student and graduate tutor working in the Music Theory Learning CenterHall credits his newfound understanding of music theory to a recently enhanced required course in the College of Music. During Fall Semester 2018, Hall was among 24 undergraduates who supplemented their classroom time with a once-a-week lab as part of the “Fundamentals of Music” course—also known as Music 180.

“I was very glad I was required to take the lab because without it, I would have been lost,” Hall said. “I felt like I could ask simpler questions in a smaller setting without feeling judged.”

Hall’s outcome is exactly what the college’s Music Theory area had in mind when it broadened the scope of Music 180 to add Music 180E, said Michael Callahan, chair of the Music Theory area. By adding another hour of student-faculty interaction to the fast-moving, mainstay course, Callahan said students can get the extra attention they need to master essential concepts.

“We want to empower students with everything they need to be successful in their study of music,” said Callahan. “It’s important for them to learn what we’ve designed for them to learn, particularly in these key required classes.”

Setting a successful tone

Callahan and area faculty sensed extra support was needed when they noticed more students having trouble in the first-semester music theory course. Many students were not quite mastering the fundamentals by the time the course ended. The consensus was that an increasing number of first-year students had little to no music theory background and were struggling with concepts they needed for their later studies.

Instruction in the Music Theory Learning Center“Music theory is critical to a student’s musicianship,” Callahan said. “It gives them tools for understanding how music works that they can apply toward performance, teaching, composing and conducting. It’s a core skill of being a musician.”

The area proposed that incoming students take a short test in the summer to assess their knowledge of music theory. Students would be placed in a particular course based on their test results. For the beginning theory course, students with more background in music theory were placed in a typical twice-a-week class; those with the least background and at more risk in Music 180 were placed in a section which included an additional lab.

“Our hope was that the 180E lab class would give some of the students a boost in mastering the basics,” said Associate Professor of Music Theory Bruce Taggart. “That way, they wouldn’t have to focus on the basics as they tried to learn other concepts in later courses.”

Tutoring in thee Music Theory Learning CenterTaggart and Music Theory Instructor Patrick Johnson were the two faculty who staffed the lab in addition to teaching six sections of the course. They were joined by three graduate students who answered questions, provided tutoring, or worked in small groups to examine key concepts.

Johnson said that the lab sessions were smaller in size than the actual classes, about 12 students each. That smaller size allowed for more one-on-one attention from him or graduate assistants.

“I think it helped many of the students feel more comfortable about asking questions than they might have felt in a full-sized lecture,” he said. “The smaller size also made it easier to do a variety of activities.”

Graduate student Zachary Lloyd agreed. Lloyd worked in the lab over Fall semester and is a first-year master’s student in music theory. He understands the rigors of the discipline and believes that tutoring helps remove the negative stigma students sometimes feel when they need help.

“I hope it shows students that it is OK to not understand something and to ask for help,” said Lloyd. “Access to a tutoring center creates a built-in support system for our students, and helps them to be as successful as possible in their later courses.”  

Justin Cayao said that participating in lab sessions solidified his understanding. Although he had some music theory instruction in high school, he said the lab reinforced and built on that knowledge, and set him up to succeed in the next course of the music theory sequence.

“The lab also gave me the opportunity to work with and help my classmates—especially those who had no prior education in music theory,” said the freshman in music education. “Now that I’m in MUS 181, all the information that I reinforced in 180 has helped me apply the new material.”