Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 2

Table of Contents

Writing Across the Music Theory Curriculum

Sara Bakker and Timothy Chenette, Utah State University

Music theory is a major part of the academic core of any music curriculum, and one of the foundations of academia is writing. When writing is assigned in music theory classes, it is often an academic paper with a suggested page length. Academic papers require a large set of skills, from structuring communication, to perceptive analysis, to use of academic language: practicing these skills together may not always be the best way to teach or test them. In this essay, we will suggest thinking carefully about the goals and benefits of any writing assignment, list many types of assignments that can broaden our understanding of the value of writing in music theory classes, and, finally, suggest ways to improve student writing in the course of an assignment.

Goals and Benefits of Writing

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of writing is that as a synoptic activity, and as a set of component skills (citing sources, using appropriate terminology, etc.), it builds a foundation for success in academia. While this is valuable, writing’s benefits go far beyond this. The following list of benefits and goals may help instructors identify their priorities, facilitating tailored assignments such as those listed in Section 2. They can also help instructors design alternative assessments/activities for students with learning disabilities or ESL students, who may achieve these goals more appropriately in other ways.

Writing aids in effective communication, as it:

  • allows practicing of mechanics such as grammar, spelling, good sentences, etc.;
  • forces articulation of ideas that might be vague or incomplete;
  • facilitates planning, organization, and evaluation of communication;
  • and allows thoughtful communication, and potentially dialogue with teacher or peers, outside of class.

Writing also promotes student engagement, as it:

  • facilitates self-expression;
  • makes clear that student voices and ideas are important and can be independent of the teacher;
  • promotes ownership of one’s own analysis and ideas;
  • introduces narrative into analysis, allowing interpretation;
  • prepares students to do writing tasks required in music careers, including concert reviews, program notes, liner notes, scripted preconcert lectures, lecture-recitals, and grant proposals;
  • and blurs the line between right and wrong answers.

Perhaps most important in an academic setting, writing promotes critical thinking, as it:

  • requires application of skills and knowledge;
  • integrates different skills and analytical approaches;
  • creates a forum in which to evaluate ideas and present evidence and conclusions;
  • and makes connections to other fields, particularly the Humanities, in the use of hermeneutics.

The benefits of writing as a promoter of effective communication, student engagement, and critical thinking, accrue in all sorts of writing assignments, including the traditional paper. The production of a good academic paper (or not), however, is not necessarily an indication of progress towards these objectives. Some students will learn more from working through several smaller assignments with more specific, component goals.

Broadening the Types of Writing We Assign

As mentioned above, traditional analytical term papers are synoptic, integrating and synthesizing various kinds of knowledge and experience that students have accumulated throughout the semester. To help instructors focus on specific goals, the table below suggests a wide variety of writing projects. It is organized into the three categories of objectives defined above: communication, engagement, and critical thinking. These categories are loosely chronological, somewhat overlapping, and necessarily cumulative, but they provide a useful framework for focusing on specific writing and learning goals. Under each category are sample assignments, written as prompts, that could be used to address the given skill. Some prompts could be literally copied and pasted into an assignment, while others use blanks ( ______ ) and then list several possible “fillers” to broaden the applicability of that assignment. In all cases, however, the greatest value of this list is not in its attempt to be comprehensive, but to help instructors focus on ways to achieve specific goals.

Writing and Learning Objectives with Sample Exercises


  • Improving and clarifying comprehension

    • Create or edit a Wikipedia article on a topic we have studied.
    • Take the class concept you understand the least, and write out what you do know (and then, perhaps, what confuses you).
    • Create a glossary of terms.
    • Write detailed instructions on how to create a ______ (6/4 chord, Neapolitan, etc.).
    • Summarize main points of ______ (class discussion, textbook chapter, video lecture, course content to date).
  • Collaborating and peer-mentoring

    • [Any of the above activities modified for group completion].
    • Describe a topic of confusion in our ______ (LMS forum, class wiki) or answer another student’s question.
  • Structuring communication

    • Give a five-sentence presentation on your proposed paper.
    • Swap paper drafts with your neighbor; take five minutes to find their thesis and main points.
    • Take the following example and topic sentence, and write out the rest of the paragraph.
    • What is the most logical ordering for the following _______ (sentences, topic sentences, etc.)?


  • Fostering creativity in thought and analysis

    • First “prove” this is a bad piece, then that it’s good.
    • What’s the weirdest thing about this piece?
    • What makes this piece beautiful?
    • This piece is about ______ (elaborating predominant harmonies, creating and then subverting expectations, simple elegance, etc.). Describe how that plays out.
    • Where is the ______ (most striking moment, climax, medial caesura, etc.) in this piece and how does the composer/performer convey that?
  • Encouraging ownership of analysis

    • Choose your favorite piece we studied and describe why it was your favorite.
    • Keep a journal of your emotional responses to the pieces we study.
    • [Any prompt that does not have a clear right answer].
  • Relating class content to careers in music

    • Describe how ______ (this article, your analysis, class discussion, etc.) will help you make a performance decision.
    • Why might one use this compositional or analytical tool?
    • Why is this material included in the course/curriculum/study of music?
    • Write a grant proposal in which you describe a music-related project and its benefit to ______ (society/the university/a specific population, etc.).
    • Write ______ (program notes, liner notes, preconcert lecture notes, etc.) introducing a nonspecialist audience to ______ .

Critical Thinking

  • Questioning one’s assumptions

    • Justify the existence of serialism.
    • What do you like in your favorite music? Are there aspects of that in ______ ?
    • Describe a piece that we studied that you came to like better. What motivated that change?
    • Is three-chord music necessarily boring? If not, what can be interesting about it?
    • Does repetition or use of traditional forms imply a lack of creativity?
  • Integrating perspectives (analytical or disciplinary)

    • Create a cohesive narrative for this ______ (piece, movement, etc.), incorporating discussion of rhythm, form, etc.
    • How could elements of ______ (sonata form, rondo form, etc.) be used in poetry? Visual art?
    • Compare features of ______ (Classical symmetry, the formalism of post-war serialism, etc.) in music with parallel movements in the arts.
  • Evaluating ideas and drawing conclusions from evidence

    • Compare two or more ______ (pieces, excerpts of the same piece, etc.). Which is more ______ (experimental, melodically oriented, contrapuntally correct, etc.)?
    • Compare lead-sheet notation, Roman numeral notation, and figured bass. What does each system imply about music?
    • Read this article. What is your opinion of the author’s thesis? Be sure to give specific evidence for your reasoning.

These writing activities need not be assigned as out-of-class work to be turned in on paper. Modifications can turn the same prompt into in-class activities, short homework tasks, or polished presentations. They can also be assigned to various formats, from hard-copy documents and shared Google Docs to various online forums, such as personal blogs and Twitter. Some formats, especially the latter two, are not traditionally included in academic study, but are useful in helping students realize that intelligent writing about music does not occur exclusively in the academic paper. Furthermore, nontraditional formats may be helpful in attaining certain learning goals, as in the forced concision of Twitter.

Student-Centered Review and Assessment

Communication with students about assignments is always necessarily incomplete—it is impossible to fully explain, for example, everything that could go into a good “thesis statement.” This difficulty is compounded by the fact that students and teachers tend to view assignments and their purposes very differently, a phenomenon studied here and here. Thus, students are unlikely to get everything “right” the first time without any help. This section suggests some student-centered ways of improving both students’ writing, and the benefits instructors expect them to get out of such writing, in the course of an assignment. This is not an exhaustive list: common approaches such as reading well-written articles and making outlines are not included. In addition, several activities from the table above, particularly those labeled “Collaborating and peer-mentoring” and “Structuring communication,” are useful here.

Giving students open-ended and wide-ranging assignments is important, but if specific goals are to be achieved, instructors should help students focus on them. First, instructors can make clear to students the purpose of a writing assignment: to put together a synoptic analysis, to demonstrate effective communication, to reflect creatively on the class, etc. Knowing the goal will have a dramatic effect on students’ approaches to the material. In addition, the purpose of the assignment should affect how it is graded: students consistently take grading schemes into account when performing tasks. This relates to the necessity to give focused feedback, helping students know where to spend their time. Fixing grammar and spelling mistakes, for example, may suggest to students that simply adopting these edits is as important as making structural changes, and is unlikely to make a long-term impact on student learning.

Many skills can be improved by making a self-review or peer-review process a part of the assignment. For example, a rubric on the paper’s structure to be turned in with a rough draft can help students realize on their own where to start when making revisions: an example is given here. This procedure requires clear communication about what will be graded: rough draft, rubric, or both. In general, rubrics work for most goals, although a checklist, summary, or other self-review may be more appropriate for some.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing to encourage is creativity: students may associate grade risk with writing something that is not clearly the only right answer. For this reason, creativity may best be fostered in an atmosphere where writing assignments are not directly graded, are graded on completion, and/or are treated as a dialogue with an instructor (e.g., on a Google Doc) rather than as a completed product for grading. Creative prompts (“What is your favorite part of this piece?”) may also suggest room for creativity.

In the end, our classes are about both learning and assessment. Both of these elements work best in situations where our goals are clear. The synoptic activity of academic writing is a wonderful goal, one that requires and stimulates many ways of thinking. But the path to that goal will be more effective if we understand its many components, and help our students to do the same. Working on these skills in more controlled assignments may be less work for student and teacher, and more satisfying for students who want to know “what the teacher wants”—and yet will also form stepping stones throughout the semester and throughout the curriculum to greater successes in communication, engagement, and critical thinking.

This work is copyright ⓒ2014 Sara Bakker and Timothy Chenette and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.