Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 2

Table of Contents

Part 2: Applying Problem-Based Learning in the Music Theory Classroom

Philip Duker, University of Delaware

“Frequently, commitment [to start using PBL] grows out of the recurring frustration most instructors experience when they realize how little their students understand or remember from a semester of charismatic lectures.” (White 2001)

##Problem-based learning (PBL) in music theory classes

Designing a problem-based learning environment for a music theory class is a considerable undertaking that will often depart from more traditional methods of instruction. As Daniel Stevens discussed in Part I, adopting a PBL approach usually involves explicitly embracing broad liberal-arts course objectives (such as critical thinking and oral communication) in addition to content-focused ones (such as properly resolving the Neapolitan chord, or understanding the importance of Palestrina). There is often a concomitant shift from trying to “cover” all of the material that one thinks should ideally be discussed in a course to focusing on deeper engagement with fewer topics (see Alegant in this volume). This shift is often discussed in terms of the difference between teaching vs. learning (humorously encapsulated in this cartoon). How would these changes play out over the course of a semester and over a multi-term curriculum?

Although some instructors employ PBL as the exclusive learning approach for a particular course, many create hybrid classes that mix PBL exercises into more traditional learning environments. From my own experience, mixing in these kinds of problems can be quite successful within the structure of a more traditional class and serve as a refreshing change of pace for both teacher and students. In short, an instructor can freely experiment with this approach without committing to full-scale adoption.

One of the strengths of incorporating PBL approaches early in the course sequence is to engage students with higher-level thinking at the beginning of their theory study when many students are cognitively ready for difficult problems but lack mastery of some of the fundamental topics taught in music theory (such as: key signatures, meter, scales, intervals, chords, etc.). Furthermore, placing these introductory topics into a context where they are necessary to solve a problem can help with student motivation to learn the fundamentals. Savery (1999), for example, has documented that students’ self-motivation to engage with course material increases in PBL and similar settings as compared with traditional lecture-based courses.

One challenge of adopting PBLs in the theory classroom can be a switch from individual to group work. While almost all PBL environments use student groups, it is possible to give PBL-inspired problems to individuals (I suggest one such problem below). Effectively using groups can leverage many positive benefits to learning; Allen, Duch, and Groh (2001) provide a number of helpful tips in regards to forming and managing groups. For long-term group work, having groups write and sign a set of ground rules can help tremendously in fostering success. Often instructors mandate certain rules (such as respecting the views, values, and ideas of other members), but then allow groups to come up with other rules on their own. The groups should also agree to penalties for not following rules. By having the groups come up with penalties and everyone in the group agreeing to these at the start, there is a shared sense of accountability.

##Designing PBL problems

What do successful PBL exercises look like for music theory classes? How can theory study relate to tangible problems that music students might have? Many in the PBL community (e.g. Duch 2001, Torp and Sage 2002, Hmelo-Silver 2004) emphasize that content should be introduced through “real-world problems,” which are complicated, multi-disciplinary, and eschew a “correct” answer (e.g. Duch 1995 is a classic example in physics). The problems should be relevant and engaging (even if hypothetical); they should motivate students to invest in finding a solution.

Instructors should be clear on what their primary objectives are in a given problem and ensure that any specific content goals will be necessary to a solution. Problems often force students to not only wrestle with learning new content in order to solve a problem, but figuring out how to go about solving problems in the first place. This idea of students developing problem-solving strategies in addition to learning specific content is almost always an objective. After finishing a problem, many instructors share their learning objectives with the class to ensure that groups check and acknowledge what they have learned.

A common approach to designing problems begins by taking exercises or activities that students would normally do in a theory class and then trying to situate those activities in a more plausible context. In some cases, merely adjusting how an activity is framed can have dramatic consequences on student engagement. That said, when re-framing a typical theory task for a PBL exercise, instructors often incorporate higher order thinking skills as well. Problems often require students to go beyond a simple “plug and chug” strategy (e.g. showing students how to resolve a German 6th in C minor, and then asking them to write one in D minor) and instead ask them to make judgements, interpretations, or syntheses of previous information.


The following are a series of examples organized by broad activity: analysis, part-writing and composition, and improvisation. In each case the problems should be taken as flexible models that could be altered and adapted to fit the desired learning goals of the course.

​1) Analysis

In the two following examples, students are asked to analyze a piece of music, but they do so in order to develop support for an argument. “It all sounds the same” is a PBL problem that could be used in introductory-level theory study. In this problem students have to make specific analytical observations using technical vocabulary, but they are motivated to do so in service of an argument. Also, the groups are encouraged to pick styles/genres of music that they are personally invested in, making the problem relevant. Note that the instructions focus on the process of creating arguments and using evidence as opposed to a particular solution or “correct” answer (i.e. it doesn’t specify that one side should win the debate or whether anyone should be convinced at the end). In addition to constructing an argument and using evidence, a crucial learning goal is how to apply terms and technical vocabulary appropriate to music. The optional project that accompanies the problem provides a further enrichment activity by having the groups make a short video. As opposed to turning in a written paper, filming a dialogue provides opportunities for the students to have fun and be creative (you will likely get some comedic projects, which can be good if they follow the guidelines).

Another more formalized context for this kind of analysis problem, “A day in the life of a forensic musicologist,” asks students to examine the technical details of particular pieces of music, this time in order to provide evidence in the case of a specific copyright dispute (variations would allow for the instructor to focus on pieces with relevant content, such as particular progressions or harmonies from Classical era compositions). Yet again, the students have to wrestle with abstract concepts such as what constitutes the identity of a piece, and make judgements about similarity and difference. In this problem, students also have to “re-compose” material in order to avoid claims of copying.

If the general strategy of the problems mentioned above involved analysis in service of an argument or debate, there are also many possibilities to relate analysis with performance. As Stevens’s example, “How long should this note be held?,” illustrates, students can discuss how issues of counterpoint impact a performer’s interpretation of a passage. An instructor can also put students into the role of mentoring younger student who have questions about a piece, where insights into form and harmony can assist in various ways: “Help the high-schooler.” This problem can be particularly effective for music education students, as it confronts them with potential situations that they might find themselves in. An instructor could also adapt this problem to address more fundamental skills such as note reading and key signatures. By putting students in the role of mentoring students who need the knowledge that they themselves are still acquiring, students can see the relevance of these basic skills.

​2) Part-writing and composition

While analysis is arguably an important tool to every music major, composition and part-writing exercises can be perceived by some students as having much less relevance to their future careers. One problem type that can be an incremental step in changing more traditional part writing exercises into something that is more relevant is “Missing measures!” In this problem, students are confronted with a situation where they need to make a passable continuation of a composition. The missing measures can resemble some of the typical exercises they might find in a theory workbook, but by rooting the problem in a particular style and instrumentation by a particular composer (instead of the abstract “common practice era”), students can understand how rudimentary exercises like completing a cadence or continuing a sequence are employed in compositions. This exercise could be assigned to individual students or used in a group settings.

For more advanced composition assignments, a problem that has potential for many variations is “The eccentric wedding request.” Here students can be asked to compose short compositions to satisfy various unreasonable requests from a wedding planner. Importantly they must find creative ways to appease the demands of the planner while also keeping in mind appropriate stylistic markers in their composition (after all the bride will be paying attention).

​3) Improvisation

As Peter Schubert and others have shown, improvisation can be a wonderful element to bring into theory classes (see Schubert, Knyt, and Michaelsen for other discussions of improvisation activities in this volume). Group improvisation exercises could be set up with a problem such as “The impromptu performance.” This has many potential variations depending on the level of the students, but it could encourage students to rely on various improvisational schema in order to accomplish a goal.

One of the remaining challenges of adopting PBL is how to assess student work, which includes not only the acquisition of content knowledge but also group processes and the achievement of higher-level learning goals. Kris Shaffer’s Part III will deal with this issue, along with how to provide meaningful feedback and translate student assessment into course grades.

Part 1: Problem-Based Learning in the Music Classroom, A Rationale, Daniel Stevens
Part 3: Assessing Problem-Based Learning, Kris Shaffer

This work is copyright ⓒ2014 Philip Duker and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.