Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 2

Table of Contents

Weekly (or more) Writing in the Music Theory Classroom

Jan Miyake, Oberlin College and Conservatory

As a student, I dreaded writing. I believed I was a poor writer, and it was merely a hoop to jump through for certain professors. As I have grown older and wiser, I have bought into the act of writing because the process helps me find clarity and express complicated ideas. I am also persuaded that writing well and expressing complicated ideas are essential to most—if not all—of the careers my students are headed for. They will write artist’s statements, grants, cover letters, resumes, professional correspondence, and program notes. They are also likely to speak to the audience from the stage, an action that will benefit from working out their thoughts ahead of time in prose.

Certainly, writing regularly is one important facet of becoming a better writer. Grading writing, however, can take a lot of time. Combining the importance of timely and frequent feedback with regularly-assigned writing assignments makes implementation of such assignments seem daunting. The following paragraphs describe how to get your students to write more by making savvy choices about assignment type, grading rubric, technology for receiving and returning student work, and writing prompts.

Assignment Type

Low-stakes writing, such as journals and summaries, help students engage more deeply in the subject matter of a course. This article by Peter Elbow provides an excellent summary of the benefits of distinguishing between high- and low-stakes writing and some of the logistics of assigning and responding to the work. In music theory courses, students (and instructors) can easily be lured into viewing part-writing as the sole point of studying music theory. Low-stakes writing assignments are fruitful because they allow time to think and respond to new ideas, ideas that could range far from harmony and voice leading. While strategically assigned summary paragraphs can require students to paraphrase a voice-leading concept (such as inversions of V7) outside of class time, they can also provide a space to explore the role of register or timbre in an excerpt. Similarly, journals can help students transfer knowledge from the classroom to other parts of their daily lives by documenting harmonic paradigms found during orchestra rehearsals or phrase rhythm discovered in a practice room.

Grading Rubric

Grading, especially with an overly elaborate or specific set of criteria, can distract from the learning objectives of a course. A grading system of +, P, or nP works particularly well for low-stakes writing. This grading system, described in more depth here, recognizes excellence and reveals weakness. It is quick and allows the grader to respond to ideas rather than grammar, syntax, or punctuation. Moreover, since grading is probably the most daunting aspect of implementing regular writing assignments, it is important to keep the workload manageable. Here are some guidelines.

First, keep these pedagogical goals in mind: (1) students gain regular practice expressing ideas in writing, and (2) students better internalize part of what was covered in class. In other words, do not get side tracked with issues of style and rhetoric.

Second, define the difference between P (pass) and + (plus) transparently for yourself and the students. Here is one option. To pass, a student must have a topic sentence that guides the content of their paragraph, present their own words, be factually correct, and write well enough that a friendly reader knows what they mean. To earn a +, students must do the work for a P and demonstrate deeper engagement with the topic. Deeper engagement can be shown in many ways, including successfully summarizing a particularly nuanced part of a discussion and transferring the knowledge to musics they are engaged with outside the classroom.

Last, allow redos. This policy allows students to take risks and promotes additional revision. In my experience, 25-30% of students take advantage of the redo policy. I allow unlimited redos right up to the exam that covers that material. As I grade on a +/P/nP system, a redo policy allows me to assign nPs liberally. For example, if a beautifully written and nuanced paragraph for a Theory 2 class that covered viio7 captures the main point but confuses the chordal seventh with scale-degree 7 in the prose, I assign a nP because they missed an important “Theory 2 moment.” I usually offer encouragement along the lines of “beautifully written, but a significant conceptual error prevents it from earning a +; fix the highlighted sentence for a +.”

Allowing redos can be a time saver for the instructor. Shifting the role of correction changes the workload; highlighting a mistake, offering a few words of encouragement, and assigning a nP is quicker than reteaching an important concept in prose. Unsuccessful attempts at redos indicate that a friendly face-to-face conversation is an effective next step towards attaining comprehension. Finally, redos enable greater learning because students are more likely to revise their work.


Document sharing systems ease the back-and-forth of paper submissions. While many are available and will work well, I find Google Docs (part of Google Drive) more than adequate. 

Before the first writing assignment, create and name a Google doc for each student. Allow one person—that specific student—to also edit it. Weekly writing assignments are kept in this document, transforming the Google doc into an anthology of the students’ summaries and ideas. Rather than turning in journals a few times a semester and having a professor do a lot of reading all at once, this electronic document is always accessible to both instructor and student.

Google docs make this assignment-type particularly easy to manage. When there are any changes to a document, such as a student editing or writing a new entry, the title of the document becomes boldfaced and moves to the top of the list (Figure 1). Also, Google docs has a comment feature that generates an email to the student. If there is a glaring factual error that you want the student to be quickly aware of, there is a built in measure to communicate it immediately from within the document.

Figure 1. Indications that a Google doc has been revised.

Example 3.tiff

Two additional features make Google docs worthwhile spaces for learning. First, they facilitate back-and-forth writing between instructor and student. In a paper journal, these conversations would be constrained by the physical dimensions of the paper, likely occurring in margins or at bottoms of pages. Since Google docs are an editable document, a conversation started in the first week can evolve over multiple weeks using as much space as needed; students can simply add the new assignments in a logical place (some put new assignments at the end of the document, others at the beginning). I have been surprised by the students who enjoy engaging through this kind of discussion within the documents; sometimes they are equally verbal in class and other times they are one of the quieter classroom presences. Here is an anonymized Google doc from Theory 1 that engages in that style of communication. Sometimes these in-document conversations emerge from a question they pose to me, and other times they arise from me asking a question inspired by their writing and receiving a response. Perhaps most telling, as the semester progresses we move more of these conversations into the classroom, which adds an additional level of engagement during class time.

A second strength of the Google doc is the ability to clarify and facilitate understanding through visual media, such as colored text. As shown by Ozcelik, Karakus, Kurson, and Cagiltay, the ability to highlight and express ideas in a variety of colors enhances a student’s learning, and it facilitates communicating who is writing because each person’s voice can be color coded. At times, students will take advantage of color to accent important details of their argument. Students also insert scans of their own diagrams, links to resources on the web, and other images into their text.

Writing Prompts

Prompts can vary wildly. For first-semester students, I heavily emphasize summaries. Here are three typical prompts for these first-years:

  • Summarize typical uses of inversions of V7. Be sure to provide a clear topic sentence that governs the content of the entire paragraph. Strong paragraphs will cite specific measure numbers or examples.
  • Describe the trickiest aspect of the part-writing that we explored today.
  • Summarize one aspect (form, special harmony, phrase rhythm, etc.) of today’s analysis of K.331, mvt. 1, mm. 1-8.

For second-year classes, I typically ask students to propose and start an answer to one or two questions inspired by an assignment. Here are some popular strains of questions they tend to ask (and answer):

  • [piece X] by [composer Y] is a dark and brooding piece. I wonder what else was going on in his life at that moment?
  • The arrival in [measure Z] grabs my attention. Why? What kinds of things did [composer Y] do to set this up?

Finally, for my upper division classes, I usually provide a specific prompt based on class work or an upcoming assignment. Both open- and close-ended questions can work well.

  • Describe in detail how Brahms’s form in Op. 91, No. 1 parallels the form of the poem.
  • [Composer X] unnecessarily recomposes part of the recapitulation. Why do you think [Composer X] chose to do that?

One effective prompt about half way through the semester asks students to read through their writing so far (all of which is conveniently collected in the document) and reflect on which paragraph is their favorite and why. For all students, this results in a rededication to taking these assignments seriously and writing well. For students in classes where formal papers will be written, this often helps them identify a potential paper topic.

Low-stakes writing helps students gain regular practice sorting out their ideas. It allows them to practice writing about music theory and prepares the ground for high-stakes writing that may occur in advanced courses. Google docs, or similar systems, make receiving and responding to writing easier than it ever was before. Combining this technology with a manageable grading system sets up a learning environment in which students write regularly.

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