Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 5

Table of Contents

Metacognition: An Overlooked Skill in Music Theory Instruction

Anna Ferenc, Wilfrid Laurier University

What are music theory skills? The answer to this question is an elusive one as it depends upon one’s definition of what music theory is, which, in turn, is dependent on the extent of one’s experience in the discipline. For example, while high-school students preparing for entry into college music programs commonly understand music theory in terms of rudimentary writing and recognition skills, a graduate music theory major will have a much broader perspective on the skills needed to understand and take part in music theoretical endeavors. At the undergraduate level, answers to this question may inevitably differ in detail from one institution to another and even from one instructor to another depending on the curricular design and desired course outcomes. Nevertheless, theory core courses at this level possess an underlying uniformity as they typically develop skills that may be grouped into the following three main categories: composition or harmonization skills, analytical skills, and aural skills. Within these categories, activities that involve part writing, improvisation, music analysis, sight singing, and dictation are undertaken to develop musical competence in the Western tradition.

In his long-standing text on music theory pedagogy, Teaching Approaches in Music Theory, Michael Rogers recognizes the value of developing such skills as a means to an end, but acknowledges the inadequacy of instruction limited to them when he writes on page 4:

One irony of many undergraduate curriculums is that the two- or three-year required sequence of courses allots all its time to acquiring the background (terminology, labels, etc.) for doing music theory but runs out of time just as the topic becomes interesting—resulting in an extended introduction that leads nowhere. Under such conditions of all motion and no arrival, students are never exposed to what real theory is all about and carry with them a biased and limited notion of the subject.

The context for this observation, which continues to resonate today, is a discussion of the goals and purposes of music theory in which Rogers points out a disconnect between what is often understood to be music theory in required undergraduate theory courses and what is actually the purpose of the discipline. He notes that the acquisition of facts and skills in the undergraduate theory core are a necessary background for the study of music theory, but that they are insufficient in and of themselves if not used to serve the more meaningful goal of learning how to ask and answer questions about music. By not experiencing engagement with “real theory” (Rogers’ term), students receive a stunted exposure to the discipline and, as a result, many question its purpose and relevance to their musical training.

What, then, is “real theory” and why are students not introduced to it in core theory courses? Rogers offers an answer to this question when he subsequently writes on page 7:

Music theory, in my opinion, is not a subject like pharmacy with labels to learn and prescriptions to fill, but it is an activity—more like composition or performance. The activity is theorizing: i.e., thinking about what we hear and hearing what we think about—and I would include even thinking about what we think.

Rogers identifies theorizing as the activity that defines music theory and views it as a long-term goal that may be attained well beyond the timeframe of the music theory core where the acquisition of facts and skills serve as a means to achieve the goal. This is a logical position to assume and, considering the content of currently popular texts that are used to support instruction in the theory core (such as The Complete Musician, The Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis and The Musician’s Guide to Aural Skills, or Tonal Harmony), it appears that theory instructors continue to share this view. However, there is little evidence to suggest that the musicianship skills developed in the theory core lead students effectively to the meaningful purpose of theory that Rogers describes and this may be because a key component is missing to guide them in that direction—the practice of metacognition.

By including “thinking about what we think” in his definition of theorizing, Rogers connects music theory with metacognition without specifically using the term. Since the time that Rogers first implied this association in 1984, a significant body of literature has emerged in psychology and education research documenting the importance of metacognition to the process of learning and uncovering its fundamental role in achieving meaningful learning experiences (Hacker et al. 1998; Dunlosky & Metcalfe 2009; Kaplan et al. 2013). Calls to promote metacognition have been taken up by teaching and learning experts across various disciplines. In the domain of music, discussion of metacognition appears in literature on music education and performance (Pogonowski 1989; Parncutt & McPherson 2002; Bathgate et al. 2012; Benton 2013 and 2014) but is lacking in the area of music theory. This may be, in part, because there is understandable resistance to accommodate something that appears new and possibly extraneous to an already crowded theory curriculum. However, the inclusion by Rogers of “thinking about what we think” along with “thinking about what we hear and hearing what we think about” in his explanation of theorizing presents metacognition as a definitive component of theorizing music, and this indicates that it is neither extraneous nor new but, rather, a central facet of our discipline. Arguably, the activity of theorizing described by Rogers cannot take place without metacognition, which makes one wonder all the more why explicit development of metacognitive skill continues to be overlooked in music theory instruction.

This may prompt the question: What is metacognition? Metacognition has become a complex construct intriguing cognitive psychologists and educational researchers since psychologist John Flavell coined the term in his article, “Metacognitive Aspects of Problem Solving,” published in The Nature of Intelligence in 1976, where he described its meaning on page 232 in the following terms:

“Metacognition” refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes and products or anything related to them. … For example, I am engaged in metacognition…if I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B; if it strikes me that I should double-check C before accepting it as fact; if it occurs to me that I had better scrutinize each and every alternative in any multiple-choice type task situation before deciding which is the best one; if I become aware that I am not sure what the experimenter really wants me to do; if I sense that I had better make note of D because I may forget it; if I think to ask someone about E to see if I have it right. … Metacognition refers…to the active monitoring and consequent regulation and orchestration of these processes in the relation to the cognitive objects or data on which they bear, usually in the service of some concrete goal or objective.

Thus, Flavell’s conception of metacognition includes knowledge of cognition (commonly expressed as thinking about thinking) as well as the monitoring and regulation of such knowledge. When applied to educational contexts, the regulatory component of metacognition translates into the monitoring and regulation of one’s learning, which may be readily accomplished through metacognitive reflection. This type of reflective practice focuses attention not on subject matter per se, but rather on one’s learning experience of subject matter. It addresses questions such as: What have I learned from doing a particular activity? Or, how does this new information relate to or alter my previous understanding? Engagement with this latter question in particular is essential to the study of music theory, especially for purposes of developing skill in retrospective reinterpretation, which is a required analytical ability for the kind of meaningful theoretical endeavor described by Rogers.

Retrospective reinterpretation is explained by William Caplin in his textbook, Analyzing Classical Form: An Approach for the Classroom, where he writes on page 61:

Because of how listeners perceive music, we sometimes find ourselves in situations where our initial interpretation of formal functionality needs to be revised as the music moves forward in time. In other words, as we first hear a passage, we may believe that it expresses such and such a function; but as the music continues, and we perceive more information, we may change our opinion and come to believe that a different formal function is more appropriately at hand.

Hidden within this description is the presence of metacognitive reflection in the act of thinking about what we think (or had thought), which enables revision of a previous analytical opinion in light of new information. Consequently, it is prudent to note that students who display weakness in analysis may not lack subject knowledge, as is often assumed, but rather the metacognitive ability required to interpret retrospectively. In general, this type of analytical skill is challenging for students to acquire, but it underpins all music analysis, if not all music study in some way, and may be attained effectively through written metacognitive reflection.

Some examples of reflective questions that apply to music theory study and encourage metacognitive processing are:

  • Which activity or exercise helped me most to improve a particular skill? Why do I think so?
  • Which activities or exercises on this topic were most challenging for me to complete? What was it that was challenging and how did I overcome the challenge?
  • Did this topic improve my understanding of harmony (or dictation, sight-singing, analysis, etc.) in some way? If so, how?
  • Did this topic answer questions I was wondering about or did new questions arise for me? What are they?
  • How does this new information build upon or revise my previous musical knowledge?

Incorporation of such metacognitive prompts into activities, assignments, or classroom discussion does not add new content to a course. Rather, it directs student attention toward their individual processes of learning content and, as a result, engages them in the kind of thinking that is required for theorizing thereby introducing them to the purpose of music theory. For example, consider the sampling of comments below from a class of sophomore students in response to metacognitive prompts guiding them to reflect for the first time on their learning experience of modulation in a course on chromatic harmony:


  • Which exercises on this topic were most beneficial for my learning? Why?
  • Did this topic reinforce or develop my knowledge in some way? If so, how?
  • Did this topic show me gaps in my previous learning that I should address? What are they?
  • What did I learn from the enriching activity? (This was an assignment that invited students to find examples of modulation in their individual repertoires.)

Sample responses:

  1. “I actually found the whole concept of modulation very difficult in the beginning. I was completely lost. Then I made myself sit down for a good seven hours one day, read all my notes, read all the textbook pages and do all the workbook exercises until it started to make sense.”
  2. “In reflecting on my learning during the course of the study of the chapters on modulation the one theme which stood out was the importance of recognizing paradigms or small musical patterns which often occur in music. These were objects of understanding that composed most of the content of first year theory. When learning these different paradigms . . . I never understood why these patterns were important or how the knowledge of them fit into the wider context of music theory. These scattered puzzle pieces of knowledge started to fall into place during the course of completing the assignments of the last chapter on modulation. In the modulation exercises, I noticed the importance of being able to identify these patterns quickly.”
  3. “This reflection assignment is a great idea, because not only can the professor see how the students feel about certain topics, but it also helps students to think about the class and realize what needs to be done for improvement. Even though my solution is something so simple as to complete the homework before class (as I should have already been doing), I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to realize that it was a serious problem without the assignment. By reflection 2, my habits will have changed.”
  4. “One object of learning that came away from all of this was that sometimes it takes perseverance and patience when encountering questions that initially are not understood, and not to give up and move onto to [sic] something else when faced with this challenge. Frequently, if one vertical section of harmonic analysis was causing difficulty I found it helpful to just skip over it and look at the remaining music, analyze that, and then return to the portion that was causing difficulty which would then make much more sense.
  5. “I actually chose a Mozart Concerto and was delighted to find that in mapping out tonally the piece’s progression I also developed a greater sense of thematic and motivic development as well – which, though subtly, influenced my interpretation. This was especially true in the recapitulation of the First Movement, and in the tone colour used for the phrases where the harmonic shifts take place.”

The first statement is a candid expression of self-efficacy describing what a student needed to do to achieve success for the task at hand and take responsibility for learning, which is the first step toward meaningful study in any discipline. The second statement describes the integration of new knowledge with previous learning and the resulting revision of that learning, which is required to succeed in music theory, but impossible to recognize without reflection. The third statement speaks to the value of engaging in reflection for purposes of both learning and teaching while the fourth describes the discovery of retrospection as a valuable strategy for problem solving. The fifth statement provides evidence of transfer of theoretical learning to a context beyond the course (in this case repertoire performance), which undergraduate music theory core courses aim to achieve, but often find difficult to do. It also demonstrates that metacognitive reflection is an effective vehicle through which students may learn how to think about what they hear and hear what they think about.

All of the sample responses above provide evidence of students thinking about their thinking as they learn music theory in a core course, which confirms that students can be involved in music theory’s long-term goal through metacognitive reflection even as they acquire the discipline’s foundational knowledge in the short term. Moreover, the statements illustrate that practicing metacognition in a music theory core course enables students to make sense of, or theorize, this foundational information for themselves. However, not all of the statements are equally perceptive, which indicates that some students are more skilled at reflecting metacognitively than others. This ability may be improved with repetitive practice.

Recognizing the fundamental role of metacognition in theorizing is the first step toward rectifying the omission of its training as a skill of music theory. It also opens the door to further research on metacognition within the field of music theory pedagogy to enrich the growing body of literature on metacognition in educational contexts.

This work is copyright ⓒ2017 Anna Ferenc and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.