Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 5

Table of Contents

Open Educational Resources (OER) in the Music Theory Classroom: A Curricular Redesign Travelogue

Kyle Gullings, University of Texas at Tyler


The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for higher education to be “equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” Yet higher education costs in the United States continue to rise. Between 1990-91 and 2016-17, net tuition and fees increased by 88.5% for public four-year schools, and 21% for private four-year schools (College Board). These figures reflect real costs, after adjusting for aid received and for inflation. And, at least for the past 10 years, percentage increases in the costs of college textbooks have outpaced even those of tuition and fees (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). Meanwhile, the number of Americans at or near poverty level is not declining, having fluctuated within a few points of 18% for the past 50 years (U.S. Census Bureau).

If these trends continue, higher education in our country will clearly not be “equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” The puzzle of affordable access to education demands our attention. But what are we music educators to do? These worrisome trends are frustrating for those of us not trained as social economists. In this essay I will discuss and advocate for one piece of the solution that we educators can impact: open educational resources.

Open Educational Resources

The concept of open educational resources (OER) has been around for about 20 years. I prefer the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s definition: “teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and repurposing by others.” This distinction regarding “repurposing” is key: OER are not merely free to view or utilize in a classroom, but free to modify and transform, and, ideally, designed with these uses mind. OER can include textbooks, handouts, and even entire curated courses, plus ancillary materials like syllabi, lecture notes, online media, and interactive music notation.

Dozens of OER development initiatives across the U.S. have been executed this decade, funded by state legislatures and educational institutions. Georgia’s public university system recently gave $2.1 million in Textbook Transformation Grants, which by the end of the 2016-2017 academic year will have saved students an estimated $26.4 million. A similar program in North Dakota turned a $110,000 state appropriation into an estimated savings of $2 million for students. The University of Massachusetts Amherst boasts savings of over $1.6 million over eight years at their institution alone. These are not outliers. According to Nicole Allen, director of open education at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, roughly half of U.S. states have some kind of OER effort.

Despite these initiatives, the impact of OER in higher education is relatively limited at present. Babson Survey Research Group’s report Opening the Textbook: Open Education Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2015-16 found that only 25.5% of faculty reported being “Aware” or “Very Aware” of open educational resources, though this was up about 5% from the prior year. Only 5.3% of courses are using open textbooks, and that number roughly doubles in large enrollment introductory courses. By comparison, the typical adoption rate of a single proprietary text in these large courses is around 17%.

Faculty adoption of OER remains relatively rare, but importantly, this is not due to resource quality. In his thorough 2016 survey of existing OER research, John Hilton III finds that “OER are comparable in quality to traditional learning resources,” and that “the use of OER does not appear to negatively influence student learning.” At least at this early stage, OER have proven effective at lowering costs without compromising learning.

The biggest challenge lies with faculty discovering, evaluating, implementing, and supplementing existing OER. And from a cursory check of OER textbooks housed at leading websites like Open Textbook Library, OpenStax, and OER Commons, it is plain that we in the arts have lagged significantly behind other subject areas, especially those in STEM fields. (OER Commons lists 835 undergraduate textbooks, only one of which is on the topic of the performing arts in general, and none cover music.) This may be partially attributable to lower course enrollments in non-general education arts courses like music theory, since OER funding programs primarily seek to maximize cost savings for students by targeting high-enrollment courses. That said, OER are largely authored not by institutional decree but by self-selecting individual faculty members. Ample opportunity exists to develop such resources in our field.

Although there are many helpful online resources and training utilities in music, none truly rival a traditional university textbook in depth and utility. Catherine Schmidt-Jones’ Understanding Basic Music Theory is a step in the right direction, but its scope is limited to music fundamentals topics. The only existing open resource with the potential to serve as a stand-alone undergraduate written music theory text is the website openmusictheory.com (OMT), an open-source online “text”book for college-level music theory courses built on resources authored by Kris Shaffer, Bryn Hughes, and Brian Moseley. Designed with a flipped classroom model in mind, it is intentionally very light on details and examples, aiming to take a back seat to active engagement in musical activities. Although its content spans the entire lower-division theory sequence, OMT lacks an accompanying workbook, deliberately-sequenced chapters, and other ancillary course design elements. Instructors electing to adopt OMT still have a lot of work ahead of them.


The remainder of this essay will detail my experience using Open Music Theory to redesign my lower-division music theory sequence over the past two years. A brief glance at its Table of Contents reveals that OMT is inherently modular. It covers most topics found in a traditional undergraduate theory text, but it is not grouped into chapters or units. Sub-topics are housed on their own webpages and can be curated for study in any order.

With the OER, for the first time, I had to decide every aspect of content and order for the entire sequence. I began by sorting most OMT topics into one of four semesters, and omitting a few others (galant schemata, analyzing poetry, and the more advanced points of sonata theory and post-tonal theory). Then I mined our library holdings for scores, recordings, and readings covering additional post-tonal topics of experimental music and minimalism.

The Course Outlines for my Spring 2015 and Spring 2016 Music Theory II courses demonstrate the drastic changes in my course when moving from my proprietary text to OMT. For example, on the topic of pop-style progressions, I used to simply slip a few pop songs into my chapter on classical harmonic functions. Now I devote a separate module to this topic, backed by a few dozen relevant lead sheets I’ve created.

As mentioned, OMT is very light on content. Some modules, like the one on modal mixture, are extremely concise, leaving all the examples and demonstration up to the instructor. In this case I began the unit by asking the class to perform selected popular songs from lead sheets while identifying any non-diatonic harmonies. Once they had picked out a number of different chromatically-inflected scale degrees, I had them read the OMT text for a brief explanation, followed by work on some Classical examples.

On the other hand, the OMT section on first-species counterpoint contains a substantial discussion of best practices, a lengthy embedded demonstration video, and even an embedded interactive music notation activity. As a result, my lesson preparations for this topic consisted mostly of creating supplementary examples for in-class drill work. Such disparities in the comprehensiveness of various topics are seen throughout OMT, so interested instructors should be prepared to provide their own materials where needed.


I count two benefits from my adoption of an OER text. First, my students are saving money. Over the past two years, the cost savings for my students totals approximately $17,600. That is spread nearly evenly between 30 Music Theory I through IV students, and 96 online-only general education Fundamentals students. I anticipate nearly another $5,400 in savings next year enjoyed by 38 new students. This is in one reasonably small department; imagine the difference free texts could make in larger programs or on a national scale.

The other benefit is the increased adaptability of my courses. I have had to generate a large number of worksheets, projects, and exams—109 items in total for the Theory I through IV sequence, most of which I authored in order to move to OMT. (Access the complete collection here, released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.) As a result of this investment of time, I now know my assignments intimately, and my course materials are much more adaptable. I can continually update my assignments, tailoring them to my students’ needs and to my own teaching style and curricular goals. The assignments live in music notation files on my computer; I can update them at will. Plus, deciding from scratch how to order and pace the various topics in the sequence has forced me to become very deliberate about the pedagogical choices I make. Of course, such improvements in adaptability are equally available to teachers using proprietary materials; but in my case, a decisive move to an OER text was necessary to motivate my efforts.

OER are generally up to the task of facilitating positive classroom experiences and fulfilled learning outcomes with little to no cost. I can offer a few data points in support of that claim—first in the form of Course Evaluation numbers. My Music Theory students evaluation scores remained virtually unchanged from the proprietary text classes (4.83 out of 5.00) to the open-text era (4.85 out of 5.00). This data set includes averaged responses from 21 unique music theory courses—15 using the old text and six using the new text—from Fall 2011 through Spring 2017.

I can also report the average semester grades from my most recent Music Theory III courses. The students who used the proprietary text in Fall 2015 averaged an 81.6%, while those who used our current OER in Fall 2016 averaged an 82.7%. In the end, neither end-of-semester grades nor student ratings of my performance as an educator saw a significant change following my switch to an OER text.


My shift toward open educational resources has lowered the costs of my students’ educations while maintaining positive educational outcomes and evaluations of my teaching. These results are in line with those reported in other fields. It brings to mind an interesting question raised by John Hilton III: if students do not learn more using proprietary texts, and students and instructors both rate them to be of roughly equal utility as OER texts, then what exactly are students purchasing with the money they are putting into those proprietary materials?

There may be an argument to be made for a proprietary textbook’s specific built-in theoretical perspective, which can be useful in grounding a course or curriculum. However, there is no reason an open resource could not be built on the same principles. OMT, for example, follows specific approaches to the topics of theme forms (Caplin) and Sonata Theory (Hepokoski/Darcy). Thus, this is less an argument for the inherent superiority of proprietary sources as it is merely an acknowledgement that an OER text with a particular perspective may not yet exist, and should be developed.

In my view, instructors should only select proprietary materials if they result in better learning outcomes; current research suggests they do not. As OER options in music continue to expand, faculty will face increasing pressure to abandon the convenience and familiarity of their current proprietary textbooks. After all, most music teachers agree that the most impactful student learning begins and ends not with a textbook, but with direct music engagement and skilled pedagogy.

But truthfully, post-secondary music theory educators looking to adopt an OER text do not have a single pre-packaged solution available to them today. As promising and helpful as OMT is, it is designed more as a reference guide, not something ready to use “out of the box” for most teachers. It lacks sufficient detail and examples from the literature, assignments, and other course design elements. Much is left up to the instructor to provide. In this respect, the music theory pedagogy community, and our arts faculty in general, needs to do a better job of catching up with our colleagues in other disciplines.

Our discussion up to this point has focused exclusively on materials for written theory, but the area of aural theory is even more lacking in OER options. Although discrete skills of interval, chord, and scale identification can be practiced using various free (but not open) web applications, more involved topics of dictation, melodies for sight singing, written and keyboard theory integration, and broader contextual listening skills are restricted to existing proprietary textbooks. But rather than aiming for a unified OER aural theory textbook, open content developers would do better to focus on building an open repository of curated musical excerpts and packaged classroom activities – a bank of aural skills learning objects. This modular approach, often championed by open resource advocates, is key to a resource’s ability to be remixed and built upon, and would be an asset to any written or aural music resource.

There are few incentives in place to encourage individual music educators to develop and distribute open resources, even for those who have both the time and the inclination to do so. The creation and vetting of new course materials take significant time and effort. Furthermore, shared control over the curriculum and teaching material decisions can make the adoption of OER difficult at many institutions. But until these resources are available in our field, the demonstrated benefits of OER will remain lost to our students.

Faculty should also advocate to their administrations and centers for teaching for institutional support in the form of local faculty workshops, conference travel support, course development stipends, and course releases. Institutions with tenure systems should adopt language recognizing the work of adopting or authoring OER content as teaching, research, or service. In advocating for support, remember that OER has strong potential as a recruitment tool. In 2016, Achieving the Dream launched its Open Educational Resources Degree Initiative, helping 38 selected community colleges to develop a full range of OER-only degrees. Imagine a billboard in your town that reads: “[Your University Here]: Major in Music, We’ll Cover Your Textbooks.”

It is certainly within our reach to develop high-quality, modular, editable, rich-content, ready-to-adopt textbooks with a large complement of supplementary materials. If we as a community pool our resources and expertise, this could be accomplished in a matter of months or years, not decades.


This future of rapidly increasing access to the world’s knowledge at ever shrinking costs is already upon us, even in the arts. Our students have access to most lower-division music theory content online, instantly, for free, today (even if it is not yet packaged into a conveniently shrink-wrapped textbook with accompanying workbook, audio CD, and online access code). Students are not paying these increasing tuition and textbook costs for mere content; they are paying for access to a skilled educator who designs effective, inspiring educational experiences, gives real-time feedback, and models the skills they need to be successful. All these things are crucial to a quality education, but none inherently requires a proprietary textbook.

I am certain that open educational resources will continue to be created and refined in the future. I strongly suspect that the quality, depth, and discoverability of these resources will continue to increase until they exceed those of traditional textbooks. And my prediction, as well as my deep hope, is that more music theory educators will enthusiastically adopt, develop, and champion OER in the near future, not only as a way to lower costs and increase equitable access to their classrooms, but also because it is the pedagogically effective thing to do. It is in the best interests of our students.

This work is copyright ©2017 Kyle Gullings and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.