Course: MUS105
Instructor: Donnacha M. Dennehy
F 2018

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

This course is an introductory course to music theory and part of a two-semester introduction to Western Baroque and Classical music. The purpose of the course is to help students clarify their understanding of music theory, look at existing music and identify why it follows the ‘rules’ of the time it was created, and encourage students to compose on their own. This class counts as an LA and is taken for the most part by people who sing, play some instrument, or are considering music-related majors and certificates. The class is a pre-requisite for music departmentals.

The course follows music theory chronologically but in an ambiguous sense, focusing more on units of music theory. These concepts are related in regards to introducing new “rules” of music theory and ways to analyze chorales, write minuets, and confront issues of voice leading. After skimming over basic concepts (scales, chords, intervals), voice leading and harmony is highly emphasized - it is what you spend most of your time on throughout the course. The later part of the semester then turns its attention to minuet writing. There is a weekly ear training section that focuses on learning to sight-read music using solfege and identifying different intervals and types of chords by listening to them.

The challenging part of the course is the amount of time needed to master each concept. I prepared for the class by setting aside time each day to refine my voice leading skills through rote practicing, spreading time throughout the week to work on sight-reading, and chipping away at problem sets (or, at least, trying hard to) in order make them more manageable. I took detailed lecture notes and went to precept every week to get a better understanding of concepts that were difficult for me to understand.

This course requires prior knowledge of how to read music in the treble and bass clefs. While one doesn’t have to be a master at reading music, it’s necessary to know all the different notes because the class begins assuming you have some familiarity with intervals and chords. The course is a lot easier if you’ve had prior exposure to music theory, but I was able to handle the material even though I had never taken an actual music theory class. Even though the material is challenging and requires consistent work, the knowledge that you gain is of paramount importance if you are a musician.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

Lecture: Two 50-minute lectures a week, delivered by Professor Donnacha Denehy. Professor Denehy’s lecture style was very engaging and made me laugh at different points. He also weaves in modern music, rock, pop, folk, jazz, and minimalist music to help students put the material into concept. It also makes the class fun and shows the relevance of music theory. Dennehy is an excellent professor: he goes through concepts step by step and uses existing music to show voice-leading rules in practice. Lectures were challenging because they move fast but the professor breaks down concepts into bite-size pieces. I took detailed notes and, after class, wrote down a summary of what we’d learned so I could refer to it easily while doing the problem sets.

Precept: Once a week for 50 minutes. While lecture stayed more in the theoretical, precept was time for practicing writing chorales and minuets - implementing concepts learned in lecture. Collaboration is encouraged during class and it’s necessary to come to class prepared. We work on chorales on the blackboard in class, go around the room answering questions together, and quizzes are given occasionally (not for a grade but to help students gauge how they’re doing in the class). The preceptor that you have matters a lot in terms of grading and going over materials, I would suggest asking around to hear about preceptors that different students enjoyed. And, if you walk into your first precept and feel overwhelmed by other student’s prior knowledge like I did, sit in on a different precept that fits your schedule and see which one you like better.

Ear-training: Ear-training focuses on making sure that you learn sight reading, how to gauge chords and intervals from hearing them, and how to transcribe melodies. The class begins by teaching solfege, a way to understand the relationship that notes have to each other. Intervals are taught next, then chords. Each week, we had to practice and master a new melody or beat pattern and then went around the room being quizzed by having a sing or “ta-ta-tata-ta” rhythms out with a partner. There were periodic quizzes where we then had to identify types of intervals and chords, and then transcribe short melodies in a variety of keys. The class ends with being able to sight-read an unfamiliar melody, alone.

Learning For and From Assignments

Problem Sets: Problem sets are due at precept once a week. The function of problem sets is to make students apply the concepts they have learned. At the beginning of the class, problem sets focus on intervals and harmony. After this brief introduction, voice-leading for chorales, Roman numeral analysis, and composing short minuets are the main elements of problem sets. One voice-part, or part of one, is written down and the student’s job is to finish the chorale and add in new voice parts. For Roman numeral analysis, a chorale is given or students have to analyze the chorales they just worked on. Two-three problem sets at the end of the course will involve minuets, they are explained briefly because they require a lot fewer rules than chorales and analysis. Students are able to take away understanding from questions that are mirrored in the midterm exam. On the final project, knowing how to apply concepts the same way you did in problem sets is very very helpful when producing original work.

Reading: The reading is not mandatory and doesn’t follow the structure of the course, but is helpful for getting more knowledge about what’s talked about in class and referring to specific issues.

Midterm Exam: The midterm exam is exactly like what you’ve seen on problem sets. The first part of the exam involved writing and identifying scales and intervals. The second part of the exam was voice leading and Roman numeral analysis, there might be a little curveball of something that throws a wrench into what you are trying to accomplish in the question, but it won’t be unfamiliar. The third part was a short answer section with questions that are discussed in lecture. While the questions are predictable, the biggest challenge is finishing everything in time. Practicing regularly is the way to avoid this hurdle so you can move through the exam quickly and efficiently. I studied for the midterm exam by going over notes and making a word document of important concepts - nothing extraneous that was just ‘interesting’, only things that were useful on psets. I then used this “cheat sheet” when I was re-doing old psets to study, eventually letting go of the crutch and relying on quick thinking that came from seeing so many of the same concepts over and over again.

Final Project: The final project offers students a choice: you can write a short chorale and long minuet, or a long chorale and short minuet. The minuet is completely original and the chorales follow a certain structure but leave room for constructing melodies and following cadences on one’s own. This final project was challenging because it requires original composition. I did the first option and finished the chorale in one go, because it helped me see all voice-leading issues without forgetting my intentions. For a longer chorale, I would have broken it up into smaller pieces. The minuet is entirely original and should be written for 3 string instruments. I handled the minuet by choosing what type of minuet I wanted to write, constructing a melody and then building the song up. Minuets are performed by professional musicians in front of the class around Dean’s Date - it was amazing to hear other people’s work and is a very proud moment to be able to listen to someone play what you’ve composed on your own!

External Resources

I did not really use external resources beyond Musescore to help me hear and visualize the minuets and chorales I was putting together and then the internet for help. McGraw does not offer support for MUS 105, so I relied on my lecture notes and the internet to get templates that I could use to practice chorales and Roman numeral analysis. I also used the internet to practice sight-reading so I could have easy melodies and beat patterns to practice. When I ran into issues, I scheduled one-on-one meetings with my preceptor that were really helpful. It's a good idea to look at other chorales (many are provided in lecture slides) to understand cadences and see how the Great Masters of Baroque and Classical musicians dealt with the same voice-leading issues that you will encounter on psets.

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

This is a challenging course: a lot of people have already taken AP Music Theory when they first start so the concepts are familiar to them. Although I play an instrument, I didn’t have this prior experience from high school and had to put in a little elbow-grease to master the concepts. It was definitely do-able though - ample preparation made the class feel like something I could manage. Quickly recalling intervals and harmonies made psets a lot easier because I could use memorization to build up chords and then focus on strategy and rules. The class demands time, not just before problem sets are due. The psets will make you miserable if you do them in one night, but are fun and manageable if you tackle even just a little bit each day. Ear-training is not possible without constant practice. However, the take-aways from the course are immensely valuable. Sight-reading is a great skill to have and knowing how to voice lead and write minuets made my day-to-day musical experiences a lot easier. With proper music theory, playing an instrument, arranging music, and composing has a stronger foundation for me. I feel competent and am able to apply concepts outside and beyond the class. As a musician, I am constantly encountering music theory and am extremely glad I took the class, even though it was challenging for me.

Music Theory through Performance and Composition

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