A Musical Cornerstone

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Image by flickr user Steve Snodgrass.

In architecture, a cornerstone is “a stone that forms the base of a corner of a building, joining two walls” (New Oxford American Dictionary). In our classrooms, sometimes it is difficult to join the two ends of a semester or year. On one end, we have excited and nervous students beginning a new adventure alongside their peers. They may have studied music theory before, or they may be starting this class with little or no prior experience. On the other end, we have students who have finished a leg of their journey to become music scholars and gained significant insights into the music they studied. How can we help our students see how far they have come in their music theory studies while also challenging them throughout an entire semester or school year?

For the past two years, I have chosen specific pieces of music for the first two semesters of music theory that are “cornerstone” pieces—we begin the semester with this musical work, we end the semester with this musical work, and we revisit it during class about every five weeks, for a total of four class sessions with the piece. For Music Theory I, that piece was Bach’s “C Major Prelude” from the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I; for Music Theory II, Fanny Hensel’s “Nachtwanderer,” Op. 7 no. 1. Within the first two days of the semester, everyone receives a copy of the score, listens to a recording or performance of the work, and takes notes on what they know about the piece. These are collaborative notes in a Google Document, so everyone can contribute and share their insights. This alternative mode of communication is key, especially at the beginning of a semester, when some students are not comfortable speaking up during class. During and after each session, I will monitor the notes and make comments only for correcting wrong or misleading information.

In the case of Music Theory I (Fall 2017) and Bach, week 1’s notes featured some basic observations about the piece: it is in C major, has the same rhythm throughout, is in common time, has lots of arpeggios, and changes harmonies once per bar. Week 5 began by reviewing and commenting on their notes from week 1 and adding to it with their recently acquired music theory knowledge. By this time they were able to discuss how the piece begins on a I (tonic) chord and that the V chord appears quite a bit also, the beginning of the piece is diatonic and the middle is more chromatic and has more accidentals, there are some four-bar phrases, and it is not entirely in C major, though it never gets very far away. In week 11, my students uploaded a picture of a chord reduction that was created in class outlining TPDT function and commented on the strong fifth relations present in the piece. At the end of the semester, they began discussing cadences, phrase structure, and following up with identifying chords they had missed in previous weeks.

It is during the last session with the cornerstone work that I ask students to reflect on how much they have learned over a 15-week semester. I also ask them why anyone should care that they know all of this information about one piece of music—I challenge them to consider real-world applications for these new analytical skills and how they might transfer these skills out of the music theory classroom. There is often a pressure to get as much content squeezed into the short amount of time we have to spend with our students, but it is equally important to give students the opportunity to reflect and congratulate one another on their shared journey in music theory.

David Shernoff’s (2013) research on optimal learning environments stresses the connection of perceived learning and perceived investment of effort: “to feel fully engaged and invested in learning, students needed to value the activity as important both to themselves and the process of learning, and they also needed to feel like a valued, active, and contributing members of a learning community” (pp. 140–141).
By revisiting the same piece of music at set intervals of time, students are able to observe and reflect on their growing understanding and mastery of music theory topics discussed in the course. Additionally, they are able to contribute to discussions and a growing collaborative document as members of the class’s community. At the end of the semester, the class as a whole has a visible record of their learning. Including a cornerstone analysis in a course serves as both a connection to the beginning and end of a semester’s learning process and as an element of a student’s foundation in music theory.

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