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Fundamentals of Music Theory MOOC: how was it for me?

I almost arrived late for the first class of this MOOC! I hadn’t realised it was running until I saw mention of it on “Cafe Saxophone” (a brilliant online forum about anything saxophone). So I signed up for the Fundamentals of Music Theory MOOC (from the Reid School of Music, University of Edinburgh) during its first week.

I’m not really sure what I was expecting. I had done 2 other music related MOOCs, with very disparate experiences, so I was prepared for almost anything. I have played the saxophone for 5 years, having taken it up ‘later in life’, following redundancy from a job as a Research Scientist in Radio Communication systems! So my background is definitely not in music.

Looking back at my childhood, I was lucky enough to learn to play the recorder when I was in primary school, and I had learnt to read music very young. At the time, I hadn’t realised how special such a musical experience was at such a young age. 2 years of horrific violin lessons followed. I say violin lessons, but it was more like cat-murdering! I am truly sorry for our neighbours, my family and the teacher – she must have had the patience of a saint to put up with me for so long! Later I had trombone lessons for a year, which were much, much better, even tuneful on occasions. But I never thought of myself as a musician. To me it was just one of those things that you did as a child – brownies, guides, hockey, and instrument lessons. Added to which, my younger sister is a musician. She is now a truly inspirational teacher of music in a Secondary school in the UK. Back then when we were kids, she was just a superb musician, singing and playing trumpet and piano. In comparison, I was definitely not a musician.

Anyway, I digress! I have been playing saxophone for 5 years, learning some relevant music theory along the way, but my lessons are in performance, not theory. A couple of years ago I thought I would spend my summer break learning some music theory, so I bought the ABRSM “pink” book – The AB Guide to Music Theory, part1 – and I worked my way through it from beginning to end, every page, every chapter, then I sat the ABRSM grade 5 theory exam and passed, with distinction.

That was enough theory for me. What more did I really need? I could play sheet music; I didn’t really need to understand what I was playing, did I?

So, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the Fundamentals of Music Theory MOOC. Given the course overview, I thought it might cover the pretty much the same as the grade 5 syllabus: pitches, scales, modes, chords, keys, minor scales, intervals, clefs, rhythm and form; but the course overview had also mentioned Harmony and I knew nothing about harmony, so I was apprehensive.

How did this MOOC work?

The course consisted of 5 weeks of lectures followed by an assignment. Each week has some video lectures, typically 6 lectures varying in length from 2 to 15 minutes, and then an end of week multiple choice quiz. You did the quiz in your own time, could take up to 5 attempts and it was “open book”, so you were in with a good chance of doing well in the quizzes.

There was also a discussion forum associated with the MOOC. On the forum you could ask questions, make helpful comments, seek guidance and advice etc. It soon became obvious from the forum that some students had confused the word “Fundamental”, with the word “basic” and some complained that the course was far too difficult for someone with no previous knowledge or experience. The dictionary defines “Fundamental” as “A central or primary rule or principle on which something is based” which is absolutely what this course covered. It gave us the foundations on which to build the rest of our music theory knowledge.

However, I think it is fair to say that there is more to a MOOC, indeed to any course, that just the information given to you in the lectures. For some, this course required significant background reading, just to understand enough to tackle the quizzes.

But this was where the forum came in useful. You could post your question and someone would always come back with a useful reply, maybe a link to another web-site or video that helped to clarify and solidify the information provided in the video lectures. Fellow students had a huge range of knowledge and experience on the subject. Some knew nothing, some were already professional music teachers, and the teaching staff were pro-active on the forums. If you had a question, it would be answered somewhere in the forum. Other MOOCs that I have followed have not had as much interaction from the teaching staff.

This MOOC also had a parallel Facebook page started by one of the students with well over 6,000 members. This was a second excellent source of information, with maybe a more “homely” feel about it. Although this Facebook group was set up by a fellow student, it was also watched over by some of the teaching staff, who offered guidance and advice where necessary.

A couple of weeks into the course, it started to become obvious to the teaching staff, that some of the subject areas were generating lots of similar questions and requests for more information, and Dr Zack Moir offered to hold a “Hangout”, in which he could interact with a few students in a live broadcast and provide further information to support the course. In total, Zack (with Dr Richard Worth occasionally) ran 5 Hangouts, providing further information, answering questions and clearing up some confusions, plus they recorded some extra video lectures which were all posted to the MOOC web-page.

Then came the end of course assignment. This was the bit on harmony, the bit that I was most apprehensive about. The final week’s video lectures contained a superb lecture given by Dr John Kitchen, in which he talked us through some harmonic analysis of a score. In addition Zack ran another Hangout which covered analysing a different score in the same way that we needed to approach the final assignment. Although the final assignment was quite time-consuming, if you worked through the analysis methodically, it was not too challenging. Everything that we needed to know to tackle the final assignment had been taught to us during the preceding 5 weeks. The assignment could be broken down into smaller steps – identify the notes, chords, chord inversions, cadences, modulations, and finally write a brief description of the piece with reference to phrases, time signature, key signature, structure and form.

Once we had submitted our score analysis, the final task we had to perform was to assess the assignments submitted by at least 3 of our fellow students.

So, how was my experience?

I really enjoyed this MOOC. It was by far the best of the 3 that I have done. Not just because of the content, but also because of the staff-student interaction and the mutual support, the sense of community that somehow developed between us. 90,000 students signed up to the course, aged from 12 to “much, much older” with about 20,000 of us attempting the final assignment. The content was well paced, the videos were informative and useful, the quizzes and assignment were sufficiently challenging.

The course overview suggested that no prior knowledge was needed, and this was possibly true. You could possibly have started from zero and got up to the required standard, but not without additional background reading and research, and it would probably have taken more hours that the 1-3 hours per week that was advertised. However, for me, the 5 weeks of video lectures were fairly straightforward, even the lessons on harmony, that I had worried about, were not too bad.

But the main reason that I found the course so enjoyable was because I could “pay back” into the course. I often found my role switching from student to teacher – when questions were asked on the forum by other students that I could answer, I did my best to give a clear answer that would not cause further confusion. I began to realise that different people learn in different ways, that sometimes what I may find obvious, others don’t; that a different approach is needed; that sometimes the pace may need to be slower, more methodical and going back over the basics to ensure that fellow students understand the subject matter.

I am planning to take a diploma in Saxophone teaching within the next year and somewhat unexpectedly for me this MOOC turned from a journey of music theory education as a student, into a journey of music theory education as a teacher.

Further Reading:

You can see an earlier post about this MOOC by clicking here.

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9 thoughts on “Fundamentals of Music Theory MOOC: how was it for me?”

  1. Hello Mandy just read your blog and I thought it was very cool. Thank you for writing it. I took this course as well and although I struggled and very nearly quit many times I enjoyed it very much. You said it way better than I ever could. Good luck with your studies. I am sure your future students will learn much from you.

  2. I too took this course, Mandy, and I’m no musician. Well, I sang in a few choirs, but at no point did I learn to read a score, and at no point could I simply sing based on what I saw on paper.
    While that’s still largely true, I learned a tremendous amount in five weeks, and I would feel much more competent at puzzling out the meaning of a score. In fact I am about to start a keyboard course …
    A was a teacher until retirement. I can see all sorts of ways to engage more with the enormous audience this course attracted, and how to generate positivity in both beginners and experts. I think I’d spread the course out and I’d include a lot more practical examples, and exercises which bridge the gap between the largely single notes then chords practiced in weeks 1-4 and the analysis required for week 5 and the practical task.
    I love John Kitchen’s music, having attended a number of his concerts, and I own a number of his CDs. I really respected the way in which he set about his task in week 5, and it was [of course] based on a piece of music I know and love. It was only during that set of lectures [and Zack’s final hangout] that things began to click for me – and I was incredibly happy as a relative beginner to come out with good marks at the end.
    A word about Zack Moir – I have done many courses online, many with Coursera. Zack was all over the forums, and more proactive that any other staff member I have ever seen on Coursera. That’s no exaggeration. I’d like to pat him on the back. In fact I’d like to buy him a pint.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to write this great post, Mandy! It is very encouraging for us to read this sort of thing and we wish you well with your future teaching! You were a great help to many of your peers on the course and I know that people were very grateful for this.

    Derek, thanks so much for your kind comments. I am glad to have been of help! Pats on the back and pints are gratefully received. 😉

  4. Mandy’s comments are spot on and I can relate to much of what she says. Unlike Mandy I had no childhood experience with music lessons. However, as an adult I rectified this and took up piano lesson 4 years ago. My skill level is somewhere in the intermediate category. I do believe that without at least this much experience I would have found this MOOC overwhelming, but not impossible. The forums were a great way to get further clarification on particular subjects. My fellow students were so kind and helpful and went to great lengths to help each other out. I really do miss them and hope we can meet up again in a part two! But what made this course stand out heads and shoulders above all the other MOOCs I have taken was the involvement of the staff from the University of Edinburgh, and especially, Zack. His patience with those of us struggling was just heartwarming. For him it was just as important for a student to finally understand a basic concept as it was to help others face the final exam. The Reid School of Music must be a great place to study music with professors like the ones we had in this course.

    And if you want to know specifically how this course has affected my music education, well this is the first time that I have felt comfortable calling myself a musician. Learning music theory has just given me so much confidence and it is beginning to show in my piano lessons. Thank you all so much.

  5. Great post Mandy. You did a wonderful job describing the course. Congratulations on almost being ready for your diploma in only 5 years. Thanks again for all the help you provided during the course. I actually took music theory in college but that was over 45 years ago and when I started to take piano lessons again about 3 1/2 years ago, I did not even remember how to read the bass clef. Thanks to all the teachers and especially Zack for all the extra help you provided. Zack, you are a really dedicated and amazing teacher. I have really enjoyed the class and am looking forward to part two. I would say this course has made me more comfortable and interested in music theory. My piano teacher happens to love music theory so I am going through the Tonal Harmony book with him so I will hopefully be prepared for part 2. I would love to get to the point where I can just look at chords and know what they are. I have to spend a lot of time figuring them out. Most of the course was not too difficult but I did find the final challenging. I received full marks on the final but who ever graded my paper was being kind. There were definitely mistakes. I would have given myself a 12 at the most.

  6. I loved this course and identify with so many responders. However, as usual, I tend to believe I am neuronically (brain wise) disadvantaged. While I love music, enjoy playing piano and classical guitar by myself, I claim only to be a wanna-be musician. Despite years of music lessons (violin, flute, piano, even some classical guitar) I have never progressed beyond an advanced beginner stage (well more like intermediate on piano). I know the brain can change and I keep hoping.
    One thing this course helped do was help me know I could, with effort, figure out answers to the quizzes and I think I could have muddled through the final exam except for my persistent negative attitude toward my brain’s ability.
    What is good is that in my practice, I do notice new things such as chord inversions, key changes (I love to discover the V of the V changes) intervals and I check out keys and structure before starting pieces. This is a big step forward!
    I have loved feeling part of this gigantic peer group and have appreciated everyone’s input.
    What an amazing opportunity Coursera presents. I am and shall be forever grateful!
    I plan on taking many more courses although I do not expect any to reach the caliber of Zack and his crew. This course will probably always be my favorite!

  7. Nice posting, Mandy! You’ve accurately described the FOMT MOOC and noted correctly how wonderful the instructors were, giving us liberally of their time and energy to make sure we had the best opportunity possible to grasp the fundamentals of music theory.

    For me, the high point of the course was actually the source of many complaints — the final exercise! When I opened the link and saw the score for the first 71 bars of an early Mozart string quartet, my heart sank. No way was I going to be able to make sense of that! Four different instruments, tenor and alto clefs, lots of accidentals, all for a piece of music I didn’t know? I thought about skipping the final, taking comfort in all that I had learned in the class.

    But then Zach gave us an extra week, and I thought, WTH, I’ll give it a shot. It was tedious, going through the score bar-by-bar, note-by-note, but soon I was able to recognize chords and chord progressions. One of my classmates posted a link to a YouTube performance of the quartet, and I listened to that over and over, finally getting to what was for me an undreamed-of occurrence — I could actually follow the music in the score, and could see what I was hearing actually written in the score! That really helped me identify the structure of the piece, the phrasing, the key changes, and other little things going on in the piece.

    I finally completed my analysis and wrote my little essay on the piece, taking about 15 hours ultimately to do so. I received full marks from my generous classmates, but more importantly, I was able to understand how a piece of music actually worked. I never thought I would be able to something like that, and it’s all thanks to this class and its excellent teachers. The five lecture sessions, the discussion boards, the Google Hangouts — all gave me the background I needed to achieve this. I’m grateful to the teachers, my classmates, the Reid School of Music and Coursera for providing this wonderful experience.

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