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