Changing Trends in Preparing Students for College Level Theory

By Livingston, Carolyn; Ackman, James | American Music Teacher, August-September 2003 | Go to article overview

Changing Trends in Preparing Students for College Level Theory


Livingston, Carolyn, Ackman, James, American Music Teacher


An article published in American Music Teacher approximately twenty years ago addressed the issue of students' preparation to study college level music theory. Fifty-eight music majors at the University of Florida were surveyed in an attempt to answer the question, "If a promising high school music student decides to major in music at college, where will the necessary background in theory be acquired?" This questionnaire, distributed in March 1981, sought music majors' opinions regarding the most helpful pre-college experiences they had. A follow-up study was conducted in the spring of 2001 to learn whether answers to survey questions had changed over the intervening twenty-year period.

The 1981 Study

The article reporting the 1981 study revealed that the private instrumental teacher plays a role that is as important as the theory instructor. The article went on to support this statement with the writings of Frederic W. Homan, Elvina T. Pearce and Diane Hardy, and to offer suggestions for ways in which this responsibility might be carried out with the help of MTNA theory guidelines and group lessons. (1)

An analysis of the 1981 survey forms revealed that students indicated they felt most prepared in the areas of rhythm (77.5 percent), ability to hear major and minor triads (70.6 percent) and knowledge of scales (68.9 percent) (Table 1).

Additionally, 34.4 percent of the music majors believed they had received the most theory preparation from their private teacher of their major instrument. Other experiences were rated for their value in theory preparation: high school . theory class, 13.7 percent; high school band program, 10.3 percent; private teacher of the student's secondary instrument, 6.8 percent; and private theory teacher, 3.4 percent (Table 2). Although 17.2 percent of the students had participated in a high school orchestra program, only one student who completed the questionnaire indicated that this experience had been the most helpful. The study did not categorize students by year or number of years they had been in their four-year degree program.

Review of Related Literature

With the exception of the 1981 study, none of the extant literature on theory education deal with students' opinions of their high school preparation for college-level theory. Livingston notes that a student's private instrumental teacher (primary performing instrument)has a significant role in preparing high school students for freshman music theory. As previously mentioned, her study examines the responses to a questionnaire of fifty-eight music majors at the University of Florida. Students were asked to indicate which areas of theory study they felt well prepared for upon entering college. Results of the study show that 39.2 percent of wind instrument majors, 53.3 percent of keyboard majors and 38.4 percent of voice majors considered their private lesson instruction to be the most helpful in preparing for freshman music theory. (2) Livingston cites Pearce (3) in suggesting private lesson instructors give students three individual and one group lesson per month, with the group lesson including aural and written theory exercises. (4)

Carole S. Harrison notes that many music majors are not able to perform adequately in the major components of freshman theory: written work, sight reading, ear training and keyboard harmony. Musical aptitude, pre-college musical experience, private study and ensemble experience, and study of principal performing instrument all contribute to predicting success in undergraduate music theory. (5) Her study focused on a population of 178 freshman music majors at California State University at Fullerton. The results indicate that three of the predictive factors--general musical ability, musical experience and musical aptitude--were significant gauges of success in freshman theory classes. (6)

Charles W. Walton states traditional theory courses often are rather narrow in scope, with the various skills taught in a discrete manner without regard to practical application, and indicates six target areas in the teaching of collegiate level music theory:

1. …

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