Music Theory with Modular Open Educational Resources

Music Theory with Modular Open Educational Resources
Common Course ID:MUS 2150: Music Theory IV
CSU Instructor Open Textbook Adoption Portrait

Abstract: These open educational resources (OERs) are being utilized in a Music Theory course sequence for undergraduate students by Kevin Zhang at California State University, San Bernardino culminating in MUS 2150 (Music Theory IV). The open textbooks provide a flexible variety of methods and approaches to music theory and analysis, including audio-visual materials (such as musical scores and listening excerpts) that demonstrate musical concepts. The main motivation to adopt OERs was to eliminate prohibitive costs for students. Most students access the open textbooks through Blackboard links to HTML, PDF, and E-Book content. 

About the Course

Course Title and Number
Brief Description of course highlights:  

MUS 2150 (Music Theory IV):  MUS 2150 (Music Theory IV) is the culmination of 4-semester core Western music theory sequence required of all music majors at CSUSB. Its focus is on the musical practices of the 20th and the 21st centuries, ranging from late-Romantic chromaticism to post-War developments and contemporary musical genres.

Student Population. Most students are majors, taking the course as part of their BA or BM degrees in Music. 

Learning or student outcomes:  Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:

  • Recognize important trends in the emergent musical styles of the 20th and 21st centuries, and conduct analyses of representative compositions
  • Identify pitch class sets and their various transformations in atonal and post-tonal music
  • Analyze serial compositions and create 12-tone matrices
  • Identify and construct various synthetic modes
  • Analyze forms and harmonies of various popular-music idioms, including jazz, blues, and ballad and other song forms
  • Develop original techniques for analysis of contemporary music

Key challenges faced and how resolved: One aspect missing from the new OERs adopted was that they did not have a score anthology supplementing the principal text. Thus, I needed to draw supplementary scores and recordings from various other sources (most often IMSLP and YouTube).

Curricular Changes: Homework assignments had to be rewritten so that they more naturally followed the formats prompted by the practice assignments and worksheets in the main new OER text. 

About the Resource/Textbook 

Textbook or OER/Low cost Title: 
Music Theory for the 21st Century Classroom. 

Brief Description: This OER is an openly–licensed online text that begins with the basics of reading and writing music and continues through advanced topics of 20th and 21st-century Western music theory. The text is interactive, offering in-line musical examples via links to legal copyrighted YouTube videos with start and stop times embedded to illustrate the concepts presented in the text. The author also emphasizes a diverse approach in choosing examples that cover a wide range of historical periods and musical genres. At the ends of each chapter, practice self-test examples are provided for students to check their knowledge of the new material.

Authors: Robert Hutchinson

Student access: Students access the website via Blackboard through embedded links to the relevant chapter pages on each week’s content modules.

Supplemental resources: In addition to reading from Hutchinson’s Music Theory for the 21st Century Classroom, the various courses in the Music Theory sequence (MUS 2120-2150) draw upon several other OERs depending on the level. This creates a “modular” approach to building this course sequence. In MUS 2150, students also are assigned excerpts from Edward Pearsall’s Twentieth Century Music Theory and Practice (Taylor & Francis, 2012), which they can access for free through ProQuest Ebook Central with their Cal State San Bernardino Pfau Library accounts. In earlier courses in the sequence (e.g., in MUS 2120, Theory I), students also read excerpts from Catherine Schmidt-Jones’ Understanding Basic Music Theory (OpenStax, 2013), which is published under the Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY) and freely accessible through the Open Textbook Library.

Cost Savings:  By adopting OERs, students save $207.75 compared to the new list price of their previous textbook, Kostka et al.’s Tonal Harmony (McGraw-Hill, 2018). 26 students were enrolled in MUS 2150 during Spring, 2021, leading to a total pre-tax savings of approximately $5400.

License: The text’s author grants permission to copy, distribute, and/or modify the document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

OER/Low Cost Adoption

OER/Low Cost Adoption Process

Provide an explanation or what motivated you to use this textbook or OER/Low Cost option. Prior to this year, students used Kostka et al.’s Tonal Harmony. That previous text is one of several standard textbooks in widespread use for the core music theory sequence of courses at many undergraduate music programs in the US. However, I found that its cost was prohibitive to many students at our campus, and that many would attempt to complete the courses without access to a reference textbook. Other popular texts, such as Burstein-Straus’ Concise Introduction to Tonal Music, Clendinning-Marvin’s Musician’s Guide to Theory and Analysis, and Laitz’s The Complete Musician were similarly priced. Prior to switching to OERs, my plan was to place a personal copy of the text on course reserve at my campus library for students to check out for in-library use. However, the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic prevented this, and so I decided to switch my entire curriculum to use OERs that were freely and easily accessible to students from anywhere (without the need for VPNs).

How did you find and select the open textbook for this course?  The primary OER I adopted, Hutchinson’s Music Theory for the 21st Century Classroom, was recommended to me by a colleague teaching a similar course at another institution. The other open textbooks I used in this and various other courses in the sequence – Pearsall’s 20th Century Music Theory and Practice and Catherine Schmidt-Jones’ Understanding Basic Music Theory – were texts I found by searching through the ProQuest and Open Textbook Library databases.

Sharing Best practices: I found it helpful to look through the databases and resources suggested by my campus librarians in order to find appropriate OERs. Furthermore, I found it important to not only choose OERs with strong content, but also had ease of accessibility; e.g., they should be accessible to students unable to use VPNs, and/or to remote learners who may need to do their reading on a cell phone instead of a laptop or desktop, etc.

Student feedback: Students were given a survey reviewing the textbook following the conclusion of MUS 2150. 75% of respondents gave Music Theory for the 21st Century Classroom a rating of 5/5 while the other 25% gave it a rating of 4/5. Some comments included:

  • “The website explained topics well and had examples to do and check. I would default to this when I had trouble”
  • “I was able to learn easily from the book.”
  • “I liked the Hutchinson because it was easy to access and it gave made good examples of different forms of music theory and analysis. I wished some of the chapters felt a little more structured and broken down rather than just given a full example of a musical excerpt. But overall it was a nice source to use.”
  • “This site helped me understand every topic we covered in class on my own.”

About the Instructor

Kevin Zhang
Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Composition
California State University, San Bernardino

My teaching philosophy is rooted in a growth-mindset pedagogy that invites students to extrapolate from the methods and theoretical frameworks offered by course materials and connect them to their own creative interests and pursuits. My primary instructional duties at CSUSB involve teaching and coordinating the core music theory sequence of courses which are required of all music majors, along with teaching applied music composition, music technology, and similar topics.