Musicianship skills I think every college music major in the US should have

Non-exhaustive thoughts, mostly about music theory curricula

Dec 21, 2022

Sometimes when I talk to colleagues about music theory and musicianship curricula (ours at Wheaton; curricula at other schools), I orient the conversation around the prompt: “What do we want our graduating music majors to be able to do?” The idea is that this is a different question from “What do we want our graduating music majors to know,” which is in my view an unproductive dead-end. (And in any event, the way we assess what they know is by asking them to do something.)

Here’s my list of what I’d like every college music major to be able to do. It is of course non-exhaustive and provisional. It is aimed at college music departments like the one in which I teach, though I don’t think it’s limited to that context. (Please remember that this is Substack, not the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy! I’m writing this on my couch while baking. It is peer-reviewed by my dog.) I offer it mainly in hopes that someone reading it might start doing one or two of these things in their tiny corner of the music world; and so that I might hear feedback from all you smart people and continue to refine my thinking about what I teach my students.

To be clear, these are skills I think should be taught explicitly under the auspices of a music department, and all of these would, in my view, be right at home in a music theory/aural skills/musicianship curriculum. That includes certain pre-professional topics like building a website, and several technological topics. My own background and the nature of my job (I teach music theory and music technology/electronic music composition) bias me, but I wish there was less of a distinction between the creative and conceptual work of electronic music and of music theory / musicianship. I am cautiously hopeful that this is the direction our field will move in as time progresses, but it’s already the case that whenever we do make that shift we’ll be catching up to our students rather than leading the way.

I am not writing about musicological topics here except insofar as they do intersect with music theory and musicianship work. In brief, I tend to think that it’s more important to impart methodological techniques of, and meta-theoretic questions surrounding, musicology and ethnomusicology than it is to ensure that students have studied canonic composers or done country-by-country surveys. One of the essays that really shaped my thinking on this is Alejandro Madrid’s “Diversity, Tokenism, Non-Canonical Musics, and the Crisis of the Humanities in U.S. Academia.”

I’d be curious, if you’re an educator or if you have a music major, how many of these you feel you teach or felt you learned as an undergraduate. If there are things you disagree with, I’d be keen to know why. Also, other musings on music theory curricula are welcome.

This list would have looked a bit different five years ago. It’ll look a bit different five years from now.


  • Make a clean multi-track recording in a Digital Audio Workstation, including to a click track. This includes miking their instrument properly and choosing a suitable environment, and editing the audio appropriately and seamlessly.
  • Run basic live sound (two or three channels, no monitors). This includes configuring and using a mixer, doing some basic EQ and also selecting and setting up microphones and speakers in a way that prevents feedback and captures an instrument or vocalist effectively.
  • Compose in a DAW in a way that shows basic familiarity with principles of synthesis (basic waveforms, filtering, ADSR envelopes) and sampling, common audio effects, and use of layering. (I find that instrumentalists, especially classical musicians, will set up their DAW like a chamber orchestra score: this is the keyboard lane, and the melody lane. Teaching them to layer six tracks into one composite harmonic “unit” is really important.)


  • Write a biographical artist statement
  • Curate a (real or hypothetical) concert relevant to their interests in a way that is aesthetically thoughtful, practicable and regionally minded (i.e. not “I will fly in performer X from India and performer Y from L.A. to my hometown of Attleboro Massachusetts”), and represents an appropriate range of ideologies and identities. This is especially good to do with seniors who might have some idea of where they’re going to live after graduating
  • Build a website

Pitch and Harmony

  • Transcribe a song by ear
  • Very basic facility with the piano—ability to play a single requested pitch and all major and minor scales at a glacial tempo
  • Write for all common instruments idiomatically (i.e., knowledge of instrument ranges, limitations, basic orchestration)
  • Hear and sing all diatonic intervals
  • Hear and sing all major and minor scales
  • Spell and aurally recognize (but not necessarily sing) all diatonic modes, major and minor pentatonic, octatonic/diminished, and blues scales
  • Idiomatically improvise with and compose with the blues scale and know the standard 12-bar blues progression and common chordal embellishments of it
  • Spell and aurally recognize major, minor, diminished, and augmented triads, and major seventh, dominant seventh, minor seventh, half diminished seventh, and fully diminished seventh chords
  • Recognize non-chord tones; resolve them idiomatically both aurally and in writing
  • Spell and aurally identify applied dominant harmonies
  • Spell and aurally identify mode mixture harmonies; sing some idiomatic mode mixture patterns
  • Identify visually and aurally that a piece has modulated keys; compose using common procedures for pivot-chord and basic enharmonic modulations
  • Hear a common mostly-diatonic chord progression on piano and on guitar and articulate it in terms of roman numerals. (For example: “I - vi - IV - V” or “i - V/iv - iv - i” or “I - bVII - bVI - bVII”)
  • Improvise a harmony to an aurally given melody on their instrument or voice. If I sing "do-re-mi-sol” they should be able to at least sing something like “mi-fa-sol-ti” with me. I also think singing harmonies to recorded pop music is a great exercise.
  • Compose harmonizations for a given melody that are tonally syntactic and also musically interesting (for what it’s worth, this one bullet point occupies at least a third of my class work every semester in Theory I, II, and III)
  • Solo on their instrument over a basic chord progression in a way that shows an understanding of those harmonies and is musically engaging (i.e., develops a rhythmic/melodic motif of some kind). NB: I will talk about how I teach this in another post. I pitch it to them as an ear-training exercise and as a set of suggestions for navigating situations like: “You’ve been asked to join in on a friend’s Bluegrass jam session” or “Your guitarist friend wants you, their impressive music major buddy, to lay down some violin on a track they’re recording, and also they don’t really know what chords they’ve played.”
  • Riff on their instrument over a basic chord progression (anything from doubling the bass line in a way that makes rhythmic sense, to a backing horn line.)


  • Hear a cyclic song form and track its progression (could be listening to choruses of a solo over rhythm changes, listening to a strophic art song, etc)
  • Given a score, draw formal boundaries that are logical based on a priori formal and harmonic knowledge. This is my way of saying that I do think it’s good to teach rounded binary, or minuet + trio, or other simpler classical forms, but not in a comprehensive way. The objective should be to teach students to appreciate how composers play with the schematic expectations of enculturated listeners, and that they (students) can become enculturated listeners even to musical forms that haven’t been popular since the 19th century. I also think this goal can be met by looking at transcriptions of jazz solos over rhythm changes or other standard songs, with consideration to when the soloist is articulating aspects of the underlying form and when they are eliding or obfuscating those aspects.
  • Compose following strictures of a particular form (i.e., write a continuous rounded binary form)


  • Memorize some common non-Western rhythms (I always teach bembé, samba, partido alto, son + rumba clave) presented aurally (ideally exclusively aurally, that is, without notating them). Perform these rhythms to recordings of enculturated practitioners
  • Perform notated rhythms to a metronome (pretty much the standard musicianship fare here: meters from 2/4 to 9/4, 3/8 to 9/8, duple and triple subdivisions, syncopations, hemiolas over the bar line). Sometimes rehearsed, sometimes at sight. Sometimes metronome set to the tactus, sometimes to off-beats, sometimes set to go off once per measure or once every other measure
  • Hear a rhythm and perform it back accurately
  • Hear a song and identify its meter (or a plausible meter)
  • Perform 3:2, 4:3 polyrhythms (and at least try 5:3 and 5:4)
  • Play rhythms in 6/8 tapping the dotted eighth and the quarter note
  • Change a straight-8th rhythm to swung eighths and perform swung rhythms with a reasonably convincing feel


  • Hear changes to the frequency bands associated with a six-band graphic equalizer (sub-bass, bass, low mid, high mid, presence, brilliance). For instance, play a solo cello recording and then the same recording boosting the 60 hz band by six decibels and have students recognize that as “bass boost”. Essentially the scenario we are training them for is that they are in the studio and they do not like how their instrument sounds and they can specify why in terms of frequency ranges. The best book on this subject, which all music theory and aural skills instructors should have, is Jason Corey - Audio Production and Critical Listening Technical Ear Training
  • Draw qualitative timbre-affect-embodiment linkages of the sort found in work by Cox, Wallmark, and Heidemann
  • Familiarity with basics of orchestration and with the timbral features of common instruments
  • Articulate how timbre can index a listener’s cultural assumptions about race and gender (per scholarship by Nina Sun Eidsheim, Stephan Pennington, etc.)
  • Understand and perform common extended techniques on their particular instrument, and discuss why those techniques are considered “extended” (cultural norms, performance limitations, etc)

Conceptual/big picture

  • Understand the difference between, and criteria of, tonal harmonic syntax as distinct from modal or non-tonal harmonic syntax
  • Articulate the imbrication of putatively neutral aesthetic questions with power structures rooted in race, gender, class, sexuality, and nationality
  • Do independent scholarly research in music theory and evaluate relative trustworthiness of sources
  • Recognize that we have a dominant epistemology of music in the West but that there are others; our musical categories are not given by nature
  • Reflect critically on the curriculum they received, the power dynamics inherent in the teacher-student relationship, and to think seriously about alternate ways musicians could be trained

What wouldn’t I include?

There’s simply not space for everything. Music theory curricula are a popular—sometimes exasperatingly so—topic on social media and the conversation always focuses on what should be added. Deciding what to excise makes for a less pleasant conversation.

All of the following are important and fascinating topics that I think should be elective rather than required of every student:
  • “Romantic-era” topics including augmented sixth chords, neo-Riemannian theories of harmonic movement, et cetera
  • Fugues (kind of a gimme: are there any programs in the US right now that still teach this as a core part of their theory curriculum?)
  • Sonata form (*ducks*)
  • Pitch-class set theory and serial techniques (essentially, this is me saying that I think the usual semester of mostly-atonal 20th century music theory/analysis should be optional. And I say that as someone for whom that specific class made me want to do music theory professionally!)
  • Classical phrases like the period and the sentence (*ducks*)
  • Harmonic sequences (*ducks* *ducks* *ducks* *ducks* V - I)
  • Species counterpoint (I actually do teach this every time I teach our first semester theory course! I really like it as an introduction to certain habits of mind that music theory can inculcate, but I don’t think it’s essential.)
  • Microtonality
  • Acoustics
  • Topics in music psychology or music cognition in a systematic manner (it would be impossible not to mention them anecdotally or in passing)
  • More advanced production techniques, including use of analog recording and synthesis equipment
  • More advanced live sound techniques, like managing more than four inputs and managing multiple monitor mixes
  • Topics in jazz harmony and improvisation, including chordal extensions, sequences, tritone substitutions, modes of the melodic minor scale, etc
  • Deeper-level aspects of music analysis that might be termed “musico-poetics” or hermeneutics. I often give Edward Cone’s essay “Schubert’s Promissory Note” to students to read as a beautiful example of this. It was a big part of my own undergraduate music theory training. It is of course something we should model as instructors, but I do not currently expect my students to be able to talk about a piece of music (especially instrumental music) in this way.

Modular structures, practical concerns

I think that medium- and large-sized schools could do this by paring back the number of specific courses they require and allowing students to choose electives in a more modular curriculum. That could mean taking two or three semesters of a set, standard theory + musicianship curriculum; and then the requirement to take two electives: post-tonal theory, jazz theory, Romantic-era music, courses surveying the current state of the field of music theory, etc. (I offer a number of these kinds of electives on a rotating basis at Wheaton and you can see my syllabi here.) Ideally this is paired with a robust advising network so that faculty can guide students to the courses that will suit their interests or inculcate new ones.

That immediately points to a major problem with this kind of a structure, which is that college music departments are uniformly understaffed and under-resourced, and course enrollment pressures have never been higher. Turning a required fourth semester course into three optional electives almost inevitably lowers the faculty-student ratio; 50 students guaranteed across two sections of Theory IV with two instructors become 12 students guaranteed across four theory electives with four instructors. Very few music schools in the country have that luxury. (I would support larger class sizes if they were bringing costs to students down; but it seems to me that at most schools the savings are just going to other corners of the university.)

At Wheaton we make it work because our department can get away with relatively small class sizes (low double digits), and because we offer our elective courses on 3-year rotations. Unfortunately that means that students sometimes miss out on courses they really want to take. Sometimes we can accommodate them with independent studies, but faculty are not compensated for those and so it’s not a durable solution.

The above list also assumes a very broad base of knowledge that is certainly not imparted by any doctoral program in music theory that I know. But I am not super sympathetic to the justification that “we weren’t taught this so we don’t teach it,” which is a tautology that just ensures the same sedimented pedagogy with the same sedimented problems. The beauty of our job as educators is that we get to be lifetime learners. YouTube and other online resources mean that it’s never been easier to learn topics that are sometimes considered outside our wheelhouse. If music theory is to continue conceiving of itself as the province of pencil-and-paper work, it’s going to find that province growing smaller and smaller with each passing year.

Performance as Knowledge

In a more impudent period (grad school), I recall thinking that college music curricula gave too much real estate to music theory at the expense of, especially, ethnomusicology. I now think that music departments give too little real estate to performance as a form of knowing. This has had serious and generally negative consequences for the kinds of students we are welcoming into our departments, and for the kinds of thinkers and musicians that we produce.

Part of this change in my thinking has been shaped by my colleagues in the music department at Wheaton, all of whom consider themselves—like me—professional performers who went into academia, and all of whom have maintained a professional performing career. I used to think skill as a performer was important for all classroom music faculty, even in (say) musicology; and then in grad school I recanted and thought that view represented its own kind of chauvinism and exclusivity; and now I’m back to thinking it’s important.

I return to the question of “what do we want our students to do” in this context. My work as a performer and a composer has always been mutually reinforcing with my work as a professor. Music theory appealed to me because it felt like an expansive toolbox that I could use and play with. It made me a better performer and a better composer. Even though students most memorably encounter music theory in the simultaneously stultifying and panic-inducing context of sight-singing exams, overall the professionalization and standardization of music theory within academia has sublimated performance to written and theoretical discourse. (Of course this is not a new relationship between composers/theorists on the one hand and performers on the other, at least in the West. It just has a different institutional imputation now.)

I now think that at least half of undergraduate music curricula should be devoted to music theory and musicianship, but understood broadly and charitably: as an expansive space for play and experimentation, a space where students and colleagues from different disciplinary backgrounds feel at home sharing insights, and where expressive utterances other than (but still including) the written word have their wisdom acknowledged.