Music Theory: The Foundation of Great Music
Sean Atkinson is an Associate Professor of Music Theory at the Texas Christian University School of Music, where he teaches courses on topics such as music theory, aural skills, and form and analysis. He also teaches graduate seminars on music analysis and musical meaning as well as a media studies class for the university’s Honors College. Prior to joining the faculty at TCU, he taught in the Department of Music at The University of Texas at Arlington. He holds a BM in Music Theory and Trombone Performance from Furman University and earned MM and PhD degrees in Music Theory from Florida State University.
Professor Atkinson’s research, which broadly addresses issues of musical meaning in multimedia contexts, has been published in journals such as Music Theory Online, Indiana Theory Review, the Dutch Journal of Music Theory, and Popular Music. He is also active in the growing field of video game music (ludomusicology) and has presented at the North American Conference on Video Game Music and the Music and the Moving Image Conference at New York University.
Professor Atkinson is a cofounder of No Quarters, an on-campus video game lab at TCU committed to the interdisciplinary research and teaching of video games. Housed in the library, the lab allows students and teachers to explore a growing number of games and consoles, including virtual reality.
01: Learning the Language of Music
As an introduction to the language of music, delve into the Russian Easter Overture (1888) by composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Explore how Rimsky-Korsakov achieves the work’s expressive effects, through the textures of different instruments and variations in volume (dynamics), speed (tempo), rhythm, and harmony, to capture the emotions of Easter in the Russian orthodox church.
02: Staff, Clefs, and Notes
Learn to identify the pitch (frequency) of a musical note, expressed by the letters A through G. See the pitches on the piano keyboard and observe how they’re written on the five-line “staff” of musical notation. Note how the symbols called clefs are used on the staff to indicate whether the pitches are in the upper or lower register, and practice reading notes on the treble and bass clefs.
03: Major Scales: Notes in Context
Musical scales—ordered patterns of the notes A through G—are one of the basic structures of music. See how scales are built using half steps and whole steps, terms which describe the sequence of notes within the scale. Focus on the major scale, grasping how this familiar pattern of notes is created, and learn the function of each note within the scale. Listen to music using the major scale.
04: Intervals: Distance between Notes
Look closely at intervals in music, the distances between pitches (notes). Practice listening to intervals, such as the third (a distance of three) and the fifth (five) and see how they appear on the written staff. Then look at the “quality” of intervals, such as major or minor, and how these qualities create expressive effects. Hear how intervals are used within familiar pieces of music.
05: The Circle of Fifths
Begin by defining the key of a piece of music, which is simply the musical scale that is used the most in the piece. Also discover key signatures in written music, symbols at the beginning of the musical score that indicate the key of the piece. Then grasp how the major keys all relate to each other in an orderly way, when arranged schematically according to the interval of a fifth.
06: Meter: How Music Moves
Learn how the pulse or beat of a piece of music is organized in the written score, within small segments called measures, with the meter signature indicating how the beats are grouped within the measure. Observe how written musical notes have a rhythmic value, indicating how long each note lasts in time. Practice clapping musical rhythms, to understand how a piece of music moves through time.
07: Simple and Compound Meters
The way musical beats (pulses) are subdivided fundamentally affects the character of the music. Discover simple meter, where the beat is subdivided into two equal parts, and compound meter, where it’s subdivided into three. Listen to music by Schumann, Haydn, and Bach to hear the difference, see how these rhythms are written, and do clapping exercises to get a feel for compound meter.
08: Downbeats and Upbeats: Performing Rhythm
Practice rhythms that are typical in different genres of music, beginning with the rhythm from Queen’s famous “We Will Rock You.” Read and perform rhythms from music by Sousa and Schumann. Study features of rhythm such as rubato (flexibility with the tempo); musical notation such as ties, which combine notes together; and explore the musical style known as “swing.”
09: Minor Keys
Take account of what distinguishes a minor key from a major key, and the associations of minor keys with tragedy and sad emotions. Learn to transform a major scale into a minor one by altering three notes in the scale. See how major and minor scales are related, using the circle of fifths from Lesson 5, and study commonly used variants of the minor scale, called harmonic and melodic minor.
10: Dynamics, Articulation, and Tempo
Here, delve into three important elements of musical expression. Take a deeper look at dynamics (volume) in music-making and see how dynamics are indicated in the score. Then study articulation, variations in how individual notes are performed, and finally tempo, the speed at which music is played, noting how musical notation indicates both the tempo and occasional departures from the tempo.
11: Counterpoint: Composing with Two Voices
Grasp the fundamentals of counterpoint, the basis of most western classical music, where two melodic lines are written to be played at the same time. First study the rules of counterpoint, using four types of melodic “motion,” where the two musical lines must relate to each other in very specific ways. Then compose a two-part counterpoint melody, to see how a piece of tonal music is built.
12: Musical Harmony: Triads
Harmony, where two or more notes sound together, lies at the heart of tonal music. In this lesson, study the structure of chords, combinations of three or more notes heard at the same time, focusing on triads, a group of fundamental three-note chords. Learn about major and minor triads, and the lesser-used diminished and augmented triads, and observe harmony in action in a Bach chorale.
13: Musical Harmony: Seventh Chords
Seventh chords are another essential component of Western tonal music. Observe how seventh chords (four-note chords) are built on triads (three-note chords), by adding another interval of a third. Learn how seventh chords “resolve” or propel the music forward. Study the five types of seventh chords, how they are used in different musical genres, and hear seventh chords in context.
14: Musical Harmony in Context: Progressions
Building on your study of harmony, observe how harmonic motion works, where one chord or tonality leads to another, forming a progression that we hear as a coherent harmonic sequence or event. Study the example of the tonic harmony, the “home” tonality of a piece, as it leads to the predominant harmony, the dominant harmony, and resolves back to the tonic, completing the progression.
15: Musical Phrases and Cadences
This lesson discusses the phrase structure of tonal music. Discover how music unfolds in phrases, segments of musical material that end with a sense of rest or pause, often using a harmonic event called a cadence, which concludes the phrase. Hear how musical phrases operate, and how they are organized into larger units called periods and sentences, which create a musical narrative.
16: Hypermeter and Larger Musical Structures
In listening to music, we sometimes hear the meter differently than the way it’s written on the page. Learn how the concept of hypermeter helps explain this, by showing that when measures of music are grouped into phrases, we often hear a pulse for each measure in the phrase, rather than the pulses within the measure. Explore examples of hypermeter, and how we perceive music as listeners.
17: Understanding Music Lead Sheets
In jazz and popular music, a lead sheet uses only a melodic line and chord symbols to indicate how to play the song. Listen to a jazz pianist improvise from lead sheets in three popular songs and investigate how chords are written on lead sheets as opposed to classical music scores. Hear the performer talk about the process of playing from lead sheets in spontaneous improvisation.
18: Applying Music Theory to Great Music
Conclude the course as it began, with an encounter with a great piece of music. Hear Clara Schumann’s “Three Romances for Violin and Piano” and test yourself on some of the concepts you’ve studied in the course. Revisit the elements of meter, rhythm, harmonic motion, cadences, key changes, and musical phrases that form the inner structure of great music.