At Yale, music theory is changing. Notes, time signatures, and clefs might become things of the past.
This semester, Yale’s music department is introducing a new music theory course called MUSI 100: Melody, Rhythm and Notation in Global Context. It serves as an alternative to traditional music theory classes like MUSI 110: Introduction to the Elements of Music, which introduces Western music theory.
“My idea with this class is to redesign that kind of class from the ground up and build in the idea of a world in which Western classical music is no longer at the center of what we think of music as being.” said Ian Quinn, chair of the music department and professor of MUSI 100.
To teach theory from a different perspective, Quinn invented his own musical notation that prioritizes intuitiveness. His classes typically begin with a singing exercise using this notation. Students repeat the exercise multiple times at increasing speeds until they no longer make mistakes.
Recently, the music department has diversified the repertoire used in music theory courses, but most of the repertoire remains within the Western classical canon. MUSI 100 uses repertoire from South Indian classical music, Jewish Torah cantillation, Gregorian chant, and songs from 19th-century Appalachia such as “Amazing Grace.”
“The music [in this course] is all music people are going to be pretty unfamiliar with,” said Brian Miller MUS ’20, one of the course’s teaching fellows. “Part of the point of that is to defamiliarize and have the students all come in and be on the same level.”
Quinn previously included these music pieces in advanced courses like Music Cognition and World Music Theory, but he has never included them at the introductory level.
“I love teaching music theory, I’ve always loved teaching music theory, but I’ve struggled with the standard ways of teaching music theory,” Quinn said. “I’ve always had the suspicion that there’s something not quite right about it. That took me into a long line of research that has now seen me out the other side, and now I’m putting it to the test.”
Quinn’s former position as Director of Undergraduate Studies required him to prioritize other departmental needs, but this year, he said he was able to devote attention to the creation of MUSI 100.
The course meets four times per week, similarly to introductory language courses. Quinn wanted to recreate the language-learning process in the learning of music theory.
“I’ve become convinced that most people who have exposure to music, who sing along with music or dance along with music, have a lot of internalized knowledge about that music — just like you can learn a language without ever taking a grammar class,” Quinn said.
Miller noted that the daily meetings further this goal. Singing the same material each day allows the curriculum to sink in more quickly than it would in a traditional lecture setting.
Quinn was inspired by a scene in an Indian movie called “Navakoti Narayana” about the Hindu saint Purandradsa. In a memorable scene, Purandradsa changes his pedagogical approach to help a student learn to sing.
Current MUSI 100 student Rebecca Soulen ’20 took the diagnostic test to enroll in MUSI 210 but found that the material was “incomprehensible” to her. So far, MUSI 100 has been her favorite class at Yale.
“The class is really challenging my aural ability, but Professor Quinn is a superb teacher. He’s always adapting his teaching methods to suit the class,” Soulen said. “It’s also a very small class, about 7 people, which makes it feel like a community. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the highlight of my Yale experience.”
Most students in the class have background with playing music by ear but are less experienced with formalized musical notation. The course’s only prerequisite is a willingness to sing in class.
“Everybody can sing,” Quinn said. “Mostly when people say they can’t sing or they’re tone-deaf, what they really mean is they lack confidence and lack motor control in their voice. That’s very easy to fix in practice. Right now I have a group of very game, very excited singers.”
Tatiana Koike MUS ’23, Quinn’s other Teaching Fellow, said that Quinn’s course could help people draw connections between Western classical music and music from other parts of the world.
“In terms of trying to cater to a broader audience, this is a really good addition to the kind of classes that we offer people,” Koike added.
MUSI 100 meets from 10:30 a.m. to 11:20 a.m. in Stoeckel 106.
Marisol Carty | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Jan. 25: A previous version of this article said Soulen enrolled in MUSI 210 and “found it incomprehensible.” In fact, this quote pertained to the MUSI 210 diagnostic test she took, not the course itself.