Week 7 (Jul 13): Writing a theory paper (Su20)

Our focus for the remaining weeks of the semester will be creating your own projects and learning to write a music-academic paper. Essentially, a music theory paper is an argument paper. You are going to argue for your own interpretation of a piece/idea, and you will support your argument through musical facts.

Preparing to write your final paper

Genre: the argument paper

Consider a more straightforward argument paper as an analogy. Say I’ve decided to write an argument paper that argues that we should build a public library. That is my thesis statement, and notice that it is an opinion of mine, not a fact. To make a persuasive argument paper, though, I need to support that argument with facts. So I do research and I find facts (note: the following are not real facts) that say that 1) public libraries provide an important community gathering space for children, youths, and the elderly; 2) libraries provide internet access for people who can’t afford to pay for it, and 3) libraries can provide learning programs for free. These would be the facts that I use to support my argument that we should build a public library.

Now the musical version of that: your thesis statement will be an interpretation of the piece, such as “this song uses the fragile tonic technique to emphasize the lyrical themes of emotional vulnerability.” What musical facts would I use to support that? It’s actually implied in the thesis statement itself. I have to show factually that the tonic chord is fragile. And, I have to give examples of how the lyrics show emotional vulnerability.

What not to do

A common pitfall in writing about music is thesis statements along the lines of “This is a good song [or a popular song, or a genius song] because of this Music Theory Thing.” You may have seen lots of examples of this kind of writing in program notes or in online magazines like Slate. They  make catchy headlines and entertaining program notes, but for a scholarly argument paper, it doesn’t work—music is far too complicated to have its success or value attributed to a music-theoretical concept. This is a music theory class, so I’m asking you to focus on music theory—so to succeed, make your thesis a thesis that you can prove using music theory. You’re never going to prove something is popular because of music theory, because to really prove why something is popular, you’d need to talk about marketing, social aspects, sex appeal, cultural context, etc. (all of which are extremely valid lines of questioning, but which are nonetheless far beyond the purview of this course).

To emphasize this point, let’s go back to the hypothetical public library argument. This thesis statement is not as good as my first attempt: “The reason libraries are so successful is that they provide important gathering spaces.” This argument is far more susceptible to counterarguments: what about libraries that don’t provide gathering spaces at all? what about the other reasons that libraries might be successful, like pretty buildings, good collections, or location? etc. etc. There’s too many things for you to prove—because of this, the argument is basically doomed from the start.

I discussed issues like these in our first lesson on intertextuality. It may help you to review those concepts.

Due **Wednesday,** Jul 15: Worksheet

Build an argument

To get you started on your final project, I have designed a worksheet that helps you think through your project. Download this worksheet by clicking the download icon in the top-right corner and open in Microsoft Word, which will let you fill out the form easily.


Submit this worksheet to me by uploading it to Blackboard as a .pdf, like an analysis assignment.

Final project first deadline: July 19 (Week 7)

Final project information is on a separate page.

Week 6 (Jul 6): Analysis Symposium #2 (Su20)

Because Week 4 and 5 topics aren’t able to be integrated as easily as Week 1 and 2, some groups will be doing a sonata analysis while others will do a pop analysis.

The process is essentially the same for all groups—just be sure you know which repertoire you should be analyzing.

Sonata repertoire

If you are in a sonata group (sign up on Blackboard), you will be analyzing either the 1st or the 4th movement of Schubert’s Tragic Symphony. You may prefer to look at the full score rather than the piano transcription. In either case, listen to the Vienna Phil performing this symphony. Movement I is at the beginning of course; Movement IV begins at the timestamp 23:54.

Both of these movements are on a much larger scale than the Beethoven sonata you analyzed in Week 4. Be prepared for a lot more weirdness! But I promise that each movement can still be analyzed through Sonata Theory and hypermetrical analysis.

Some thoughts to inspire you:

  • How does Schubert play with the hypermeter throughout this movement?
  • How does the hypermeter interact with the form of the piece?
  • What Type of sonata do you think this is (Type 1, Type 2, etc.)?
  • Did you have trouble locating the MC/EEC/ESC? If so, why?

Pop repertoire

If you are in a pop group (sign up on Blackboard), you’ll be analyzing one of these two recent R&B hits that borrow elements from soul and gospel. Both “Same Drugs” by Chance the Rapper and “Broken Clocks” by SZA are very interesting lyrically as well as tonally.

Some thoughts to inspire you:

  • Both music videos have a strong dose of nostalgia.
  • How does that nostalgic tone relate to the narrator/narratee?
  • How does the nostalgic tone relate to the tonality?
  • What is the form of each song—is there anything unusual?

Group Process

Your groups should use Slack to collaborate. I can view your channel but I will not be receiving notifications from it, so ping me (using the @ symbol) if you have a question.

  • You will begin with individual analyses. Make a video explaining what you discovered in the piece. The video should be at least 5 minutes long, but no more than 10. I would like to see your face in the video, because in an online class, I think that’s helpful for understanding that we’re all humans and not just names on a screen (but if you can’t do this for some reason, just discuss with me).
  • By Friday, submit this video in two places: uploading to your designated Slack channel and uploading on Blackboard (read more on submitting a video on Blackboard). The Slack channel is for discussion with your peers, while Blackboard is for evaluation and grading by me.
  • After submitting their individual analysis, each group member will use Slack to discuss how their findings interact with those of the other members. Approach discussion like a chat conversation rather than a response essay—ask people questions, wait for their replies—just have a conversation! Don’t be too stiff. Your participation in this discussion will earn another grade. I’ll evaluate these discussions on Monday of next week.
  • I will grade both your discussion and your individual analysis as separate grades. Rubrics are always available on Blackboard.
  • If you wish, you may revise your individual analysis in light of what you learned during the group discussion.
    • Submit your revisions in the same place as your original on Blackboard, as a second attempt.
    • Your revised content can be a new video if you like, or you may submit something written if that’s easier.
    • Separate from your analysis, in the “comments” box on Blackboard, you must accompany your analysis with a paragraph explaining how the discussion influenced your revisions.
    • Your revised grade will be averaged with your original grade.


You will be assessed individually in two parts.

Your individual analysis should:

  • incorporate all techniques appropriate to your repertoire (sonata theory and tonal rhythm for Schubert; form, lyrics, and tonality for SZA)

In your Slack discussion, you should

  • submit your video and your discussion on time so others can engage with it
  • respond lucidly to any questions asked to you
  • comprehend what others have said to you
  • demonstrate familiarity with both pieces
  • make comparisons with other group members’ analyses

A full rubric for each component can be viewed on Blackboard.

Week 5 (Jun 29): Techniques for Pop Music (Su20)

This week, we’ll discuss pop music through two lenses: tonality and lyrics. Before you begin, you’ll have to familiarize yourself with form in pop music, if you are not already comfortable with terms like “verse,” “chorus,” “bridge,” etc.

You will read about the unique problems that pop music has with tonality and reflect on harmony in pop music vs classical music. You will also learn how to analyze the structure and poetry of lyrics. This goes beyond the kinds of meaning-based lyric analyses you see on sites like Genius.com and instead analyzes the poetic structure of the lyrics. We will learn through Lori Burns’s excellent approach. Your analysis assignment will incorporate both of these issues.

Continue reading Week 5 (Jun 29): Techniques for Pop Music (Su20)