Coursera Music Theory Course

I thought I should do a really brief overview of this, since it was a music-related thing I did, though, those of you interested in theory should totally head over to Ugly Bass Face and read Vish’s MUCH more detailed commentary on the course.

Vish and I have somewhat different ways of processing information, so I find it fascinating to read his posts (actually, I tend to get more out of his posts than I do out of the lessons they’re about sometimes!). He’s really good at analysis. When we talked about this, I believe (and he’ll correct me if my memory is wrong) that my way of processing information is ‘broad’, where is his ‘deep’. So, if you want to get into the grit of theory, he is totally your man. I’m all about practical application. The end result is that we’re bound to have very different feelings about online courses, and get different stuff out of them. He’s also got more experience with theory than I do, so I thought my one post could stand as a sort of foil against his more elaborate series of posts on the course. Frankly, I’m just never going to be the type of person who is well-adapted to study theory for theory’s sake. That doesn’t mean I can’t learn it – just that I sort of have to take what I can get out of it and use in what I’m working on NOW, and worry about the rest later when it becomes relevant to my practice.

I’m a realist, so I knew from the outset I was really only going to scratch the surface of this course. Going in, I had no intention whatsoever of doing the quizzes. I just watched the videos and took the little pop quizzes interspersed throughout. But, I’m told that theory will help me be a better musician, so I want to learn…except that in actual practice, I don’t actually appear to want to learn. I have a book on music theory that I’ve read about five pages of. It’s actually really dry material that I have a hard time motivating to really dig in to. And, I’m telling you that, dear readers, so you understand how a video lesson plan sounded like something I would get much more out of. I thought a course that engaged more than one sense, that would give me examples I could hear and see simultaneously, would be more accessible. I also thought the 3-15 minute sections would make it easy for me to get my info in little, manageable chunks, where I would be less likely to zone out from some kind of massive infodump.

In the very early lessons, that worked out for me. My attention for staring at dry music theory info was limited to about 12 minutes before my eyes really started to glaze over, but the early lessons gave you a little glimmer at reading music notation, so I could see a really practical application and used the quizzes to practice reading music notes.

After the second lecture, I started zoning out way faster, though. I felt like I was watching a dictionary. Yes, I was learning what things were called, but I didn’t see why ‘what it’s named’ was important, when I did see where things would come in handy. They spent a lot of time explaining the ‘what’, but I felt that the ‘why’ was often not discussed with any amount of real consideration. The course felt very ‘information for information’s sake’ to me. A lot of it was only helpful if you read music notation, which I can’t yet. What’s important to me at this stage is ‘how knowing this helps me be more musical’. Most of the 2nd half of the course just wasn’t connecting on that level for me.

By lecture 4 I’d given up on trying to intellectually solve the questions that popped up during the video lessons. It was virtually impossible to do without being fairly adept at reading music notation. Since I’m still just trying to remember which note is which on the….er…lined chart…(I’m blanking. The word for the lined graph for music notation has just left my brain. Staff? Is that the staff? I forget.), it made it an exercise in extreme frustration and a waste of ten minutes of my life I would never get back again trying to sleuth out what I was even looking out. My music reading skills are still at ‘See Spot run.’ So, what I was looking at on screen might as well have been quantum physics for all I was able to really process.

Because of that, by lecture 4, every time a quiz popped up, I was getting annoyed and stubborn. Every time I saw one, my first thought was ‘I don’t give a shit.’ If I could make an educated guess based on the overall structure versus the multiple choice answers without actually trying to sleuth out what nonsense I was looking at, then I would. When I couldn’t, I just clicked on wild guesses until it either told me I was right or gave up on me and told me the answer.

Up through the first bits of lecture 4, I was reading the explanations for why the answers were the answers, at least, but halfway through the 4th lecture I stopped doing that. If I couldn’t even tell what key I was in, reading about why in that key this was the answer was just not helpful information. Spot was not running. He was flying at the speed of light. There was just no way for someone who doesn’t read music to keep up. Clearly, I’m just not music-literate enough to get even a hint of what they were getting at through my skull. Actually, by lesson 5, I skipped most of the questions entirely. There was really no point in quizzing on information that was completely meaningless to me until the stuff a few levels below it sunk in.

By lecture 5, I was doing finger exercises on my ukulele or my guitar just to sate some of the boredom. By the end of lesson 5, I had it playing as background noise while I fiddled around on Facebook. I’m being fully honest here, guys: it got that bad – bad enough that I could not endure it without other things to do. My roommate came in the room and started talking, and I didn’t pause. And, I didn’t rewind. I was getting through lesson 5 on stubborn willpower alone, because, damn it, I didn’t want to leave it unfinished at the 1 yard line!

It’s not that the lessons were useless or not well done. It was that I just got so irritated with trying to read complex music notation when I am at a level that I should be focusing on the bare bones, and with just being given a bunch of fancy words to memorize that the lessons stopped being education and started being a cumbersome waste of my practice time.

That’s not to say the course was a total waste of time. I did learn some things, but most of what I learned had to do with forming patterns and connections between things I already noticed through, you know, poking at things. It’s just that those things now had a name that I would forget by morning.

I learned the bare bones of music notation. I learned how to count which notes are spaces and which are lines (there are acronyms that I don’t remember, but I do remember if the bottom line is E and the top line is F, I can figure out the rest from there).

I became…very slightly motivated to practice scales more, as they are a shortcut to knowing what notes work well together. Yes, you can totally figure that out by just plucking things, and I have been, but learning scales will take out some of the guesswork, so I’m telling myself that I’m going to work on memorizing a few, rather than just playing them through Rocksmith and not trying to actually cement the patterns into my brain. Will I actually follow through on that? I don’t know. Only time will tell.

But, if I’m being quite frank (and I’m always being quite frank, really), there was not much beyond that that was useful to me at my current level, which made lessons 4 and 5 basically a complete waste of my time, and lesson 3 mostly wasteful, too. I did save them. At some later date, I might be able to view those lessons again and find some useable information, but for the moment it was just a gigantic waste of energy better spent on more entry-level information.

So, there you have it. I’m sure Vish, who has more background in theory will give you a much better overview of these lessons as he works through them, but for someone at an entry level on theory, there doesn’t seem to be much beyond lesson 2 that’s worth fussing over, unless you happen to be the type of thinker that is well-adjusted to processing information without a sense of purpose attached to it.

That said, I did sign up for two other Coursera courses in hopes that I’ll get just, some tiny sliver of useful information out of them. The ‘Developing your Musicianship’ course, and the ‘Songwriting’ course. I don’t expect to really get a ton out of either one, but if I get anything out of them at all, it’ll be worth the time spent, I suppose.

Actually, I’ve started the ‘…Musicianship’ course, and already have a better feeling about it. Sure, I’ve taken the quiz at least 4 times and haven’t passed it yet, but that’s because ear training!! And, THAT is something I can actually use. So far I seem to be at around 70% accuracy. So, more practice.

Until Next Time, more practice, less theory…at least for now.

4 thoughts on “Coursera Music Theory Course

  1. I really need to resume this. I sent the grandparents to CA and AZ to see my 2 sisters and have been overwhelmed between work and the baby. One more week and they should be back though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really just blew through it. I’m pretending to work through these two others, but I’m getting sick of taking the quizzes. On the one hand, the ear training quiz makes sense. I should take the quiz until I pass it because it’s training. I’m just getting sick of it.
      On the other end, I’ve got this Songwriting course that I’m barely into which is a complete joke. I actually am doing WORSE each time, even though the answers to the questions are technically completely obvious, because the information is just SO COMPLETELY USELESS, that I don’t want to. lol.


      1. Is it the Songwriting course from Pat Pattison on Coursera? If so, I remember watching the 1st video in March, after I was done with Developing Your Musicianship and finding it odd. It seemed somewhere between artsy and pretentious. I told myself I’d go back to it at some point though, after working through the Hal Leonard book – which I need to pick back up again.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes. And your impressions are pretty much dead on. I’ll maybe talk about it once I’m through it, but I’m mostly background noisng it while I do other things. There’s no need to watch. Nothing is going on on screen, so your ears are plenty. As someone with a poetry background, it mostly feels like 3rd grade English. Not really anything of substance there so far, but I’m actually working through it faster than the developing your musicianship course, specifically because there’s no need to pay close attention, since I learned everything he’s talking about in elementary school and/or it’s just common sense.

        Liked by 1 person

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