Course Development Blog: Introduction to Research in Music Theory


Course Development Blog: Introduction to Research in Music Theory

I received the teaching center grant that I was applying for last November/December, and this semester at Gettysburg I’ve been collaborating with Research & Instruction Librarian Mallory Jallas to create and teach a semester-long unit on research and writing methods, as a part of my upper-division form and analysis seminar. The students have come up with a fascinating list of research topics, which include:

  • Chopin etudes

  • Rachmaninoff’s second symphony

  • the songs of Alma Mahler

  • J.S. Bach’s G minor Sonata for Solo Violin

  • J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

  • the vocal music of Germaine Tailleferre

  • Samuel Barber’s Cello Sonata

  • Camille Saint-Saëns’ "Fantasie for Violin and Harp

  • Janacek’s Sinfonietta

I’m writing now to post two of the documents related to the project:

I’m looking forward to chatting with my students over the next week and after spring break, to see how their research projects are progressing!


Blogging my Course Development: Information Literacy Grant App


Blogging my Course Development: Information Literacy Grant App

[Update: I got this grant, so once January comes it will be time to start working on this in earnest…]

So, every year I declare that I’m going to be more reflective in my teaching - take time to assess what is going well and what isn’t, on a daily or weekly basis. Sometimes I’m better at that than other times. This year I started out doing well, and then naturally, things got busy. But in general, I find that I’m happier, more productive, and more effective in both my teaching and my research when I’m taking time to reflect, to do things deliberately, and to track my process in some way.

So I’m trying another new approach. This spring I’ll teach a new (to me) course, an advanced Form and Analysis seminar for junior and senior music majors. I’m going to write and reflect a little on my process throughout December and January, in the hopes of crafting the best version of the course that I can.

So today, I’m posting an excerpt of a grant application that I just sent in to the teaching center here at Gettysburg. It’s a program that lets profs work closely with librarians to build research and writing projects for 200 and 300 level courses.

MUS CLAS 342 (Form and Analysis) is one of three courses that may be taken to satisfy the advanced theory requirement for BA and BM majors in the Sunderman Conservatory of Music. Compared with the other 34x courses ("Counterpoint and Composition" and "Orchestration") Form and Analysis has been historically unpopular: offered every other year, it has often attracted only one or two students, and frequently must be taught as an independent study. Thanks to my active recruiting since I arrived on campus last year, I currently have seven students registered for the fall. This will be my first time teaching 342, and the time is right to re-imagine the course and give it a new identity.

I am applying for the JCCTL Information Literacy Grant because I would like that new identity to be an introduction to scholarly research, writing, and communication in music theory. During the two-year music theory sequence (taken by all majors and minors), music theory is often presented as a set of axioms: a skills-based sequence, introducing students to a fixed body of knowledge, and focused on an established canon of repertoire. This is due not to the failings of any teacher or any school of instruction, but rather because of the sheer volume of technical information that must be conveyed in the early semesters—the need to teach music theory as a kind of second language, as it were, one in which even the most advanced high school musicians must learn essentially from scratch when they reach college. I would like to use Music 342 as a (re)introduction to music theory as an active research discipline, one in which the questions—even questions about old, much-discussed repertoire—are far from settled, and in which students can learn the skills to contribute to the scholarly conversation through critical writing and original scholarly research.

Throughout the “core sequence” courses that I teach—one section of Theory II, and the sole section of Theory III—I try to prepare students for scholarly writing about music through a series of short assignments, which supplement the lecture/textbook/problem set approach that characterizes the four-semester sequence. A podcast recording project in Theory II helps students learn to discuss popular music in a quick and accessible manner (while building media production skills as well), and serves as scaffolding for two short analysis papers in Theory III: one on the relationship between text and music in a Schubert song, the other on narrative archetypes in Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Sonata.

With the aid of Musselman Library’s Research and Instruction librarians, I would like to build Music 342 up into a semester-long research experience that will serve as a capstone to this process. Alongside the introductions to advanced techniques of music analysis (such as Schenkerian analysis, Neo-Riemannian/Transformational theory, form theory, and motivic analysis), students will undertake a major analysis project. They will select a piece or group of pieces from the course’s general repertoire—music in the western tradition, primarily from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries—and analyze it using the techniques discussed in class. This analysis will be based on in-class materials, and on the students’ surveys of primary and secondary literature in the relevant areas of music theory. I intend to incorporate workshops on research and writing, with a particular emphasis on the processes of doing research in the arts and humanities, and communicating those results. To that end, my students will not only write traditional academic papers, but report their progress and results in a series of blog entries on a class Wordpress site.[1]


Consultations and Preparation 

In preparing this application, I have consulted with Clint Baugess and Chris Barnes from Musselman Library. The three of us talked about ways to use Musselman's Special Collections to support the project, as well as how they and I can teach research and writing techniques that will be useful to music theory students in particular. The aspect of our conversation that excited me the most was the notion of using scaffolding exercises throughout the semester to get students to report on their research in various formats, at several levels of detail, and for different audiences. If I receive the grant, I will undertake future consultations with Musselman’s Research and Instruction Librarians in January, designing a series of milestones for the major research project, which will serve as bi-weekly checkpoints during the spring semester. These will include pre-writing and research exercises such as an initial proposal, a literature review, and a “state of the [sub]field” report; research summaries such as an ‘elevator pitch’ and an academic abstract with keywords; and final products, including an oral presentation, a written paper, and a documentation of the seminar’s work on the course website. Throughout the project, as is appropriate for a course in music analysis, I will be encouraging my students to find, curate, create, and employ media objects such as sound recordings, educational demos, and performances as a supplement to their written work.


Learning Outcomes and Assessment

Developing a semester-long research project and interweaving it throughout Music 342 will help the course to reinforce several existing learning outcomes, as articulated by the Sunderman Conservatory itself, along with the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM, our accreditation body) and the Music Library Association (MLA), a national organization which maintains learning goals in Information Literacy.

Regarding conservatory outcomes, most theory courses (including this one) already meet Sunderman’s first outcome, helping students develop the ability to “analyze … structural and expressive elements of music.” And while most music theory classes approach the second outcome, by teaching students to “identify, explain, and compare compositional processes,” it problem-based courses and problem set- or exam-based assessments are not always as successful at attaining the second half of that learning outcome: articulating how [compositional processes] are shaped by diverse social, historical, and cultural forces.”[2]By granting students the time and space to delve deeply into a single work, or the music of a single composer, traditionally articulated technical and analytical goals will be further integrated with the study of historical and cultural contexts. The Conservatory learning goals closely reflect those recommended by NASM for students studying music theory; in a similar manner, this information literacy-oriented redesign will help to more fully meet each applicable learning goal.[3]

A reimagined Music 342, integrating musical study and a comprehensive introduction to academic research, will also directly address all five of Musselman Library’s five learning outcomes in Information Literacy, from the perspective of musical scholarship.[4] By engaging with primary sources and secondary literature rather than textbooks, students will learn not only that scholarship is a conversation, but also that authority is constructed and contextual. These outcomes take many forms in the discipline of music theory, but they are most implicated in one of the central lessons that I try to convey to every student who comes through my classroom: that despite the usefulness of the term as a shorthand, there is no monolithic “music theory.” Rather, there are many theoriesthat address many musics; the authority of any given approach is defined not only through reference to particular composers or compositions, but through the shifting cultural and academic norms of music theory’s interactions with cognate disciplines such as history, philosophy, psychology and cognitive science, mathematics, and acoustics. By exploring diverse repertoire that is personally relevant to them, students in Music 342 will engage first-hand with the notion that research [is] inquiry, as they forge ahead in new areas of the discipline. And the many scaffolding devices along the way (in the form of both pre- and post-research exercises, and hands-on sessions in Musselman Library) will help students to understand information creation as a process. Finally, I hope to hold a series of conversations with my students about public outreach and the accessibility of theoretical research—an important conversation that is unfolding across American universities and music departments, as scholars and practitioners are taking a greater interest in the notion of the “public humanities.” I hope to teach my students that information has value by helping them to document their research not only in the form of a thoroughly researched academic paper that conforms to the disciplinary norms employed by specialists, but also in accessible, bite-sized, and media-augmented artifacts on a course website.

My assessment plan for this project is still in development; working with subject and research/instruction librarians to develop appropriate assessment techniques for this multi-stage, multimodal undertaking is one of my primary reasons for applying for the grant. Any assessment, however, will be sure to take into account each students’ mastery of analytical techniques (measured by how students are able to select the proper approach to a piece, contextualize their research within the field, and present convincing results); their ability to locate and employ primary and secondary sources appropriately; and their success in articulating their research goals, results, and the significance of those results, in both short- and long-form media.

[1]For a sample of what some aspects of a course website might include, see, which documents the final project of a similar course I taught at Tufts University in the Fall of 2016, while ABD.

[2]For more information on the Sunderman Conservatory’s Learning Goals, see

[3]For instance, skills-based courses often teach analytical systems, but a project-based approach may allow students to more effectively compare the results of different approaches to the same music (Item 3a). Similarly, this re-designed course will teach research and technological skills alongside musical and verbal skills (item 3c), and partially compensate for the fact that, in the absence of a dedicated degree program in theory or musicology, most students undertake performance-based capstone projects rather than research projects (item 4). See the NASM guidelines at



First Reflections on Teaching Online


First Reflections on Teaching Online

(Image credit: Hawk the Slayer,

I recently finished teaching my first online course. Gettysburg College has been running a pilot program for summer online courses the past two years. This year, I was one of six faculty members to participate. Before I get too wrapped up in other summery things, I thought I'd write a few reflections down.

I taught a five-and-a-half week version of my "Music in Video Games" course, which I had taught on campus this past spring. For this phase of the pilot program, Gettysburg gave very few guidelines on how to structure the summer courses. Some were as short as four weeks, most seemed about five. Since a Gettysburg semester is 14-15 weeks long, I decided to go with five weeks, so that the course would be compressed into roughly three "weeks" of work to one summer week. I then added a couple of days to the end to make up for the 4th of July holiday in week 5, so that students could take time away from the course for travel/family without feeling like they were falling behind. I then made the final project due a few days after that, in a rough approximation of an exam week or reading period.

The weekly work load looked something like this:

  • There were three units per week. Many 'simulated' a week's worth of on-campus classes (or sometimes even more), while a couple were more like a single class session.

  • Each unit included several readings from academic or popular sources, plus two documentaries when appropriate: Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound, and Reformat the Planet, a 2007 documentary about the chiptune scene in New York City.

  • Each unit included two or three lecture videos that I recorded, giving background information or examples, or explaining difficult concepts. Sometimes I went through material from the readings, but I mostly tried to avoid that kind of duplication.

  • We held two live video chats per week, and hosted one "text chat" on Discord. (Discord is like Slack, but designed with gaming in mind, with a corresponding aesthetic. I started one "Introductions" channel where I asked students to post introductory videos about themselves, and then I created one channel for each week of the course. In these channels, we discussed one or two texts from the course readings - typically those that weren't featured in video chat or writing assignments.

  • Most units included a short writing response on the theme of the unit, or reacting to a specific reading or other piece of media. Some were duplications of assignments that I asked my on-campus students to do; others were new, designed to replace portions of the class that I would have handled in class discussions. Because one of the major features of the brick-and-mortar course was open-ended class discussion, I needed to re-create that experience in as many different ways as possible. The video and text chats helped with this, but I also wrote new response prompts to simulate the 'share your experiences/opinions' portions of class discussion. There were a total of 12 Assignments, so a bit more than 2 per week.

  • Finally students were required to keep a "Gaming Log," which was a feature from the regular course. Students needed to write about one 30+ minute session of a game, and there were restrictions to ensure variety (must hit three different genres over the five weeks; must play games from at least three different decades; one must be mobile- or browser-based.) In an ideal world, these function a bit like research journals as students work on topics for final projects.

That's a fair bit of work when you add it all up: In a single week, students would read five or six papers/chapters; watch three to five short (~15 min) lecture videos; write two responses plus a gaming log; and engage in live and/or text chats on about three of the readings. On top of that, they had a short midterm essay due at the end of week 3, and a final project (which could be a written essay, or a multimedia project) due at the end of the term.

Here are some reflections on what went well, and what I would change.


  1. The size of the course was just about right. I began the summer with 12 students (the upper limit for this online pilot program). One student dropped out immediately, realizing the summer schedule wouldn't work for them. Another one had other things going on that proved too much to deal with along with the course, and dropped out at the end of the second week.

  2. The work load was very rigorous. I'm quite satisfied that my summer students worked as hard as my semester students, if not harder in many cases. The higher number of written assignments meant I was hearing from them each individually/privately much more often than in the campus setting. It's easy to hide out in a class discussion, and I'm certainly not a "cold-calling" type of professor. Replacing 'discussions' with written reflections forced every student to offer some sort of opinion, reflection, or example, on every single topic that was discussed during the course. The pace of the summer seemed to hold students more accountable, as well -- I had fewer problems with late/missing assignments, and attendance in live chats was very nearly perfect.

  3. The students produced some excellent work. I'm committed to letting my students explore multimedia and creative work in their class projects. This doesn't happen for every unit, but many students took the chances that I gave them to create YouTube videos, websites, musical compositions, and in one case even a game demo (created in RPG Maker) with a custom soundtrack. One of my absolute favorite aspects of teaching courses concerned with music and media is seeing what students come up with when they're set loose to be creative. Often, they create things that I had never even thought of when writing the project prompt, so I'm always pleasantly surprised.

  4. Freedom. Obviously, teaching online grants a much more flexible schedule than does teaching on campus. I was able to work on my own schedule, at home, and often from the road, without the commitment of driving to Gettysburg every morning. The college also gave each faculty member the freedom to set their own length of the class (some were as short as four weeks), though I imagine that will change once the 'pilot' phase of this ends.


  1. The technology isn't quite there yet. First of all, the videoconferencing. Partly because this is a pilot program, and partly because Gettysburg is a small college, we don't have a really big, enterprise-level videoconferencing solution in place yet. Free services like Google Hangouts or Discord top out in the single digits for group video calls. We used a service called "Realtime Board," which is designed as an online meeting/presentation space. RTB features a persistent workspace where users can leave sticky notes, post links and media, and chat. With a premium account, they can have a group video call. However, the app is less than ideal. The faces are arranged in a tall stack, which you can't adjust or re-size. Sometimes the software is smart enough to shrink the faces and put them in two columns, but not always. There's no rhyme or reason to who gets to be big and who gets to be small, and if there are too many people on the call (more than eight or so, give or take), some students' faces will be off the top of the screen. Nothing can be done about that. It's also a very democratic arrangement - the video call happens on the board, it's not hosted by the instructor. Which is philosophically kind of nice, but it means that there were surely times when MY face was off the top of some of my students' screens, and they couldn't see me reacting or paying attention to them (I was always careful to be very expressive with my face as students spoke, to encourage and support them). It's clear that an institution needs to purchase or subscribe to serious, dedicated video-conferencing software. This isn't just a small college problem -- two years ago while I was working at the Bok Center, some colleagues and I discovered that even Harvard wasn't yet set up for video-conference or remote teaching in any meaningful way: it required homemade, custom solutions. Institutions that have serious online distance-learning programs are way ahead on this account, and many colleges could probably stand to learn from them. A friend of mine has been teaching online courses for American University for a few years, and he says they use Adobe Connect, very successfully. The top level of that costs $3,500 per year for a site license though, so it's clearly an institutional commitment. If Gettysburg continues its online course program (which I hope they will), we’ll need to invest in something like Adobe Connect.

  2. Preparation. Teaching a compressed online course is a massive amount of work. I had lectures to make for 15 units. These varied in complexity, from simple introductory videos, to more serious content-delivery lectures, to multipart videos drawn from large slide decks that would occupy an entire 75 minute class period on campus. Some incorporated video and audio examples. Since it's my first time doing this class online, I was working just ahead of the students. I strove to have at least one unit per day live in the first few days of the week, if not more. (For example, in Week 1 I had to have Unit 1 all ready to go on Monday, Unit 2 all ready on Tuesday, Unit 3 on Wednesday, and then spent my time Wednesday evening and Friday morning preparing for and leading video chats.) I kept to that schedule, but it meant that lecture production was highly front-loaded: Mondays and Tuesdays were exhausting days of work, which sometimes started early on Sunday. I've been away from campus and various life events have been going on (travel, friends and family visiting), so weekend work time was extremely rare during the course. Naturally, all the freedom that comes with online teaching can have the same 'gas in a space' effect as on-campus teaching prep time: it will fill in all the hours you let it.

  3. Tons of Grading. Excacerbating the amount of time I spent on lecture recording was the huge amount of grading: three or four essays per week from 10 students was a lot of reading, corrections, and commentary. It required serious work to stay on top of the grading pile, and things would often pile up until I could sit down and devote several hours to getting the assignments off my virtual desk. So while the course was a semester's worth of work for my students in only 5 1/2 weeks, it was that much work for me as well. I got very little research done during the time of the class, and while I was able to take it easy on certain days when special events were happening, it was an exhausting summer term - coming right on the heels of an exhausting first year on the tenure track, from which I haven't yet had the time to fully unwind.

This has gotten long, but those are the thoughts I have upon finishing my grades. It was an intense but very rewarding six weeks, and I'd certainly teach an online course again if given the opportunity!



Gettysburg interview about VGM Class

In January, the college communications office interviewed me about my new music appreciation course on the history of video game music. It was great to talk about the new course, and the photoshoot was especially fun--I even got a new profile picture out of it. We spent a long time trying to get those shots of games being projected on my face. Super Nintendo games turn out to have the best color palettes for that...

Sunderman Prof. O'Hara Pioneers Video Game Music Course

The course itself is going really well - I ended up with twice as many students as I anticipated. Moderating discussion among a mixed group of majors and non-majors is a new challenge, but I've found that it's easy to get students to come out of their shells when the conversation turns to personal experiences and memories, and that preliminary discussion in mixed small groups (in a "Think-Pair-Share" kind of thing) can lead to really excellent class discussions.


Kaiju Kinetics: Anticipating Violence in the Soundtrack to Pacific Rim (2013)


Kaiju Kinetics: Anticipating Violence in the Soundtrack to Pacific Rim (2013)

Pacific Rim (2013) is one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies. Guillermo del Toro's love letter to classic monster movies and Japanese mecha is expertly crafted popcorn fare. Once the novel introduction--a masterclass in exposition and montage--passes, every story beat is telegraphed from a mile away. Every origin story, every heroic sacrifice, every unlikely partnership, looms large in our narrative peripheral vision before landing. It's tautly executed and stylish, but safe: "Save the Cat" storytelling, propped up with monumental action setpieces that make it an ideal background movie, perfect for an annual re-watch during a long writing marathon.

With a sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising due to hit theaters in a few weeks, I thought I'd write a bit about one feature of the original's soundtrack that has always struck me: the main theme is constructed in a way that perfectly mirrors its larger-than-life action, and its comfortingly broad story strokes.

Pacific Rim was scored by Ramin Djawadi (Iron Man, Game of Thrones, and most recently Ava Duvernay's A Wrinkle in Time) and features Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello on its title track (used for the film's end credits). Djawadi wrote distinct themes for the heroic Jaegers (the giant robots that defend humanity), and the lumbering, mysterious kaiju (giant monsters who emerge from an undersea portal to attack coastal cities).

The Jaeger theme's metric structure is what makes it so striking. Most heroic themes seem to begin either on the beat (think of the fanfare that begins John Williams' Superman theme, or the orchestral flourish from Guardians of the Galaxy), or with a strong, single upbeat (Star Wars, Indiana Jones). The Jaeger theme's upbeat, on the other hand, occupies two beats, beginning on the "and" of three. As shown below (in comparison to some of those other themes I mentioned), this makes the pick-up both exceptionally long, and metrically very weak.

Pacific Rim (2013; Ramin Djawadi)

pacific rim.png

Superman (1978; John Williams) [1]


Star Wars (1977; John Williams)

star wars.png

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981; John Williams)

indiana jones.png

Admittedly, this wouldn't be all that notable if the film didn't so frequently match the theme's opening downbeat to the action on screen. A good example is shown in the clip below. Gipsy Danger (the Jaeger piloted by our heroes Raleigh [Charlie Hunnam] and Mako [Rinko Kikuchi]) appears on the scene of a desperate brawl in Hong Kong harbor. "Alright Mako, get ready, this is for real," Raleigh yells. The underscore's tense silence says the same thing to the audience. The beast charges. Gipsy Danger bends at the knees as the theme enters, preparing to throw its shoulders up like an offensive lineman. The combatants collide as the downbeat lands and the rest of the orchestra enters. The moment seems agonizingly (or perhaps, thrillingly?) long; the underscore is less an upbeat and more of a complete suspension of musical time while we wait for the blow to land.

Such mirrored anticipatory gestures--from the Jaeger and the soundtrack, simultaneously--happen over and over throughout the film. Pacific Rim luxuriates in its own scale, fully understanding that the joy of watching a 30-story tall robot fight a 30-story tall lizard lies in the deliberateness of it all. The movie's fight scenes seem to unfold in slow motion. Gipsy Danger's uppercuts swing for acres before they land on the kaiju's jaw, and the viewer's pleasure lies not in the impact itself, but in the several seconds of anticipation: the frisson of just how awesome that punch is going to be.

(Slow motion, not coincidentally, has been a part of kaiju movies since the beginning: it's what gave the very first, man-in-a-suit Godzilla [1954] a sense of mass and scale.)

After Gipsy and the kaiju grapple for a few seconds, the monster gains the upper hand. It hurls the massive Jaeger toward the shore. The music stops as the robot soars silently, helplessly through the air. For five whole seconds Gipsy rotates gently; the soundtrack rushes back in as the robot nears an overpass, the rapid escalation of noise just before impact mirroring the release of the breath that the viewer is meant to have held until now. The Jaeger scrambles to its feet and digs its hands into the ground, dragging its fists through row after row of shipping containers to arrest its momentum: the monumental blows of Pacific Rim have after-effects that sprawl for as long as their anacrusi. The action sequences, and the soundtrack, are all about momentum. The antagonists charge toward each other, building up speed towards a clash that will finally bring the soundtrack back in. 

These (pseudo-)silences have much the same effect as dropping the bass in a pop song: the ubiquitous "BRAAAM" sound of contemporary cinema is nothing without the absence that precedes it. As Robin James has written of EDM drops, the sudden silence "build[s] intensity towards a valley instead of a peak." We anticipate the soundtrack's re-entry just as the EDM listener anticipates the return of the beat; the lurching absence is more powerful than the soundtrack itself, for it signals our anticipation.

The musical kinetics of the theme--the way it enters on an upbeat that points ahead to an eventual accent--mirror the massive wind-up that accompanies any meaningful gesture in this world of kaiju and jaegers. In the clip below, Gipsy Danger trudges up the street, dragging a barge behind it like a club. The robot transfers the barge to its right hand, hoists it, swings; the theme re-appears, aimed--just like the makeshift cudgel--squarely at the monster's jaw. Just as we are meant, in a summery popcorn movie like this, to watch each plot twist wind up and gather energy before it lands, so too are we meant to hear both the theme and the lumbering combatants pulling back, coiling up in potential energy, as we marvel in anticipation of what is about to happen.


[1] Note that the actual Superman "March," after the fanfare, has the same pickup as Star Wars

[2] See the first chapter of Robin James, Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Femininism, Neoliberalism (New York: Zone Books, 2015).