What makes us who we are

In the twenty years I’ve been teaching basic music theory for students at the high school, community college, university, and conservatory levels, I’ve met hundreds of students whose first music theory experience left them with a terrible taste in their mouth:

h/t @darkmusictheory for these and hundreds of other music theory complaints

It’s not surprising. Music theory fundamentals are so deeply engrained for most of us who teach them that it can be difficult to remember how we learned them, and even more difficult to avoid confusing students with seemingly endless rules and exceptions.

I built uTheory to try and help these students: to make music theory easy, to remove stress and judgement from the learning process, and to make sure that every student who is serious about music has a resource to support them as they begin their journey into music theory. For, as JJ Fux wrote in Gradus, “this study is like an immense ocean, not to be exhausted in the lifetime of Nestor.”

Here’s a typical email to uTheory “support”:

thanks a million for uTheory — music theory has never seemed so straightforward before, it’s like a whole new world!-rising college first-year student

How do we do that?

Choose our words and questions carefully & sequentially

I’ve been refining scripts for lessons for twenty years now, carefully picking the order of questions to ask for each topic to best build student success. We’ve programmed that careful thinking into uTheory.

When teaching whole steps, for instance, always first ask students to play a white-note to white-note whole step (e.g., F-G), then a black-note to black-note whole-step (Ab-Bb) then a white-note to black-note whole-step (e.g., E-F#), finally a black-note to white-note whole-step (e.g., Bb-C).

If you’re not looking for it, the order seems random. But effectively we’re starting with the easiest questions and gradually introducing difficulty so that students first apply the principles they’re learning in the simplest context before confronting additional complexity.

Apply concepts as many ways as possible

It’s not enough to just identify triads or intervals, as some popular online music theory drills do. Students need to play them on a piano, spell them in letters, write them on a staff, invert them, make them compound, and find their enharmonically equivalent intervals. These are all the things we would do with a student in a classroom, and they can all be replicated in an online environment.

Always make the aural connection

Every concept in music theory connects to real sound — but when we have students working out of workbooks or worksheets, that aural connection is often lost. Every time a student writes an interval, spells a chord, identifies a key, plays a note on a piano in uTheory, they’re rewarded with its sound, gently connecting abstract concepts to a sonic language they already love.

Use a proficiency based approach

Whenever a student answers a question — whether in a lesson, test or checkpoint — uTheory is tracking their answer and breaking it down into its component parts to make a prediction of whether we believe they’ve mastered those component skills or not. This is part of a general philosophy known as mastery- or proficiency-based learning.

Is a student getting key signatures wrong because they’ve misremembered the order of accidentals? Or because they’ve misremembered how to go from the name of a key to the accidentals in a key?

At any moment we’re calculating what we think are the ideal skills for a student to practice next (and we continue to refine this algorithm as we accumulate more data), and we’re estimating with what certainty we believe they’ve mastered a topic. This is what students (and teachers) see when they look at their skills page, and the activities and questions we deliver when a student clicks on a skill are based on everything we know about music theory learning sequences and a student’s individual strengths and weaknesses.

This is why, in lessons, we give students infinite chances for each question but don’t let them advance to the next lesson page until they’ve gotten all of them right. The questions in lessons are pre-chosen to ensure students gradually master more complex skills in a topic, and different students will need significantly different numbers of tries to get a question right. But, the important thing is that they eventually get each component part right. We truly don’t care how many tries it takes them.

Keep a sense of play

On the programming backend, the elements that deliver questions are known as “Interactive Games.” Now, “game” may be a bit of a stretch (though we’re at work on some exercises that will make that not a stretch at all). But, we’ve tried to build in elements of immediate reward when a student gets a question right (musical feedback, a friendly green check), motivational feedback showing progress in various areas after each lesson or practice, and an encouraging reward system of uPoints (a student gets points for each question they answer and each lesson page they complete).

We have work to do yet in this area… and it’s coming… but hopefully we’re off to a decent start.

Free up teachers to focus on students

When I teach with uTheory, I trust uTheory to do the basic teaching of concepts (even though it’s me in the videos and I could surely do a live version). I do this partly to ensure every student in a classroom has answered those critical first questions in a topic themselves, rather than relying on the raised hands of volunteers. But, moreover, I do it because uTheory gives me a clearer and more succinct picture of what each individual student struggles with than I can keep in my head.

uTheory let’s me quickly spot shared challenges, pull students who are struggling with a tricky concept together as a small group, and give them that extra personal touch to help them understand it.

uTheory is designed to do a lot of that on its own, and it is especially great for independent learners without a theory teacher for that reason. But a caring teacher with the aid of a detailed algorithm is more effective than either on their own.

All of which brings us to the most common question I’m ever asked…

What is the “u” in uTheory for?— literally everyone who hears the name, ever

It’s for “you” because uTheory tailors its teaching & questions to what you need.

It’s for “university” because uTheory gets students ready for college & conservatory level music theory.

It’s for “unity” because uTheory brings together teaching, learning, practice and aural connection.

uTheory is on a mission to make music theory easy, and this is some of how we’re working to do it.