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Diary of an OCW Music Student, Week 1: Basic Concepts

Education Insider talks a lot about OpenCourseWare (OCW), but maybe it's time we put it to the test. Therefore, over the next nine weeks we'll be taking an online course from the University of California - Irvine ourselves. What does a semi-professional musician stand to learn from an OCW course in music theory? It's time we go back to school.

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By Eric Garneau

Eric

Eric Garneau, right, with Dwight Haesler and Dan Gonya

Who Am I, and Why Am I Taking a Free Music Course?

Before we get to the learning, I should introduce myself - and, more importantly, let you know where I'm coming from musically. My name is Eric Garneau, and for the next nine weeks I'll be 'enrolled' at the University of California - Irvine, taking their OCW course Music 15ABC - 'Introduction to Pitch Systems in Tonal Music,' a theory-heavy class in sound composition. I've been playing music for about 15 years. That started in sixth grade when, for whatever reason, I decided to learn how to play the cello for my school's orchestra. In eighth grade I bought my first guitar, and from that point on I've mostly made my musical home in rock and roll.

I've been in a few bands before, and I currently play in a cover band based out of the south Chicago suburbs. I'm also a solo artist who performs at least two shows a week, which I've done for the past three years. Because of that, I have what I consider to be a lot of experience playing music. However, much of that experience isn't exactly precise or technical. When I want to learn a new song, I look at chord/lyric sheets, read guitar tablature or go to YouTube and see how other people play it. I forgot how to read actual music long ago, and I don't know anything about theory that I haven't taught myself.

On the other hand, it will be interesting to see just what theory I've picked up through the years of figuring things out for myself. I can tell you all about weird chords with numbers in their name (sevenths, thirds, augmented fourths, etc.). I know that lots of popular songs follow basic I - IV - V structures, sometimes with a minor VI thrown in there. I remember enough of my actual musical training in junior high to know the difference between rhythmic patterns made up of quarter notes, eighth notes and the like. But, as far as I know, none of my knowledge is based in formal music theory - it's all DIY factoids I've picked up along the way. So it's possible that a lot of the course I'm about to take will review material I already know, and it's also possible that I have no idea what I'm getting into.

I suspect there are a lot of musicians out there like me - people who like music enough to make money at it but don't feel compelled to get a formal education in it. I'd wager, in fact, that 90% of the players in the Chicago cover band scene of which I'm a (very small) part would fit into that category. But it's possible that OCW could change all that. If suddenly bass players who only really need to know how to play 'Jessie's Girl' and 'Don't Stop Believin' could go online and educate themselves in the intricacies of music theory for free, music scenes worldwide would be better for it. So let's see if that's feasible. UC Irvine, here I come.

Week One: Basic Concepts

First, some organizational information: if this first class is any indication, it seems that the lessons in this course are broken up into video lecture segments of a little more than ten minutes each. You're probably not getting as much information in each lecture as you would from one class period at the school itself, but these videos have likely been tailored to appeal to the shortened attention span of Internet users. Though I did find myself wishing for a bit more in this first installment, I was sufficiently hooked to come back for the next one - the course's teacher, John Crooks, even provides a teaser for the 'next episode,' like we're watching the Adam West Batman show.

Expect the Unexpected

As far as content, the first week of the course provided a lot of review, but it was review of material I wasn't expecting: physics. Reasonably, this first class covers two major topics: what sound is and how we hear. Included with that are concepts like frequency, pitch, waves and spectrums, all stuff that I think I learned in high school physics (and definitely learned again in my gen-ed college physics course), but they're likely things that you don't keep at the forefront of your mind unless you work in the sciences. So while I could have probably come to the definition of 'frequency' eventually if pushed myself (I might have had to go to Google), Mr.Crooks' course helpfully gives it to me in a PowerPoint-style presentation, with a nice animated .gif to illustrate the principle behind it.

Mr.Crooks' presentation also includes an interesting comparison between the audible and visible frequency spectrums to more vividly illustrate how we hear, as well as the differences in those two senses. As it turns out, hearing gives us a much more diverse and subtle range of expression - people can perceive smaller differences across a longer spectrum than with vision. I'm not sure if this fact alone would give anyone enough ammunition to conclude that music is therefore a better form of artistic expression than the visual arts, but hey, if you want to try go nuts.

UC Irvine OCW: Introduction to Pitch Systems in Tonal Music

Yet even for all the physics review, there's stuff here that should appeal to the least mathematical of musicians. In his presentation, for instance, Crooks also introduces the concept of pitch systems, ways of organizing pitches on the audible spectrum. He notes that there are different ways to do it and that there's a Western style of organization we're all familiar with, which I find fascinating. I've known for a long time that other cultures have different ways of expressing pitches, but it's a concept I can't really wrap my head around, probably because I'm so entrenched in Western pop music. An E is an E is an E, right, regardless of the octave at which they're played? The 12-tone scale works so perfectly - how else could pitch systems be organized? As it happens, that gives Mr.Crooks his tease for next episode: we Westerners (and some other cultures) have decided to use octaves to make sense of the huge range of pitches open to us, but there are other ways to organize those pitches, too. Next week's lesson - 'The Octave and Just Intervals' - promises to explore some of them. That should prove interesting for any musician or music-lover, so make sure you tune in next week to learn all about it (same Bat-time, same Bat-channel).

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