Assessment with “The Shire”

We made it to the end! Yesterday was the Module 1 written exam. It’s a small 30-minute exam worth 5% of their semester’s grade. I use it to assess the processing of music they hear into some kind of notation. Since we have spent a good deal of in-class time on harmonic function, I made sure to assess this skill. I found a pretty good example that used ^6 in the bass, a Cadential six-four, and a strong T-P-D progression: “The Shire” theme (Howard Shore) from the Lord of the Rings. The students’ work in this area revealed a lot about how this aspect of the class went.

This excerpt had two weaknesses: it starts on a tonic 6/4 (which none of my students noticed or seem to be thrown by), and it ends with a vi-V-I harmonization of ^3, ^2, ^1 (eek!  parallel fifths! again, unnoticed).

Its strengths included a the wash of sound in the orchestration that made harmonic change easier to feel than some of the more subtle examples I considered, a parallel period structure that meant four hearing were really eight hearings, and its comforting setting and familiarity.

Students didn’t do as well as I had hoped. Some were depressingly wrong (T – D – P for the first phrase, which ended on a half cadence); I’m not sure anything I did would have helped them find some common sense. Some were perfect; I’m not sure I did anything to help them–they’re naturally strong at this.  Of the remaining in the middle, the things I saw that disappointed me included indicating harmonic change when there was none, missing the half cadence, and not having any V chords leading to I chords.

I think this result means that I needed to have students do more independent out-of-class work on this skill. Every time we worked on it (1-to-2 times a week), we did it in class as a group. When I read their exit evaluations (the informal ones), many commented that they wished they had more strategies and practice for feeling harmonic change.

Some ideas for out-of-class work: (1) have students take their in-class worksheets and use them for the next class’s assignment, where they have to play the harmonization they heard at the piano. (2) give them tunes to work out on their own in their own time as a replacement for a traditional written assignment.

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