Making Music Theory Practical

Foster Creativity for All of Your Students with Pop Music

By NAfME Member Bob Habersat, sponsored by

There is a meme out there of a music theory professor pointing to a part-writing exercise on a board with the words, “Come on, it’s not rocket science.” written across the frame, and under the image of the theory teacher is a scientist pointing to a diagram of a rocket on a board with the words, “Come on, it’s not music theory.” It’s a pretty funny meme, and it brings back nostalgic feelings of 8:00 AM freshman theory frustrations. 

student playing guitar

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I remember sitting in the front row with a crew of music education majors. We were loud and enthusiastic, running to the board to attempt part-writing exercises and sweating the difference between supertonic and subdominant after class. Yet, to our surprise, there was a student in the corner of the room who always slept through class, ignoring our complaints about parallel fifths and secondary dominants. “He is not going to make it through the semester,” we’d tell ourselves. “He wasn’t putting up a fuss like the rest of us!” That was until we had our first exam—the dude aced everything, the nerve! It turns out that he was a jazz major, and he had a very different relationship with the material than we did. He wasn’t working on developing a theoretical understanding of music principles: He had a functional understanding of them. 


Beyond the Page

The issue that I had as a freshman was that I lacked context and connection for the material that we were learning. Mozart didn’t speak to me, and I didn’t give a Fux about counterpoint. It took me until I graduated and tried to make it as a gigging guitarist to REALLY understand what is going on beyond the page. I transcribed guitar parts from recordings to get their sound into my playing, I arranged tunes for different groups, and I started writing my own charts. I developed a deep relationship with the fundamentals of music because I was applying them to the music that I loved in creative ways. Once I had this level of understanding, classical music theory made sense; Haydn string quartets were fun to analyze, I couldn’t get enough of Beethoven’s harmonies, and counterpoint was finally cool.

student collaboration

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It has been my goal as a music educator to empower my students with this relationship. Why can’t we get students hooked from the beginning using the music that they listen to? The V chord in the key of Bb major has the same notes in it whether it’s Brahms or Bieber. Why can’t we open up music theory to students who aren’t just in the traditional band/choir/orchestra track at our schools to make understanding music accessible to everyone? 

“Why can’t we open up music theory to students who aren’t just in the traditional band/choir/orchestra track at our schools to make understanding music accessible to everyone?”

We can, but we need to REWIRE the way we teach. REWIRE is an acronym for a framework I’ve been using to construct theory lessons. By following the framework, students develop all aspects of musicianship:

Read + Play
Ear Train
Evaluate + Analyze

In order to REWIRE theory this way, we need to address (1) what order we teach the topics in and (2) how in-depth we teach them. The topics in my theory classes are sequenced:

1: Time + rhythm 
2: Drums
3: Bass
4: Chordal Parts
5: Melody
6: Form

This sequence allows students to scaffold their understanding and mastery of principles, so they are able to apply them in musical situations at every point in the curriculum. 


The Power of Applied Music Theory

When students learn about subdivisions, for example, they find examples of subdivision shifts in the hi-hat of trap music, improvise using subdivision syllables, and transcribe original examples that are in modern styles. In the drum unit, students use their mastery of subdivision to aid in the writing, transcription, improvisation, reading, and recording of drum grooves in various styles using the piano keyboard to trigger drum instruments in a DAW. This results in students gaining a comprehensive understanding of all of the elements in pop music and the ability to apply them along the way, creating context for their understanding. 

students composing on keyboard

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The second variable is depth. Let’s look at it in relation to scales. Once students can spell their major scales (here is a page excerpt that shows my method), they apply this skill to different musical contexts by playing bass on the piano keyboard. If the bass line uses only roots, students only have to worry about the scale degrees—it’s a great way to get students playing theory simply. The first task is to play along with pop tunes they like. It gives them an immediate sense of ownership over the knowledge, and it makes them want to learn more to be able to PLAY music. This page shows a chord progression analysis of some pop tunes. The songs with links bring you to a Noteflight document that has the audio synced to the score. The first day I taught major scales this semester, I had kids playing these songs with the original recording using a piano keyboard. At the end of the class we were able to play them in different keys. This is the power of applied music theory. 

After students see how simple it is to apply their scale knowledge to bass, I have them play pentascales in the left hand through the circle of fourths to gain control of the piano keyboard. Next, students can play through chord progressions in all keys. Here is a Noteflight score with a backing track that guides students through a chord progression in all keys. Once students own their scale-spelling in this way, it’s easy to teach harmony and melody. Since they have been playing, writing, improvising, and transcribing their music along the way, theory class is no longer a chore: It’s fun, and students have a beyond-the-page understanding that will last a lifetime. 


An Opportunity

There is a non-musical issue with this approach to theory. AP music theory is currently the only widely accepted curriculum that articulates between high schools, community colleges, and four-year universities. I’d like to see a curriculum that reflects modern music-making have the same type of articulation, and I think it’s possible.

students composing

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I’m hosting a beta/incubator group through Shedthemusic in January and February of 2021. Participants will be able to access all of the Modern Musicianship Theory Method materials to use during the second semester of the 2021-2022 school to use in their classes. We will work together and discuss how to make the curriculum better for current and future students. Once the curriculum has been tooled to fit the needs for high school, community college, and four-year universities, I’d like to offer it as a text to teach this type of music theory, creating an articulation pipeline for the nontraditional music student. To help in this endeavor, learn more about the curriculum, and sign up for the beta, click here. 


About the author:

music technologyNAfME member Bob Habersat is a high school music teacher in Oak Lawn, Illinois. Along with Paul Levy, he is also the co-creator of, a free and open-source website providing resources for the modern musician.

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December 2, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (

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