Music Theory in Music Technology Education

Examining the importance of music theory in music technology education: A case study of a Level 3 music technology qualification at a Midlands-based Further Education provider.

This piece was written in 2015 as a part of my studies at Nottingham Trent University. Appendices are not included with this copy.


This study set out to explore the importance of music theory in the education of Level 3 music technology students. The intention was to identify the significance of music theory in their current education, future prospects and, more broadly, their musical life and experience.

A case study was conducted in a single Further Education institute, and consisted of in-depth interviews with eight current students, as well as the course leader. In addition, three former music technology students were interviewed, although these were not associated with the education provider studied. Music theory is not currently taught on this Level 3 qualification.

The research provided the following three findings:

  1. Students are passionate about creating music that they enjoy:

This is important, because music theory can contribute to their ability to compose music that they are satisfied with.

  1. The difference of the level of music theory knowledge between students is vast.
  1. Music theory is ill-defined in students’ minds, and this leads to disinterest:

Music theory is often associated with classical or art music, and this can lead to students reacting against the term.

The research concludes that music theory is highly important to Level 3 music technology students, but that not all elements of music theory is as essential. Also, given the vast difference of theoretical knowledge between students, the risk is run of a classroom experiencing a split between those with music theory knowledge and those without. If all students have a basic understanding of music theory, a common language and framework is created that can encourage collaboration. Finally, a lack of music theory knowledge can inhibit a student’s future achievements.

The final recommendation of the study is that music theory be integrated into music technology, and a number of potential ways of doing this are offered.


Relatively speaking, music technology is a young subject (Boehm 2007, p. 8). As a result of its age and the speed at which the tools of the trade develop, music technology education has been a rapidly evolving field, and has established an identity separate from traditional music education.

Nevertheless, as is implicit in its title, music technology education does retain close links with music education. One major area of music education is music theory – a key component of instrumental lessons and compositional lessons among others. However, my experiences as a music technology teacher have led me to note a lack of music theory teaching for students in the field, a situation that I wished to explore. Firstly, I wished to explore my initial observation from other perspectives. Secondly, I wanted to explore the impact that either studying or not studying music theory has on music technology learners. The main purpose of the research is to determine the best way to serve the interests and ambitions of Level 3 music technology students. I have also noted the frustration that some music technology students face when unable to compose pieces of music, so wished to explore the possibility of a relationship between this frustration and music theory.

Beard and Gloag describe music theory as concerning “the measurement and description of sound properties and the abstract and syntactical components of musical language, for example its tones, intervals, scales, rhythms, timbres and key signatures” (2005, p. 182). Essentially, all of the elements listed are the building blocks of music, therefore, music theory is highly important in the creation of new music. Music theory does not describe the inherent creativity needed to create a pleasing piece of music; rather it is an understanding of the workings of music, guidelines that help composers understand the relationships between sounds. Throughout this study, music theory will be considered in this holistic sense, a term used to represent a general understanding of the workings of music.

Practically, my experience of music technology is of it being associated with the study of popular music. Tagg (1982) describes music as a whole as consisting of an “axiomatic triangle consisting of ‘folk’, ‘art’ and ‘popular’ musics.” For the purposes of this discussion, folk music is largely irrelevant, and Tagg distinguishes folk from art music1 and popular music by noting that the vast majority of folk music consumed is “produced and transmitted” by amateurs, whereas art and popular musics are primarily a professional concern. Music theory is an area of music most often associated with art music, and this is perhaps a reason that music theory is not consistently engaged with on music technology courses.

Literature Review

In my exploration of the available literature, I was unable to find any pieces that specifically address the importance of music theory to music technology students. The closest study to my own is Kardos’ (2012), in which the researcher has undertaken a case study of a Level 3 music technology student with rudimentary music skills. Kardos discusses the desire that students have “to create something that sounds impressive” (2012, p. 144), and cites this as “a common, powerful motivating factor”. This is something that I have personally observed in learners, but wished to explore in my research, as this evidence is completely anecdotal, and raises the question of if music theory teaching could help students to achieve this.

Kardos’ students are “from diverse musical backgrounds” (2012, p. 143), and “it is not uncommon for a typical class to contain a majority that cannot read staff notation” (2012, p. 143), characteristics that are echoed in the interviews that I have undertaken. Again, this raises a question of whether or not music theory teaching could help create a common framework for students with different backgrounds.

The weakness in this study is its limited scope. By choosing to only explore the experiences of one student, Kardos has produced a piece of research that is interesting, but incapable of making any firm recommendations. The use of music technology as a shortcut for those who lack certain aspects of music knowledge (music notation, in particular) is discussed, but the fact that this relies on the student having at least some knowledge of music theory is ignored.

Cain (2004) explores similar issues to Kardos, focussing on how music technology can be used in lieu of music theory knowledge when composing music. He discusses the difficulty in identifying “the extent to which pupils’ work is their own” (2004, p. 217), as opposed to being created with pre-existing loops or patterns provided by music technology software. This is not such an issue when the teacher is able to observe learners’ work, as the difference is obvious to an experienced music technology practitioner when presented with the visual representation of the piece provided by the software. The key differentiation between the work of Kardos and Cain is that Cain presents music technology as possibly entirely replacing musical skill in composition.

Another criticism of Kardos’ case study is that it relies on taking a student who wished to create “original pop music” (2012, p.145) and helping them create music in the style of Philip Glass, a composer very much within the art music canon. Much of the other literature considered demonstrates a belief that students work best in a genre that they personally appreciate. The work of Challis (2007) is a good example, as he works with music technology students within the genre of their preference. In his research, he discusses teaching composition to students with a passion for DJ culture and claims that using their chosen genres as a framework has “a motivating power to engage even the most difficult students in creative music making” (2007, p. 65). This opens a discussion surrounding the identity of music technology students, and their genre preferences. Not all students will be difficult, and not all will identify with the genres of ‘DJ culture’, listed by Challis as including “garage, drum and bass, house or R&B”. However, the notion of higher levels of student engagement when learning is related to their genre preferences is supported by the research of Lamont et al. (2003), who suggest that links need to be created between the musical life of students inside and outside of the learning environment. Savage (2007) offers a similar viewpoint, emphasising the importance of students’ “personal responses” (2007, p. 153) and a suggestion that “creating educational situations in which students can imbue their personality, character and creative spirit is the key for teachers” (2007, p. 153).

All of the genres that Challis mentions are completely dependent on music technology for their creation. Field (2007) alludes to this in her work and argues that music technology should not be applied to “historical musics” (2007, p. 160), and instead, music technology education should address the repertoire that has been enabled by new technologies. It follows that a student who is interested in creating the genres enabled by music technology would have an interest in a music technology course. Therefore, by focusing education on these genres, we can create “less cultural distance between the student and the syllabus” (Field 2007, p. 160). Field (2007) does not however, offer any new empirical evidence in support of her assertions, instead building on the work of both Cain (2004) and Lamont et al. (2003) among others, and offering seven “starting points for creative enquiry” (2007, p. 160) which remain untested.

The opposing argument to focussing on students’ genres of preference is that this will not help them expand their cultural awareness and broaden their music horizons. This argument is presented by a teacher interviewed in McPhail (2003), who suggests that students are often “stuck in their own ‘pond’ of influence” (2003, p. 51), and that an understanding of music is only gained by considering “the whole canon” (2003, p. 51). The teacher interviewed sees art music and music theory co-dependent, however, the disparity between this perception and the reality is highlighted by McPhail himself, who states “although the theoretical knowledge Robert identifies as so important is not exclusively the domain of classical music, the perception of most teachers and students is that theory knowledge and musical reading literacy are part of the more formal, traditional and classically based paradigm” (2003, p. 50). Teaching music technology through the lens of art music can also be seen as a less risky route. Research undertaken by Green highlights that “many teachers noted that they found it difficult to keep their knowledge and resources up to date with musical trends, which change rapidly” (2002, p. 160). This suggests that some teachers take comfort in the unchanging nature of the art music canon, and this can be argued as a fault of the teacher, rather than the concept of teaching music technology in the context of popular music.

Williams (2011) focuses his research on “the ‘non-traditional music’ student” (2011, p. 131), identifying such students as having “limited skills in the traditional instruments” (2011, p. 143), and as being those who “may or may not be able to read standard notation” (2011, p. 143). His research discusses “democratising music creativity through technology” (Williams 2011, p. 136), and this democratisation is echoed in much of the research reviewed here, not least in Kardos’ acknowledgement of the diversity of music technology students in Further Education (2012, p. 143). Williams’ work is broad in scope, and contains a large enough sample size to lend credence to his statements; this is helpful given the relative brevity of Kardos’ study.

When considering all the literature discussed so far, I believe that it is safe to characterise music technology learners as having a strong bias towards popular music, and as coming from a non-traditional musical background. At this point, I am keen to draw a distinction between music theory and an understanding of music notation. Music notation is a component of music theory, but is not solely indicative of musical skills. Green notes, “popular musicians rarely use music notation, and whether they use it or not, they must be able to play without it” (2002, p. 29), highlighting the importance of musical skill in the professional world of popular music, and the relative unimportance of music notation. Whilst not referring to music technologists directly, the point is transferrable, and supports the separation between notation and music theory that is not always recognised.

Another point explored heavily in literature is the wide scope of music technology. Boehm (2007) discusses the three elements of music technology: “technology”, “science” and “art” (2007, p. 9), and presents them as an identity crisis of sorts highlighting the huge variety of emphasises that HE courses considered within the music technology sphere can contain. For example, an ‘audio engineering’ course may involve no music creation at all, whereas a ‘music production’ course may rely heavily upon music theory and skill. At FE level, the only subject on offer is strictly defined as ‘music technology’, perhaps hinting at a divide in student interest between the ‘science’ and ‘art’ elements of music technology. Finally, Winterson and Russ (2009) explored this, finding that “students perceive the subject as being predominantly creative rather than scientific” (2009, p. 348). If this is the case, then this has implications for the emphasis of music technology education.


The research undertaken is a case study of learners on a Level 3 music technology course in a Midlands-based Further Education provider. The study consists of interviews with current students, a number of former FE students, and the course tutor. Each of these elements will be explored in more depth and justified below.

Partly due to the lack of literature on the chosen area of exploration, the first decision made was that this study would rely almost exclusively on empirical research, that is, “research which involves the collection and analysis of original data” (Wallace 2013, p. 5). Gathering empirical evidence also presented the opportunity to explore issues in more depth than would be available with documentary or desktop research.

As the initial research proposal was inspired by a real life situation in an FE provider, to conduct a case study seemed the most suitable approach. Denscombe states that cases that form “the basis of the investigation” will be real-life situations that already exist, rather than situations that are “artificially generated specifically for the purposes of the research” (2010, p. 54). In addition, the scale of a case study allows the researcher to go into more depth, allowing a more “holistic view” (Denscombe 2010, p. 54) of a situation. This is the desired outcome, as I wished to examine the importance of music theory to music technology students in every aspect, rather than a narrowly defined section of their current study.

A question surrounding case studies is the extent to which the findings can be generalised to other cases. This is a fair question to ask, and it is true that this study will not be applicable to all other FE music technology qualifications. I believe that the evidence gathered and findings presented can however be useful to other FE institutions specifically offering a Level 3 BTEC qualification, but would be less relevant in the case of other Level 3 qualifications.

Almost by default, given the methods selected, this research is qualitative in its nature. It will not seek to provide measurable ‘facts’, but instead focuses on “accounts of human experience” (Wallace 2013, p. 5). It is recognised that this type of research is highly subjective for a number of reasons; it is dependent on the participants’ opinions, and subsequently the researcher’s analysis of these opinions.

More specifically, the study could be considered to have a phenomenological approach. Phenomenology is primarily concerned with human experience, dealing with “people’s perceptions or meanings” and their “feelings and emotions” (Denscombe 2010, p. 94). This accurately describes the aim of this study. In phenomenological research “people’s everyday thinking is given credibility and respected in its own right as valid” (Denscombe 2010, p. 96). I hope that this is echoed in the findings of this research. Truth is not universal, and respondents’ answers will not be treated as ‘wrong’ because the researcher’s opinion differs from theirs; instead they will be acknowledged as a perspective and unless evidence suggests otherwise will be treated as ‘true’ to the respondent.

Interviews have been chosen as a medium to due the flexibility and depth they provide. In contract to questionnaires, responses given in an interview “can be developed and clarified” (Bell 2014, p. 178). I wished to have the opportunity to interact with what the respondent was saying, and hopefully develop and gain a better understanding of their experience through doing so. So that the flow of conversation was not impeded in the interviews, I decided to make audio recordings, rather than taking notes. A major concern was the manner in which interviews would affect the participants’ responses and the trustworthiness of these responses (Wallace 2013, p. 5). Perhaps respondents would feel able to be more open with a questionnaire, especially when given the shield of anonymity from the researcher. As I already know the bulk of the respondents from working with them, I was concerned that their answers may be affected by that existing relationship. Either they could be reluctant to answer certain questions for fear of offending, or they could simply say what they thought I wanted to hear. In retrospect, I believe that the range of answers given, coupled with the previously mentioned benefits of interviews justifies my choice in using the method. A final concern regarding the trustworthiness of the interviews is the wording of the questions. I have taken care to ensure that questions asked are not leading, do not put words in an interviewee’s mouth, or betray a personal opinion.

The selection of respondents was dependent purely on the number of volunteers from the Level 3 course in question. The upper limit of respondents was the number of people on the course, but not all opted to take part, giving me eight student respondents in total. If the number of respondents had been very low, I would have needed to consider alternative research. Fortunately, this was not the case. In addition, I advertised on social media for volunteer participants that had previous taken a Level 3 music technology qualification in Further Education, and eventually selected three to interview. The smaller number is due to the fact that these interviews are largely intended to be supplementary to the interviews with current students. Finally, I had already spoken to the Level 3 course leader about their willingness to participate in this research. They had responded enthusiastically, and as such, a final interview was arranged with them, to be given after the student interviews had been transcribed and analysed. These three distinct groups of interviewees were selected as a form of data triangulation known as informant triangulation (Denscombe 2010, p. 347). The validity of the information is supported by the use of different informants as sources of information. The validity of the data is also supported by the interviewees’ status as primary sources (Wallace 2013, p. 5).

Interview questions were pre-planned, and the initial interview was used as a pilot to check the quality of these questions and subsequent responses. However, the conversation was quite free flowing, and I was comfortable with asking new questions based upon respondents’ answers, or asking them to expand upon their answers. By some definitions, these could be considered semi-structured interviews. Denscombe suggests that, “semi-structured and unstructured interviews are really on a continuum” (2010, p. 175). Bell refers to these as “guided or focused” interviews (2014, p. 165), whereas in Sapsford and Jupp, they are simply referred to as “less-structured” interviews (2006, p. 95).

Ethics must always be at the forefront of any research methodology, especially when voluntary participants are involved. For this research, I ensured that the NTU Ethics Committee approved the methods, and that the methods complied with all BERA guidelines. BERA guidelines highlight four areas of responsibilities; chief of these is the responsibility “to participants” (BERA 2011, p. 5). The opportunity to engage in this research was presented to the students as a whole, with the intentions of the research made clear as well as what was expected of participants in order that they understand “the process” (BERA 2011, p. 5). Participants were informed that their involvement was entirely voluntary (BERA 2011, p. 5), and that they would have the right to withdraw from the research “for any or no reason, and at any time” (BERA 2011 p. 6). Finally, they were informed that the interviews would be used for publicly available research, but that the data would be anonymised before this happened.

When the interviews were conducted, participants were once again reminded of their full rights, and were asked for their permission to proceed with the interviews on tape. After these interviews were completed, all data was “kept securely” (BERA 2011, p. 8). As the information was digital, all documents were password protected, and not kept on any portable memory device.

In analysing the conducted interviews, both content and discourse were considered. The initial coding and analysis of the evidence eventually condensed into six key areas of enquiry. This narrowing of focus based upon the data collected is implied in the “exploratory character” or qualitative research (Sapsford and Jupp eds. 2006, p. 251). The final student interviews (Appendix A) contain annotations, correspondent to the six areas of enquiry. In addition, individual notes of interest are included. The six areas are as follows:

  • Previous musical experience
  • Understanding of music theory
  • Aspirations
  • Music genre
  • Musical understanding
  • Music creation

The interviews with former FE students and the course tutor were not analysed in the same way; instead they were explored for points that could be related to points made by the students.

Full transcripts of all interviews have been included to provide the opportunity for the reader to explore further, and also to guard against claims that quotations have been selected to fit a certain agenda.

Findings and Analysis

After analysis all of the interviews conducted, I believe that they have far more information and insight to offer than both the size and the scope of this study allow. Further interviews with the same students could also help to explore some of the below findings. In the interest of clarity, I have presented three key findings and justification for each.

  1. Students are passionate about creating music that they enjoy:

All students except one (Student H) explicitly put forward a desire to create music as a key, driving factor in their education. They want to be able to create music of a high quality, in the genres that they enjoy. Student C is a clear example of this. The length of their replies when discussing their own compositional ability makes the depth of their feeling on the subject apparent. They are unhappy with their compositional skills, and constantly compare their own music to their friends (Appendix A, Lines 275-282). Student A wants to create “music that you can dance to” (Appendix A, Line 64), and Student F sees their career in “producing beats, doing songs and tracks” (Appendix A, Line 570). To the students interviewed, music matters outside of their education, as well as inside. Student F expresses a particular level of perfectionism when concerning their music outside of education (Appendix A, Lines 570-573). Five of the eight interviewed students expressed a desire to pursue a career producing original material, and two of the remaining three have taken the course to gain recording skills to record their own material (see Appendix A, Lines 701-704 for an example).

A clear way of improving compositional skills is by gaining a better grasp on music theory, so provision of music theory could certainly aid students. Student C’s frustrations seem to mainly stem from the restrictions that their musical skill puts on their composition, rather than their technical skill (Appendix A, Lines 306-311).

In addition, students show clear interest towards the ‘art’ element of music technology discussed by Boehm (2007), rather than the ‘science’ element. Current students mentioned genres of music thirteen times. Nine of these mentions refer to genres of music exclusively created by electronic means, where the producer is often synonymous with the artist. It is clear from the students’ responses in both of these areas that they see music technology as a way to equip themselves with the skills to create this type of music, rather than a traditional music course, which perhaps would not deal with the creation of electronic based music.

  1. The difference of the level of music theory knowledge between students is vast:

There is a huge disparity between the starting musical knowledge of the students, and their level of music theory understanding. For example, Student E has no prior musical experience at all (Appendix A, Line 447), whilst Student G has a degree in music performance (Line 639). Interestingly, Student E has a more holistic view of music theory (Appendix A, Lines 455-456), whereas Student G sees it simply in terms of notation (Lines 647-648). Perhaps this difference in perspective stems from the fact that Student E has not been previously engaged with traditional music education. The range of musical knowledge is acknowledged by the students, and by the course tutor. Student B suggests that this disparity should be addressed early on (Appendix A, Lines 161-165), and Student D sees a clear line between students that are “traditionally musical” and those who are more “synth heavy” (Lines 380-384).

Both the former students and the course tutor viewed musical ability and theory as an important trait for music technology students to have, and tellingly, the course tutor felt that those who had the benefit of other musical training (instrumental lessons, GCSE music) were better equipped to go on to Higher Education that those that had solely been on the Level 3 music technology course (see Appendix B, Lines 90-97, 161-174, 346-352 and Appendix C, Lines 107-117). This is corroborated by Former Student B, who feels that they would not have been sufficiently prepared for their degree had their only music experience been a Level 3 music technology course (Appendix B, Lines 224-232). Music theory is therefore, a hugely diving factor among the class, and threatens equality of opportunities.

  1. Music theory is ill-defined in students’ minds, and this leads to disinterest:

Four of the eight current students understood the term ‘music theory’ to mean music notation, whereas the other half viewed it in a more holistic sense. For those that understood music theory to be specifically regarding sheet music or art music, the term held a negative connotation, and this is corroborated by the course tutor, who notes that students “detest” music notation (Appendix C, Lines 54-56). Those students with a more holistic understanding of music theory were subsequently more open to gaining a greater understanding of it, as they wished to increase their musical ability, whilst those with the narrower view were less enthused about learning music theory, but still wanted to improve their musical understanding, especially in regards to composition (see Appendix A, Lines 466-469 and 79-82). Student responses were different when music theory was discussed in terms of general musical and compositional ability, this indicates that given a refined definition of music theory, students would be supportive of its provision on their course.

If this research were to be repeated, one way to fix to confusion surrounding the term ‘music theory’, and to possibly better gauge students’ opinions on it, would be to explicitly define the term before the interviews begin. However, this could leave the research open to claims that it is biased, as the researcher would be putting concepts into the interviewees’ heads.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Given the passion for creating music present among the learners, I recommend that music technology teaching should be holistic in its provision, providing learners with the tools necessary to create music. In this way, we allow learners to achieve what they have enrolled on the course to achieve. Therefore, broadly speaking, music theory is exceptionally important to a music technology student that fits the profile of any of the students interviewed. More specifically however, some of the elements of music theory are exceptionally important, but others are of little to no importance (a point well made in Appendix B, Lines 371-376). This is largely consistent with the elements that a musician involved with popular music, rather than art music, may use. This is crucial to note, as the discourse currently surrounding music theory carries heavy connotations of the art music tradition. Perhaps a different term needs to be used to describe this music theory provision; the course tutor offers “music theory for computer musicians” (Appendix C, Line 79). Further research needs to be completed to provide accurate recommendations of the areas of music theory that are important to a music technology student.

Ultimately, students are able to pass a Level 3 BTEC in music technology without understanding music theory, and then move onto Higher Education (see Appendix C, Lines 107-116). The evidence for this is clear in all interviews. If our role as educators in the FE sector is to progress learners to HE, then we can achieve this without giving students the tools of music theory. If we take a more humanistic approach (Petty 2009, p. 459), and aim to enrich every aspect of a student’s musical life, and indeed their employment prospects, then we will not achieve this by keeping music theory out of the music technology classroom. At present, if students who already understand music theory enroll on a course that does not feature music theory teaching, they have a large advantage over those that do not already possess this knowledge (see Appendix C, Lines 97-105). With equality and diversity so high on the agenda in Further Education, we can afford equal opportunities to students by providing them with this knowledge (Wallace 2011, p. 44). In addition, by doing so, we create a common language between students, one that allows easier collaboration and peer-review.

On a local level, teachers can strive to embed music theory teaching in their lessons, much as they would with numeracy and literacy. Sequencing, for example, would be a good area in which to embed theory. This would not be simple however, given that teachers already have specific material that needs covering, and would require a concerted effort on the part of the teacher. On a personal level, this is something that I will be exploring, and attempting to implement in my own practice.

When an institution runs a course, they have the option of various modules that the course will consist of. Providers of Level 3 music technology courses should take care to select modules that will properly prepare their learners, both in terms of their technical ability and their musical ability. It may be that such options are not available through certain exam boards, a problem that the course tutor interviewed states explicitly (Appendix C, Lines 52-62). In these cases, institutions may wish to consider other exam boards, and exam boards should ensure that the units they offer serve the best interests of the students.

A final option would be to insist upon a certain level of music theory knowledge as a pre-requisite to entering Level 3 music technology qualifications. It could be possible to allow students to attend a short course pre-entry to allow them to gain these skills, but again, the main barrier to this would be funding and teaching time.

Further investigation needs to be done in order to decide the optimal method of including music theory in Level 3 music technology courses. This research demonstrates the importance of music theory when the views of learners are considered, but this view could be supported or contradicted by a quantitative study exploring the achievements of those who have and have not experienced music theory teaching.


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