Music Theory 201

Even experienced musicians and songwriters often have a spotty understanding of the terminology and theory behind the songs they perform and write. And those who are just beginning to pursue an interest in music will definitely need a foundation in the basics. Anyone with a grasp of rudimentary music theory, particularly an understanding of chords and how chords are formed, can easily enhance and expand their knowledge by tackling more complex subjects in Paul Schmeling’s online course, Music Theory 201. The veteran pianist, arranger, and music theory teacher brings his students a deeply nuanced understanding of the subject matter and a keen idea of the best way to explain it to his students, whether they have previously taken Music Theory 101, or gained a familiarity with the topic through their own experience outside the classroom.

“Music Theory 201 moves up into the intermediate level of theoretical knowledge,” says Paul Schmeling.“We start by talking about the more sophisticated rhythms that happen in pop music and jazz, including things like rhythmic anticipations, and some of the syncopations. I have the students take melodies that don’t have those rhythms, and then add those rhythms, to see how they change the feel of things. In terms of harmony, I talk about the concept of how chords function diatonically. I introduce them to terminology like tonic, subdominant and dominant, and to the concept of Roman numeral names, as used in functional harmony. It’s on kind of a basic level, and yet it’s something they need to be introduced to. We talk about additional chord types that they normally don’t see in a basic theory course, like the augmented major chord, and minor major sevens and chords that are just a little more sophisticated. And then after tensions, I talk about pentatonic scales, and again, this is all kind of basic, and yet, they get a taste of it, what pentatonic scales are, how they operate, how they’re utilized, how they function on harmonies. And then finally I end up with blues, and I talk about the blues form and the blues style and the use of blues notes that come from blues scales.

Schmeling helps his students engage with the course and understand how the theory they are learning is applied in the real world by offering musical examples from popular jazz and pop artists, including Grover Washington and Bill Withers. “The emphasis is always on them gaining the theoretical knowledge, but I try to do it as much as I can through the application of those concepts into something that’s real music,” he says. “And I always try to do that, in all of my teaching, because I think it makes it more fun. Also, it makes it more real.”

Because the course covers a great deal of material that grows increasingly challenging throughout the semester, it is important for students to understand each lesson before moving onto the next section. And so Schmeling has divided the subject matter into digestible sections, with assignments that allow students to apply what they are learning and gain greater proficiency of the material. “They do some melody writing,” he says. “I get them started with a little melodic shape, and then I have them repeat or develop that kind of a thing. So they become a bit aware, hopefully, of melodic phrasing.”

While Schmeling says that the online classroom environment varies depending on the group of students in each class, he has found that students flourish when they feel comfortable addressing him and their fellow students with any and all questions they have about the material. He has seen helpful interactions flourish between classmates, which can be particularly beneficial to students, as many people enrolled in the class have some sort of musical background. He also finds that students enjoy the flexibility and uniquely international student body that the online classroom offers. “A lot of people love the technology part of it; I’m sitting here in Tokyo, and I can be talking to someone in Brazil,” he says. “And they tend to do that a lot. there’s a lot of interaction. If someone isn’t getting help, they’re not looking for help in the correct way. Because I tell them that, for my chats, I’m perfectly willing to walk them through a whole process, if necessary. And normally, that does help.