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The UIUC Theory Prep Course

By Rick Taube - October 05, 2017

An automated course for freshman entering the core music theory program


Prospective students applying to the University of Illinois School of Music are required to take a music theory diagnostic exam (MTDE) to determine if they are academically prepared to take Music 101, the first-semester core music theory course at the University of Illinois. The short (one-page) MTDE provides a quick assessment of a student’s knowledge in five areas of music fundamentals: pitch notation, scales and key signatures, rhythm and meters, and root-position triads. While the School of Music has been giving this test for many years, and has informally noticed generally declining scores over the last decade, only very recently did it start documenting the year-to-year results. Here are the average scores for entering freshman for the past three years:

2015 2016 2017
Average MTDE Score 65% 66% 59%

Music 101 begins at the level of diatonic functional harmony, introductory counterpoint, and part writing. Students who are are not proficient in music fundamentals do not perform well in this course, and history shows that Music 101 grades serve as a fairly good predictor of how well (or poorly) students will perform over the entire four-semester core theory sequence. Until two years ago, the MTDE determined who enrolled in Music 101 (which met three times per week), and who entered Music 101R (which met five days a week and covered both fundamentals and the Music 101 curriculum). When the Illinois state budget crisis began a few years ago the School of Music faced multiple years of budget cuts. Teaching Music 101R required paying an additional instructor, so in 2016, the composition-theory division decided to replace Music 101R with the UIUC Theory Prep Course, a completely automated course that all entering freshman must complete over the summer prior to enrolling in Music 101.

UIUC Theory Prep Course

The UIUC Theory Prep Course delivers completely automated, cloud-based music theory instruction in music fundamentals. The course is self-paced and students may enroll in the course anytime between June 1st and August 10th. On average, a student working a few hours a day can complete the course in two to three weeks.

The UIUC Theory Prep Course covers five areas of music fundamentals:

  • Pitches, accidentals and (treble, bass, alto and tenor) clefs
  • Intervals
  • Major and minor scales
  • Triads and inversions
  • Seventh chords and inversions

All four clefs are used in lessons and assignment materials throughout the course. Topics are represented by specific curricular modules in the course and the modules all follow a similar layout:

Module Pretest

An (optional) timed pretest covers the subject matter presented in the module. If given, a pretest can permit high-scoring students to opt out of taking the module and serves as a baseline measurement to determine how much learning takes place for students who actually complete the module.


Lessons consist of non-graded material that present the module’s subject matter. Lessons include text, interactive examples, illustrations (images), short videos and audio clips. The Summer 2017 lessons integrated videos from a variety of University of Illinois School of Music faculty, who briefly introduced the theory topic at hand on their respective instruments. Interviews completed after the course reveal that most students appreciated the videos and would like more short videos to accompany the various lesson subtopics.


An assignment is a digital worksheet that contains exercise material to be completed and digitally submitted for evaluation. Harmonia assesses the student's work, adds graphic annotations (explanatory markup) to the assignment display, and a grade based on instructor settings. Assignments generally involve either composing — writing a short musical scores that meet requirements determined by a teacher, or analyzing — studying and listening musical scores and then identifying specific features in the music. Teachers can customize assignments in a number of different ways:

Practice Assignments

A practice assignment is a worksheet that behaves like a regular assignment — the work is graded, errors are identified and explained to the student — but the student's grade is not entered in the course’s official grade book.

Multiple Submission Assignments

A multiple submission assignment allows the student to complete and resubmit the material more than once. Grading can record either the highest achieved grade or the average score of all the student's attempts.

Timed Assignments

In a timed assignment, students must complete the material in an allotted amount of time. Once the time has expired the material is automatically submitted and graded by the system.

Module Exams

At the end of each module, students complete an untimed, comprehensive exam.

The following table shows the number of lessons, assignments and tests that make up the UIUC Theory Prep Course:

Lessons Analysis
Pitches, Accidentals & Clefs 5 14 14 2
Scales 7 12 24 2
Intervals 4 18 12 2
Triads & Inversions 2 8 8 2
Sevenths & Inversions 2 8 8 2
Total 20 60 66 10

Course Correction

The course has run for two years, with both years using the same module content, but some modifications were made to how the materials were used by students in the summer 2017 course. In 2016, students scoring an A on a timed module pretest did not have to complete the remaining materials in the module. For students who were required to take the modules, half the course assignments were configured as optional practice assignments, and the other half were required. (These counted toward their grade). While some students took advantage of the practice assignments, a significant number did not, even though the opportunity would likely have led to better results on their module tests. As a result, in 2017 students were required to take all modules and optional practice assignments were eliminated, in favor of requiring all assignments to be completed at least one time. Students who scored unfavorably could redo the material multiple times to improve their grade and thus their comprehension. As a consequence, in 2017 more coursework was completed by students -- thereby increasing learning cycles over the first year -- and many students opted to retake homework to improve their grade average. Interviews with students this fall indicate that retaking homework helped them learn, and the opportunity to improve their grade provided motivation to do more work.

Module tests averages for 2017 are summarized in the following table:

Pitches Scales Intervals Triads & sevenths
Average module exam 95% 96% 94% 90%

2017 MTDE Results

This fall we retested all entering Music 101 students using an MTDE exam that was slightly shorter but otherwise equivalent to the original MTDE test they took in the spring. This retest was given to compare post-UIUC THeory Pore course results to the initial score on the test last spring. The results are very encouraging: the average grade for the fall MTDE test was 81%, a 22 percentage point improvement over the spring score of 59%. This provides good evidence that the 2017 UIUC Theory Prep Course achieved its goal of improving comprehension of music fundamentals and preparing students for Music 101 in the fall.

The Technology

The UIUC Theory Prep Course delivers automatic instruction by using a music theory software application called Harmonia. Harmonia was developed at the UIUC School of Music and in 2015 it was commercialized through a National Science Foundation STTR Phase 1 Grant. The Harmonia application blends music theory instruction with graphic music notation, multimedia, automatic music analysis, automatic grading, course analytics and social networking. Using Harmonia students are able to practice as well as take homework, timed quizzes and tests. Harmonia uses patented algorithms to analyze the music that students write, then assesses the correctness of their solutions against teacher-specified models of correctness, and provides detailed feedback to students about any errors or mistakes.


By developing automated theory courses with built-in practice and grading, musically inclined students attending high schools with minimal music theory can still receive meaningful theory instruction to help them prepare for college-level music courses.

The ability of the system to deliver real-time instructional feedback encourages students to practice and retake assignments, both of which provide additional learning cycles.

By combining automatic grading and formative assessment, music instruction can be delivered at a fraction of the cost of a traditional methods, it can reduce or eliminate the need for teachers to grade paper-based homework, and it can allow students to know how they are performing in real time.

Harmonia’s latest server courseware allows instructors to view and comment on student assignments and communicate with them via a bi-directional comment system, a technology that will facilitate remote mentoring.