I Want It That Way

Good Practices for Pop Music Pedagogy

Megan Lavengood

Utah State University, April 5, 2024

Inclusion and pop music

  • Pop music is often more familiar to students than classical music
  • Pop music is often not notated, so focusing on pop music can reach out to students who don’t know notation very well

Talk overview

Pop music can be used to promote inclusion, but its effectiveness here depends on how it’s implemented.

  • Less effective methods
    • Token examples of pop music
    • Pop music classes as upper-level electives
  • More effective: teaching pop on its own terms
    • example syllabus of pop theory class
    • ideas for including pop performance
  • Example concepts of pop music theory

Tokenized pop music

Tokenization: when something outside the norm is included and represented, but in a way that still ultimately serves and reinforces the norm

Example: in a lesson about valid classical chord progressions, an example by Billy Joel is included.

Traditional theory curriculum

Four semesters:

  1. fundamentals
  2. diatonic harmony (chord progressions, cadences, four-part writing)
  3. chromatic harmony
  4. form or 20th century (set theory and serialism)

Theory textbooks

  • Representative of mainstream approaches to theory pedagogy
  • Focus on one (niche) textbook today: Turek, Theory for Today’s Musician

Turek intro to teachers

  • Pop music should be included for “today’s musician”
  • Pop will bridge the gap between what students already know and what we are trying to teach them

What are the problems and assumptions with this attitude?

Pop examples in the Turek book

Problems with token examples

  • Age of examples?
  • Demographics of artists/composers?
  • Representative of pop music in general?
  • Relationship to overall learning goals?

Performance version of token examples

  • Focus remains primarily on classical music
  • But one (notated) arrangement of a pop song is included every now and then, as a treat

Pop Electives

  • When schools do have a pop courses, they are often electives
  • Students may take it or skip it
  • Available after completing the core curriculum
  • If gen ed, may not count as part of music degree requirements

Problems with pop electives

  • Who gets to take it?
  • When do they get to take it?
  • Implied value of subject?
  • Are prerequisite classes really needed?
  • Gatekeeping?

Good Practices

To be as inclusive as possible, pop music needs to be treated as equally complex and valid when compared to classical music.

Good Practices

  • Teach pop music as a robust repertoire with its own compositional techniques and analytical approaches
  • Be thoughtful when assuming knowledge (what is truly needed beforehand?)
  • Aim for broad representation across time periods, artist demographics, and genres

Good Practices in music theory

Develop a theory class that:

  • Focuses entirely (or in large part) on popular music
  • Counts as the core curriculum
  • Is accessible to BAs (who don’t need to take as many theory courses usually)
  • Does not rely on fluency in music notation

Good Practices in music theory

Example list of topics

  • Melody and phrasing
  • Verse-chorus form
  • AABA form and strophic form
  • Rhythm and Meter in Pop Music
  • Harmonic schemas (4-chord schemas, puff, classical, blues-based, modal)
  • Fragile, Absent, and Emergent Tonics
  • Drumbeats
  • Texture in pop music
  • Text Setting in Pop Music
  • Good Practices in music theory

    Prerequisite knowledge

    • Aural skills (tonic-finding, pitch matching, listening to bass register)
    • Diatonic keys, scales, and chords
    • Roman numerals
    • Music notation (but just basics)
    • Meter

    Good practices in Performance

    How could pop music be included in an ensemble curriculum or private lesson curriculum, where classical music is often studied exclusively?

    • Ensembles dedicated to the performance of pop music exclusively (rock bands, a cappella groups, pep bands, marching bands)
    • Pop music aural skills
    • Creating arrangements of pop tunes

    Good practices in Performance

    Pop music aural skills

    Aural skills are paramount for pop music, which is hardly ever notated.

    • Playing melodies by ear
    • Playing bass lines by ear (especially challenging for a lot of people!)
    • Improvising a part appropriate to your instrument
    • Listening for percussion
    • Identifying tonic (more complex in pop, where modes are more common and chord progressions more ambiguous)

    Good practices in Performance

    Arranging pop tunes

    Musicians often need to adapt music to the ensemble they have (with pop repertoire or other repertoire!)

    Skills to develop:

    • Learning when notation is needed or not
    • Dealing with complex syncopation
    • Adapting a song’s form to different situations
    • Adapting vocal melodies to instruments and vice-versa

    Good practices in Performance

    Using notation

    When used, notation must be implemented thoughtfully.


    • Good at specificity
    • Visual aid


    • Hard to show some syncopations
    • Does not reflect real-life practice
    • Excludes people who don’t read well

    Good practices in Performance


    • More accurate and precise transcription, or simplified transcription?
    • Extrapolating freer performance of rhythm from simplified notation
    • Representation of polyrhythms (dotted notes vs. ties)

    Good practices in Performance


    • Writing new intros, outros, interludes, breakdowns, solo sections, etc.
    • Where to loop or cut the song for cases where the music needs to be longer or shorter
    • Example assignment: wedding arrangement

    Good practices in Performance


    • Adapting instrumental lines to vocals (a cappella syllables and techniques, writing singable lines)
    • Adapting vocal lines to instrumentals (compensating for lack of lyrics)

    Tell me why-ee

    What would we gain by promoting pop music within formal music study?

    “Three music school anecdotes”

    Loren Kajikawa,
    “The Possessive Investment in Classical Music:
    Confronting Legacies of White Supremacy in U.S. Schools and Departments of Music"

    What would we gain by promoting pop music within formal music study?

    • Including new kinds of musicians, as both as students and teachers
    • Increase the relevance of formal music study to 21st-century life
    • Counter the prominent assumption that classical’s prestige is earned, as it is the smartest and most developed music

    By and large, music schools are actually classical music schools.

    When we focus so exclusively on classical music, we exclude lots of music and musicians from our school communities.