Making MOOC music in a second mode

My exploration of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) continues with two music courses offered by the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I’ve completed a film history class and a communication science class, but slipped out the side door of two other free courses, including a University of Edinburgh one I wrote about a few months ago.

I jumped into my first Berklee class, jazz improvisation with Gary Burton back in February, and decided it was a bit over my musical head — as well as competing for my time with the communication science class I wrote about here last time. I  watched Gary’s lectures and listened to the music, but didn’t attempt  the assignments — which were to be recorded and uploaded for listening and critique by other students.

In a moment of musical hubris, I had felt the level description of “intermediate” might describe me — but as soon as the class started it was obvious that some accordion lessons when J.F.K. was alive, a few months of guitar lessons (Johnson administration), and a lot of off-and-on noodling since then does not add up to “intermediate” at Berklee.  Or, as a friend of mine once said, “Can you play that thing, or do you just ‘know some tunes’?”

Most of my tune-learning over the years has been in American and Irish folk music, sea chanteys, some blues, and a few rock ‘n’ roll or pop standards… on the guitar, mandolin, mandola, five string banjo, ukulele and banjo ukulele. I do read music, but I’ve never had a need for the Gm7(b5) chord and accompanying modal scale, which started Gary’s first assignment.

While I like many kinds of music, I’ll admit the Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian and Locrian mode names are all Greek to me, even when they describe music I’ve been playing for years. (Mostly “Ionian,” I guess.)  I think a couple of them describe music I’ve never attempted — including the first scale in that improv class.

Luckily, I noticed on the schedule that Berklee was also offering a “Developing Your Musicianship” class that, no joke, started April 1. So I signed up, and I have just completed the first week’s work. The teacher is jazz pianist George W. Russell Jr., and he is excellent — as are his Berklee students whose online performance rounded out the week’s 10 short video “lectures,”  about 40 minutes altogether. George’s description of the first week made it sound challenging, but within my skills:

In this first lesson, we are going to explore some basic musical terms. What is harmony? What is ear training? What is an interval? From there, we are going to look at the major scale and how it is constructed. We are then going to explore two intervals: the major 2nd and the major 3rd. It is very important that you develop your ear and your ability to recognize intervals. And, last but not least, we are going to explore the tonal center, or the key a song is in.

The discussion forums — as has been true with the earlier classes I’ve taken on Coursera — are full of fascinating people from all over the world. The “introductions” forum already has more than 400 contributions. The last four were from students in Zagreb, Croatia; Madrid, Spain; Peterborough, Ontario; and the Boston area. I’ve also noticed posts from Dublin, Stockholm, Tokyo, Brussels, Athens, Delhi and San Antonio. This should be fun.

This week’s homework included spending some time on YouTube looking for music in the key of C… and I enjoyed it so much that I submitted more than the three assigned examples. I decided not to include any ukulele tunes — although I’ve already been part of a course discussion forum with a couple of other students who are using ukes instead of keyboards to work through the lessons. (My only keyboard is a virtual one on my iPad screen, but it works.)

Here, I’ll share the C-tunes I found with you, too, copying and pasting from my Coursera submission:

This was a fun assignment, and I hope it wasn’t cheating to search (YouTube) for the phrases “key of c” and “played in c” to make the search more productive. But I did start with songs that I know are often played in that key. I went beyond the assigned three.

“Keep on the Sunny Side of Life” by Mother Maybelle & The Carter Sisters

“Two little fishes” by Sister Rosetta Tharp

“Creole Belle” and “Louis Collins” (from Mississippi John Hurt) played and taught by Stefan Grossman

“Melody in C” by Frederic Mesnier

“The Christmas Song” by Mel Torme, sung by Nat King Cole (in D) … And a guitar arrangement in C:

I am curious how many of you (like me) searched YouTube for “the key of C” and found Victor Borge’s comedic presentation of Mozart’s “Bagatele in the key of C”

it does not fit the requirements for this assignment, but I am glad I found it. I had not heard him in years and he is a wonderful entertainer, although he does not actually play the piano in this clip!

I mentioned this general technique of finding things in a course discussion forum, and while I was writing that note I confirmed my suspicion that there is even a Wikipedia page for “C major” that includes lists of classical compositions and pop songs written in that key. So much for difficult homework, unless I completely misunderstood the assignment! If I did, someone will tell me. It’s all learning!

I do hope the classmate or classmates who review that assignment enjoy the Borge item… but that will be next week when we do “evaluations.” I’m also looking forward to another Coursera film course starting in a couple of weeks — once again, from my graduate alma mater, Wesleyan University: Marriage and the Movies.

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.

Posted in 2014, Education, MOOCs, Music

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