Interactive app makes teaching music theory possible online

August 7, 2013 by Dusty Rhodes
Interactive app makes teaching music theory possible online
Music professor Heinrich Taube’s Harmonia application is the first computer app created at the U. of I. to appear on Apple iTunes. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

University of Illinois music professor Heinrich Taube has developed a computer application that could change the way music theory is taught. Called Harmonia, the program allows teachers to create an endless variety of composition or analysis assignments, provides students with immediate feedback, and performs instant harmonic analysis of complex compositions. It is the first app created at the U. of I. to appear in Apple's iTunes store for computer applications, and could pave the way for teaching music theory online.

Taube, a composer who has also designed software for music composition, began working on a music theory program in 1996, soon after he arrived at Illinois and realized that teachers were still relying on chalkboards, paper and pencils.

"It was like some time machine," Taube said. "I had been working in the world of computer music production, where every year something new would come out. I stepped back into the classroom, and people were teaching theory the same way they did it a hundred years ago."

At most colleges, music majors spend their first two years learning theory – the formulas for building scales and chords, the complicated rules for moving from one sonority to the next, the laws of physics and the musical conventions that have formed the building blocks of Western musical compositions for centuries.

These lessons are traditionally taught in part by deconstructing existing compositions, such as Bach chorales – widely considered the canonical rules of harmony and voice-leading. From there, students move on to writing their own harmonies on worksheets, penciling in notes over the sketch of a bass line or a string of Roman numerals indicating the types of chords to be built. However, such assignments can have many correct answers, so grading the results can be tedious and time-consuming.

Heinrich Taube’s Harmonia application allows teachers to create assignments that students can complete online. The program can play the resulting harmonies so that the student can hear the notes, and then grade the result or simply provide helpful feedback, instantaneously. Credit: L. Brian Stauffer and Dusty Rhodes

Taube's Harmonia application allows teachers to create assignments that students can complete online. The program can play the resulting harmonies so that the student can hear the notes, and then grade the result or simply provide helpful feedback, instantaneously.

"This is so much better than paper," Taube said. "It's the only way that music theory can participate in massively open online courses. If a university wants to have an online academy for music theory, you need something like this. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of videos."

At the heart of Harmonia is a program Taube wrote more than a decade ago (his article "Automatic Tonal Analysis: Toward the Implementation of a Music Theory Workbench," was published in Computer Music Journal in 1999). He created algorithms that detect and identify normative harmonic behaviors (triads, sevenths, inversions, cadences) and use a hierarchical scanning method, searching first for easily identifiable sonorities, making another pass to examine passing tones, then computing a complete functional and harmonic analysis of the composition, including detection of stylistic anomalies. This method is blazingly efficient; Taube's Music Theory Workbench can deconstruct Bach's dense, complex chorales at a rate of 19 chorales per second.

Harmonia can do much more than that. Besides chorales, Harmonia can analyze piano music and orchestral scores. It can generate and grade theory lessons using sonorities, Roman numerals or figured bass (chord progressions indicated by letter names, scale positions or inversions) and even discourage students from copying each other's work, thanks to a randomizer that changes assignments to a different key signature for each student. Teachers can add music, text, images and videos; Harmonia can edit music notation and multimedia.

Taube writes programs and computer languages, but said that his collaborator, William Andrew Burnson, "is responsible for more of Harmonia's coolness than I am." Burnson came to Illinois in 2007 to pursue a master's degree in music composition, and began working with Taube as a teaching assistant, eventually writing many of the 100,000 lines of computer code (about half the size of the Bible) that make Harmonia work.

The app is currently available for free on Apple's iTunes store, and Burnson said despite zero notice or advertising, Harmonia has been downloaded more than 2,000 times. "We've gotten some great feedback," Burnson said. However, he is no longer able to work on Harmonia, having recently accepted a job in New Jersey with MuseAmi, a music software startup company, leaving Taube searching for funding to put the final touches on Harmonia.

"Software designers like Andrew don't just grow on trees," Taube said.

Taube estimates that the application is 90 percent complete, and plans to begin using it to teach to undergraduate students at Illinois this fall.

Explore further: Musicians take note of tune-writing app

Related Stories

Musicians take note of tune-writing app

May 6, 2013

Need some instant musical notation to remember that little tune you just came up with? A new mobile app created by a researcher from KTH Royal Institute of Technology makes it possible to score any melody instantly and share ...

Turn your dreams into music

September 10, 2012

Computer scientists in Finland have developed a method that automatically composes music out of sleep measurements. The composition service works live on the Web at

Recommended for you

Newest solar cells underperform in cloudy countries

August 22, 2017

To determine how efficient new solar cells convert sunlight into electricity, small sample cells are tested under ideal conditions. However, the reported efficiency is not very representative of the actual annual yield when ...

Google to serve next version of Android as 'Oreo"

August 22, 2017

An upcoming update to Google's Android software finally has a delectable name. The next version will be known as Oreo, extending Google's tradition of naming each version after a sweet treat.

Forget oil, Russia goes crazy for cryptocurrency

August 16, 2017

Standing in a warehouse in a Moscow suburb, Dmitry Marinichev tries to speak over the deafening hum of hundreds of computers stacked on shelves hard at work mining for crypto money.

Researchers clarify mystery about proposed battery material

August 15, 2017

Battery researchers agree that one of the most promising possibilities for future battery technology is the lithium-air (or lithium-oxygen) battery, which could provide three times as much power for a given weight as today's ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.