MUSC 103 (3 cr): Introduction to the Theory of Music


Course Outline

  • Six assignments
  • Final examination

Course Description

Music 103: Introduction to Music Theory is a 3-credit elective course for non-music majors. No prerequisites are required, and a prior knowledge of music theory or an ability to play an instrument is not necessary for enrollment.

Music 103 provides a technical introduction to Western musical practice and music notation. Students will also develop their ability to hear basic musical relationships and processes, and will acquire the concepts and terminology that will help them to understand and describe fundamental aspects of both art and popular music. Musical materials used in the course will range from the medieval period through the twentieth century.

Course topics include: techniques of music notation; musical acoustics and instrumentation; rhythm and meter; pitch collections and modes; intervals and tuning theory; melodic structure and types of musical texture; an introduction to counterpoint; and the structure and identification of chords.

Intended Audience

Music 103 is intended for all students who are eager to develop a serious technical knowledge of music that will serve a variety of pursuits, including learning to both read and write music and being introduced to fundamental principles of musical composition. Prior musical training is not required, as the course will establish a thorough foundation in elementary music theory and its application to musical practice. Nevertheless, the course content is highly technical in nature and is specifically addressed to a university-level audience with a strong interest in both the origins and applicability of theoretical concepts, rather than in an uncritical presentation of rules.

General Overview of Course Topics

Our course will begin in Lesson 1 with a discussion of some of the acoustic features of sound–in particular, features related to musical pitch–that are essential components of music and that shape our perception of it. In Lesson 2 we will begin to learn how to describe these features in music notation, enhancing our exploration of pitch relationships through the use of a musical staff.

Lessons 3 and 4 will explore music as an activity that unfolds in time. In Lesson 3 we will look at the concepts of duration and timing in music, how these may be represented in notation, both of which introduce the basic features of musical rhythm. In Lesson 4 our attention will be directed to patterns of musical activity that suggest a metrical framework for rhythm and the ways in which this framework can likewise be indicated in notation. To integrate the use of rhythm and meter, we will then explore ways of setting words to music with a variety of rhythms and meters.

In Lesson 5 we will examine the concept of melody both in terms of contour and underlying pitch resources. Lesson 5 will therefore introduce us both to the use of intervals as read from the staff and to the use of pitch collections that are typically represented as musical scales, the principal features of which will be the focus of discussion in Lesson 6. Lesson 6 will integrate the concepts of tonic, pitch class collection and mode in the context of diatonic scales, while Lesson 7 will expand on the use of the scale, introducing models of chromatic usage and non-diatonic scales.

Lesson 8 will develop the concept of the interval introduced in Lesson 5, adapting it for greater accuracy in both the identification and the representation of intervals on the staff. The use of intervals as both a mathematical and perceptual tool for the creation of systems of tuning will then be explored, highlighting some of the fundamental challenges encountered in any system of tuning.

Lesson 9 will give us the opportunity to review many of the fundamental concepts related to pitch class collections and their structure that have been studied in previous lessons. With the introduction of the concept of the key and an associated notation device, the key signature, relationships that play a fundamental role in large-scale musical structures will be introduced. The appropriate use of key signatures will then be addressed in the context of melodic analysis, with careful attention given to their limitations.

Lesson 10 will introduce both theoretical and practical issues that are associated with composing music for particular instruments and voices. These include consideration of instrumental and vocal ranges, timbre and techniques of transposition. The discussion will be centered on listening to a particular symphonic work, Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, introducing both the family relationships of orchestral instruments and their characteristic sound qualities.

Lesson 11 will introduce the concept of musical texture and the issues that are involved in writing music for more than one voice or instrument. The discussion will then focus on contrapuntal practice, examining relative motion between distinct parts of a polyphonic texture in terms of contour and rate, as well as types of imitation between parts. Lesson 12 will then take up the implications of homophonic textures for composition with an introduction of the elements of harmony. The types of chords and their structural interrelationships will be explored, along with the analysis of chord use within a key.

Course Work

Music 103 is a three-credit course with a completion time of six months. It requires a total of six assignments to be submitted (individually) at approximately one-month intervals (with some variation in this time interval), followed by an invigilated final exam. Students are expected to devote 8-10 hours per week to coursework, giving thorough attention to readings and carefully performing associated review activities, in addition to completing assignments in a timely fashion.

Review Activities

Each lesson will be supported with multiple review activities that enable students to evaluate their understanding of the concepts and practical applications introduced in corresponding sections of discussion. Certain activities will involve the use of a notation software program (see below, “Course Materials and Technology Requirements”) that enables students to listen to their work as part of their self-evaluation.


There will be six graded assignments involving a wide variety of types of exercises and musical analyses. These will be submitted to your instructor online (using notation software) following the completion of every second lesson, with each pair of lessons addressing an integrated series of theoretical concepts and their associated musical practices. Please refer to the course website for the specific due dates for your assignments.

To be completed by week:
(total: 22)
Assignment 1
Lessons 1-2
Assignment 2
Lessons 3-4
Assignment 3
Lessons 5-6
Assignment 4
Lessons 7-8
Assignment 5
Lessons 9-10
Assignment 6
Lessons 11-12

Final Examination

The final examination will take place at a location under the supervision of invigilators. The exam itself will be comprised of questions that integrate the types of exercises, analyses and related questions to which students have been exposed in the review activities and assignments.


The course will be graded out of 100% as follows:

  • Six assignments @ 10% each – of the six assignments, the student’s lowest grade will be dropped for the final evaluation so that five assignments (worth a total of 50%) will count towards the final grade
  • Final examination: 50%

You must pass the final exam to pass the course.

Course Materials and Technology

Music 103 provides course materials in the form of two central resources: an online course website with multimedia features, and a software program for music notation called NotePad. Both of these resources require the use of a computer with color monitor, sound card and access to the web.

The course website provides the course content that would otherwise be encountered through lectures in a classroom-based learning environment. Students will be able to read materials and direct their studies at their own pace, with audio examples available at the click of a mouse and a searchable web platform. The multimedia character of the course website has fundamentally shaped the presentation of course material, enabling a discussion of theoretical concepts in the context of actual musical examples throughout the course. Rather than presenting music theory as a series of rules governing musical behavior, all theoretical approaches and techniques of notation will be introduced in response to particular musical examples and the issues that are raised by them.

NotePad is a program that is essentially a slimmed-down version of Finale™, a professional-level software program. For the purposes of this course, NotePad’s most important feature is its playback capability: using this notation program, students will not only be able to see their work with helpful graphic clarity but will also be able to hear it. Given our assumption that students of Music 103 have no prior musical training, students would otherwise have no ability to evaluate the core concepts of the course in the very context for which they are designed: the world of musical sound. NotePad essentially turns the computer into an instrument that every student can use to play their work, transforming music theory into an engagement with music itself.

You can download the most current Finale NotePad software for Macintosh OS X or Windows Vista/XP here:


There are no textbooks required for MUSC103. But you will need to purchase the following CD from the UBC Bookstore :

  • CD: Prokofiev, Peter and the Wolf; Britten. A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; Saint-Saens: Carnival of the Animals. Naxos, 2000.

Note: This audio CD can be accessed through UBC Naxos Music Library (Keyword Search is 8219) or at the url

MUSC103 Textbook Order Form