General course information

Course title: Harmony and Form in Pop/Rock Music: A Computational Approach
Course number: MUSC 5151, CSCI 4830, CSCI 7000
Semester: Maymester 2013
Meeting time: MTWRF 9:00am–12:00pm
Meeting location: MUS N1B49
Instructor: Kris Shaffer, Ph.D.
Office: MUS N138
Office hours: by appointment
Course website:
Twitter hashtag: #corpusmusic
GitHub organzation: corpusmusic


Harmony and Form in Pop/Rock Music is a hybrid (in-person and online), interdisciplinary, vertically integrated (faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students working together), project-based course.

The course explores harmonic and formal structures in pop/rock music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, with the overarching goal of discovering, creating, and disseminating new knowledge about this music through a collaborative research project. The course also provides supporting instruction in identifying harmonic and formal structures by ear, representing those structures using the standard symbols and terms of music theory, encoding those structures digitally, performing computational analysis of those digitally encoded structures, and using digital tools for online collaboration.

The research project

At the end of the first week (or beginning of the second week) of the course, students and instructor will negotiate a collaborative research project that builds on existing work in the field of computational musicology, is sensitive to the methodological concerns raised in reference to the digital humanities in general, will provide students an opportunity to engage with the public, and will afford students sufficient opportunity to meet the individual course objectives.

Possible projects include …

  • the creation of a website (and/or an ebook) containing short articles that critique existing work in computational musicology.
  • the creation of a single pop/rock corpus that contains and expands upon existing, publicly available corpora.
  • the creation of software to analyze existing corpora in new ways.
  • a single scholarly research article that explores a research question about pop/rock music using computational or empirical methods.
  • a large set of contributions to Rock Genius, Wikipedia, or other crowdsourced websites that “explain” pop/rock songs, artists, and genres.
  • a series of short articles for popular audiences to be submitted to widely read sites like Slate.
  • a combination of some of the above possible projects.

Credit and assessment

Because the course is vertically integrated and interdisciplinary, assessment of student work will use contract grading, tailored to individual students’ levels (undergraduate or graduate) and disciplines.

Assessment will take place in reference to four conceptual areas:

  • Musical theories of harmony and form
  • Computational analysis/digital humanities research methods
  • Online research collaboration
  • Writing about music (for a popular audience)

To receive a C in the course, a student must demonstrate basic working knowledge/skills in each of the four following conceptual areas through their work on the collaborative class project. To receive a B, a student must also demonstrate mastery of one. To receive an A, mastery of two.

All students will propose a course contract at the beginning of the second week, after the collaborative research project has been decided. (Model contracts will be provided in advance.) This contract will articulate the grade desired and layout a work plan that is appropriate for their interests, field, level (grad/undergrad), and desired grade. Once approved by the instructor, these contracts will bind students to the work laid out. However, amendments to the contracts, if necessary, can be requested in writing well in advance of the relevant course deadlines. Students who fail to meet the requirements of their contract will receive a C if core requirements are met, or a D or F, if core requirements are not met. Students who meet the requirements of their contract will receive the grade listed on the contract.

There is no final exam. All assessment will take place in reference to course contracts.

Required materials

  • An account for Spotify (a free account should be sufficient for this course).
  • A free Google Drive account using your CU Identikey.
  • A free Twitter account (feel free to use an existing account, or to create a new account for this class).
  • A free GitHub account.

All other required class materials will be posted or linked to on the course website or (if copyright demands) posted in the class shared folder in Google Drive.


For instructor and university policies relevant to this course, please see this page.

About this syllabus

This syllabus is a summary of course objectives and content and a reminder of some relevant university policies, not a contract. All information in this syllabus (except for the “General course description”) is subject to change, with sufficient advanced notice provided by the instructor.

In the spirit of collaboration at the center of this course, this syllabus (and the entire course website) is hosted on GitHub Pages, and I will consider pull requests (suggested changes) from students.