Review of Berklee College of Music’s Developing Your Musicianship

Berklee College of Music is the largest and perhaps the most well-known contemporary music college in the world. For potential students unable to live and study in the Boston, MA area it also runs an extensive on-line programme.  However, both of those options are expensive, and for many students, especially those who need to remain in full-time work to support themselves and their families, the cost and time investment required by these courses puts them out of reach.

An alternative and cheaper way to access Berklee’s teaching materials is to sign up to one of their MOOCs made available through the Coursera platform. Developing Your Musicianship is one of these courses. The course is aimed at aspiring, new or experienced musicians who have had little formal musical training, or whose theory is a little rusty. It currently runs a couple of times a year over a six week period (check out the course home page to see upcoming dates). You can take it as a stand-alone course, or as part of the Modern Musician specialisation, which also includes courses on music production and songwriting, and requires the completion of a capstone project.

If you are not particularly bothered about certification, you can access the course materials for free. If you want a certificate, either for the individual course or for the specialisation, you will have to join the Signature Track, which requires you to pay a small fee. At the time I took the course, the fee for the specialisation was US$176. If you don’t want to take all the courses, you can pay a fee for just the courses you are interested in, which is less.

When you sign up for signature track you need to verify your identity. You do this by taking a picture with a webcam and typing a short phrase so the system can record your typing pattern. Each time you submit a piece of work, or take a test you will be required to take another picture and type another phrase to confirm your identity. This is to ensure the work you submit is your own and has not been completed for you by someone else.

If the mention of music theory sent you running for cover and you are imagining this is a very dry and dusty course, think again. Probably the best aspect of this course is the charismatic instructor, George W. Russell Jr. At the start of the course he emphasises that the most important thing is to have fun – and it is fun.

Each week you are guided through a progression of important topics: Major Scales, Major and Minor Triads, the Minor Pentatonic Scale, Major and Dominant Seventh Chords and Song Form.

George Russell’s emphasis is on practical demonstrations of these topics in the course videos, rather than lots of dry theory. You’ll get the most out of it, and have the most fun, if you have access to a keyboard of some sort so you can follow along. An important aspect of the course is an introduction to ear training, and although the course can only touch on the basics of this key skill, hopefully it will give you enough of a taste of it to make you want to explore it further once the course ends. I certainly found that was the case for me.

At the end of each week you demonstrate your understanding of the material by completing a short online quiz. Some of the quiz questions are straightforward multiple choice, but the most interesting are those that use audio and test your ear training. For example, you might be played two notes in succession and have to identify the interval, or you might be played a chord and have to identify the chord type.

There are also peer-reviewed assignments, which involve projects such as finding recorded examples of a blues progression, or finding recorded example of songs in a certain key, or examples of different intervals. Once you have submitted your assignments, they will be peer reviewed by at least three other people on the course. You will also have to review three assignments from other students. The peer review mechanism is completely anonymous to avoid any unconscious bias. Obviously this mechanism is not as good as having work reviewed by course staff, but fundamentally this is how Berklee is able to deliver the course material at such a low cost.

The course culminates in a final project in which you apply the theory you have learned to record a simple improvisation on the minor pentatonic scale over a 12-bar blues progression. Here’s my humble example:

If you signed up for the signature track you’ll also receive a certificate. Here’s what that looks like:

If you’re a musician who is looking to get a more theoretical basis to your music, I’d recommend this as a great starting point.

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