These Guys Want to Get You Hooked on Music Theory

Although lots of people love music, few ever really give a thought to the theory behind it. That's something that science students and music lovers Chris Anderson, David Carlton and Ryan Miyakawa want to change. Enter their new website Hooktheory, which offers innovative, easy and fun ways for students of all backgrounds and interests to gain a foothold into the world of composition. Schools offering Ethnomusicology degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

University of California Berkeley graduate students Chris Anderson, David Carlton and Ryan Miyakawa have a lot of things in common, chief among them a serious love of music. They don't just listen to songs - they play and analyze them to figure out how they work. That passion led the three to creating Hooktheory, a new website that aims to teach music theory to budding songwriters, pop/rock aficionados and other lovers of the aural arts. Hooktheory uses a simple visual interface to impart key lessons, and also includes a helpful Song Wiki so users can apply the knowledge they've gained to analyzing songs from across the pop spectrum. The Education Innovation Guide spoke with Chris and Ryan about their site's desired audience, features and goals. Musicians, students and fans, read on!

Hooktheory Team

David Carlton, Ryan Miyakawa and Chris Anderson of Hooktheory

Learn.org: You all have a background in the hard sciences. What inspired you to come together and create Hooktheory? Do you have some prior experience with music?

Ryan Miyakawa: We're all scientists during the day, but music is a passion for all of us when we're not at work. Hooktheory has been a neat opportunity for us to take a lot of the skills that we learn in science and apply them to something we're really passionate about.

Learn.org Hooktheory seems like it could be used by a lot of different people, like aspiring songwriters or music theory students. Who do you see as its primary audience?

Chris Anderson: Right now we're trying to let all different types of potential customers use it and see which people benefit in which ways. We'd love to have it be a consumer-level product for the casual guitarist or pianist. We'd also love to see it make its way into the classroom eventually, in K-12 education and even universities. But that requires a different product, because you have to build something that teachers can really use and customize more. That's something we have in our sights for the future. We feel that Hooktheory is applicable to a very broad audience of people that are interested in music, so it has something for everybody.

Learn.org What are the key lessons you want casual music fans to take away from your program?

RM: If you learn just a couple of music theory basics, your music experience becomes a lot richer, especially if you know how songs work. It helps you play songs, create your own songs, and figure out why you like certain music.

Chris Anderson: We wanted to change the stigma associated with music theory and make it something that people can get excited about.

Learn.org It seems a major way you do that is through your Song Wiki. What made you decide it should be a Wiki in the first place?

CA: When we were building the product, it started out with just a book. We realized that for this whole experience to be complete people needed to be able to learn music theory, but they also needed to be able to use the tools to write their own music and to connect what they learned to popular songs, to the songs they listen to on the radio. So we had this concept to make a synergy between real songs, our way of teaching music theory and user-created content.

We decided to make it a Wiki because it seemed like the right thing to do. There are a lot of guitar tablature websites out there that have many different versions of songs, and with all of them some parts are right and others are wrong. We wanted to have a place people could go where there's just one right answer, verified by the community. I think there's something really wholesome and organic about a Wiki - the idea that we're all coming together to produce knowledge.

The cool thing about the Song Wiki is that it's completely open. People can analyze anything. You can analyze 'Jingle Bells' or you could write your own song and analyze it.

Learn.org What's your ultimate goal for how many songs see representation? Do you think it could rival major guitar tab websites?

CA: I think we have to potential to. One of the cool things is that once a song is analyzed in our system, we can build a bunch of different tools around that - for example, showing how to play it on an instrument. I think what it's really going to come down to is are people going to enjoy looking at analyses of songs? For us, we think of music in terms of a Hooktheory-style analysis, and I think we do that because we find the experience really enriching and enjoyable. We would love it if everyone else did the same thing, not just for Hooktheory but for the good of the music community.

RM: One misconception we want to dispel is that learning the analysis of a song is just to appreciate its structure. Chris and I jam all the time, and thinking about music in terms of structure is really, really useful. If you learn music Hooktheory style, it becomes a natural part of the playing experience.

Learn.org Speaking of instruments, your site already has programs in place to teach guitar and piano. Have you thought about expanding that?

CA: Definitely. The framework that we have in place for guitar can easily be expanded to other instruments. We wanted to get the two most popular instruments out there, and then we'll add other ones later.

Learn.org How did you decide to represent songs' chord progressions visually? It's really interesting and makes for a smooth and simple system.

CA: I was the lead designer for that, and when I was doing it I took a look at what systems were out there. I looked at stuff like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, where 5-year-olds just pick up the controller and get it. We wanted something that was simple. We wanted something appealing to beginners, yet formal enough for the advanced theory buffs. I played around with different layouts and went back and forth with Ryan and Dave. We knew that we wanted colors, we knew that we wanted to stick with simple shapes. It came fairly naturally.

RM: Using color to represent specific musical elements is something we feel very strongly about it. There are a lot of senses in music. You're hearing pitches, you're feeling rhythm, you're connecting with other people in groups. Seeing the colors is something that makes this Hooktheory experience great; it trains you to associate colors to specific musical function. Red for example represents a I (one) chord, which is key of the song. The color is something that's always there in the back of your mind. For me personally it's a really helpful tool. Every time I see the color green, I think of a IV (four) chord, for instance. Once users become familiar with the system, we hope they will find it as useful as we do.

Learn.org Is there anything else you'd like our readers to know about Hooktheory?

CA: We're in a private beta stage right now. Anyone that's interested can go to the site and request an invitation. We're looking for feedback and would love to hear your thoughts.

Can we really learn from pop and rock music? Absolutely.

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