Derrick Pennix Jr. took more than a month to compose a pop song, the final project in his Theory of Tonal Music I course. All photos: Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

Date December 14, 2021
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In music theory class, students learn another kind of storytelling

Eric Nathan’s Theory of Tonal Music I course teaches students the mechanics of music — then calls on them to write their own pop songs.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When he sat down to write a pop song early in the Fall 2021 semester, Derrick Pennix Jr. followed his own golden rule: Start with the ending.

“When I’m telling a story, I work backward,” said Pennix, who is wrapping up his first semester at Brown University this month. “If you know how you want the story to end, it helps you think about the journey you’ll have to take to get there.”

That self-taught rule has long served Pennix well. As a high school student in Granger, Indiana, he was able to finish and publish his own five-part stop-motion animated series because he had the conclusion in mind from the outset. And when he thought about life after high school, he ultimately chose to attend Brown by visualizing his end goal: a college education that afforded him the freedom to explore his many and varied interests, from music to writing to film and beyond. 

Pennix took more than a month to compose a pop song, the final project in his Theory of Tonal Music I course. But the process felt manageable, he said, because he began with the big, sweeping, culminating chorus.

“My chorus is the point in the song where the narrator is finally free, and they just let go,” Pennix said. “They’re full of confidence and attitude — kind of like ‘Captain America’ in that scene where Agent Carter says to him, ‘Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say 'No, you move.’ So now, when I think about writing the verses, I can ask myself: How did the narrator get here? Who were they before, and what caused them to change?”

Storytelling Through Song

On Tuesday, Dec. 7, Pennix shared a sketch of his untitled pop song with Nathan and classmates in Grant Recital Hall.

Pennix said he aspires to a career that involves storytelling — so he enrolled in Theory of Tonal Music I, taught by Associate Professor of Music and composer Eric Nathan, to learn how to tell a story through music. Throughout the semester, he and his classmates engaged in intensive study of music’s building blocks. By analyzing music composed by artists across several centuries, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Billie Eilish, they learned how certain chords can communicate particular emotions, how chord progressions can build and release tension, and how words, rhythms and notes can work together to set a scene.

“It’s a window into how you can analyze a piece of music in a similar way to how literature students might analyze a poem,” said Nathan, who has taught the course many times over the last six years. “You can pick apart individual chords and passages, study their meaning, compare them to similar chords and passages written by other musicians.”

From Bach to the Beatles and back

Just as literature students have often turned to William Shakespeare or Jane Austen for guidance on how to craft a traditional story arc, Nathan said, music theory courses have typically begun with the analysis of 17th- and 18th-century music by European composers such as Bach and Mozart, whose influence can still be heard in most Western popular music today. (In fact, a famous chord series dubbed the “two-five-one progression” can be heard in everything from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos to the jazz standard “Satin Doll” to the Beatles’ “If I Fell.”) 

“Some of the concepts introduced by these European composers are still applicable to music we hear today — like the concept of dissonance and resolution, where there’s a sense of tension that’s then released,” Nathan said. “But some popular music breaks from tradition, and when it does, it can subvert expectations in a wonderful way.”

That’s why, in Nathan’s theory class, students learn how to analyze not only the greatest music from the 17th and 18th centuries but also the most popular music from today. In early October, he asked students to break down the chord progressions in Olivia Rodrigo’s recent hit “Driver’s License.” Two weeks later, students were analyzing chord structures in an aria by Hortense de Beauharnais, a French queen consort who was writing music at the same time as Ludwig van Beethoven and Joseph Haydn. 

Nathan said he wanted to challenge students to write a pop song so they felt freedom to employ or disregard musical conventions as they saw fit — something they may have felt less free to do with a classical composition.

“I think it’s important to use the knowledge you’ve gained to compose in a different way,” he said. “Much of the original music out there works within a particular tradition but adds just enough of a unique voice and a unique world to set it apart. I think it’s fun to ask students to balance the conventional and the new the same way today’s pop artists do.”

Pennix agreed. As he built a melody for his two verses, he found ways to subtly subvert expectations. Most songs start with lower notes, he explained, and build upward toward an exciting chorus. But he decided his verses would start with a high note, which would help communicate his protagonist’s unwavering confidence. And to build tension before the chorus, he introduced a tritone — a musical interval that sounds unsettling and brash.

“I think it’s really helpful to know the basics, because once you have those down, you can start to break the rules,” he said. 

Embracing a challenge

Nathan said it’s safe to assume that most college students who take intensive music theory courses such as these are aspiring professional musicians. But at Brown, the dozens of students enrolled this fall represent a diverse array of backgrounds and concentrations — a reflection of Brown students’ curiosity and drive to challenge themselves.

“This is somewhat of an introductory course, but it’s also very rigorous: There’s a lab component that requires keyboard skills, singing and ear training,” Nathan said. “This course isn’t just a place where you learn to recognize tension and release, where you understand how pieces of music fulfill expectations and deliver surprises. It’s also a place where you have to explore those concepts on your own, on an empty page.”

Some who come from outside the music concentration, such as senior computer science concentrator Kshitij Sachan, were once embedded in the world of music. In high school, Sachan said, he had seriously considered attending a music conservatory for flute performance. Instead, he chose to attend Brown, where the Open Curriculum afforded him the opportunity to explore a wide range of interests — including music.

The more I can understand music, the better writer I can become... If I’m able to learn how to create emotion with words, film and music, I can become a better storyteller all around.

Derrick Pennix Jr. Class of 2025
Derrick Pennix Jr. holding a trumpet and laughing

Sachan said that a semester of analyzing music and composing his own song has opened his eyes to concepts he only hazily understood as a younger musician.

“I organized a pop band in high school with my friends, and now I laugh at how little we knew when trying to arrange pieces,” Sachan said. “Now I can do mini jam sessions with my housemates and understand what’s going on behind the scenes musically.”

Sachan said he was still tinkering with his song, even days after turning it in to Nathan. He was working with roommates to add percussion and lyrics in GarageBand. He realized that the course hadn’t just taught him how to write a song, but also empowered him to become a musician again. Once trapped by the idea that abandoning a professional performing career meant he couldn’t return to music, Sachan is now considering joining an amateur orchestra when he graduates. 

“It felt like the only way I could be involved in music was to get really good at flute, and if I couldn’t do that, then there was no space for music in my life,” he said. “Now I’m more actively trying to enjoy music with where I’m at, instead of feeling like I’m not good enough to belong in the music community. It’s so fun starting from scratch in something with no expectations.”

Pennix, who grew up playing trumpet but never took any formal music theory classes before September, felt the same way. He was grateful that Nathan began the semester with a review of chords, scales and intervals — and that the rest of the semester challenged him to understand the intricacies of emotion in music.

“The more I can understand music, the better writer I can become,” he said. “For me, film, music and writing all go hand in hand, because what they all have in common is emotion. If I’m able to learn how to create emotion with words, film and music, I can become a better storyteller all around.”