REVIEW: Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory Version 3 (software review)

Full Title: Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory, Version 3 Complete CD-ROM (software-student version)

Developers: Andrew Surmani, Karen Farnum Surmani, Morton Manus

Released: 2010

Platforms: Windows/Mac

Summary: A full curriculum of lessons, ear training and assessment for beginner through intermediate level students, this program is a stand-alone interactive software program that covers the basics of music theory (basic notation, dynamics and tempo markings, time signatures, etc.) through more complex concepts (figured bass, harmonizing a melody, modes). The program is divided into three volumes that are broken into 25 lessons each. Volume 1 is listed as the beginner volume and is geared toward younger students, utilizing clever cartoon-ish animations to make the points clear. Volumes 2 (intermediate) and 3 (late intermediate) use less “kitch” and are more straight forward for the more advanced learner.

Each lesson provides flash videos that first start with the introduction of a concept which are narrated (the text is also shown on the screen) and is followed by games, animations, and exercises that reinforce the concepts. All of the exercises offer instant feedback for right or wrong answers but nothing is graded or timed. After every five lessons there are ear training exercises that test the student on the concepts and there is also an interactive test/assessment that is graded. The scores of these tests are saved in the student’s profile and can be retaken for a better score, if desired.

The Pros: This program covers a lot of material from the simplest of concepts (notes on the staff and flats/sharps) through basic musical forms (binary/rondo). The information in each lesson is laid out very logically and simply without throwing too much information out at once. They introduce two or three components of a concept and then offer at least three exercises to reinforce that concept before moving on. For instance, in the lesson that introduces times signatures and 4/4 time:

  • The first page introduces the concept of the time signature
  • The second page describes the meaning of the two numbers in a time signature introducing 4/4 time
  • The next three pages introduce the quarter note, half note and whole note beats respectively
  • These pages are then followed by three sets of exercises with multiple examples – adding beats (i.e., a half note + a quarter note = 3 beats), filling empty measures to have the correct number of beats with notes of different values, and filling in the missing beats with the correct note value of any given measure

The variety of exercises is quite good. The program presents several different ways to reinforce a single concept encouraging the student to think slightly differently in order to achieve the same result.

The visual layout of the program is very well-organized and easy to understand. When a student accesses the lesson area, there are three main tabs on the page – Lessons, Terms, and Scores. In the Lessons tab, you can choose any lesson to start on and it is easy to navigate from lesson to lesson either by choosing a lesson from a folder listing on the left of the screen or using the navigation buttons at the bottom of each page of the lesson. The Terms tab offers a searchable glossary where you can see the definition of the term, a visual example of the term and a link to the lesson that the term was introduced. The Scores tab lists all of the student’s scores from the assessment tests and allows them to link back to the test to retake them if they so choose.

The Cons: The exercises are creative and interactive but some of them prove to be challenging to execute. There are some exercises which require you click and drag images to the right place (like dragging barlines to a staff) and if you don’t drag the image to the exact spot the program wants you to, it won’t be accepted. Luckily those sorts of exercises are not part of the end of unit assessments but they are still a bit annoying.

There was at least one glitch in the program regarding images. I was taking an assessment  and there was a multiple choice question that required you to choose the right image, but no images were present – all that appeared was a broken image icon. It naturally affected my final score!

While they say that “no prior music experience is required,” this program would be most effective if it is used as a supplement to private music instruction. The concepts are presented simply enough but there are certain concepts that require further explanation and while you can go back and repeat a lesson, some concepts could use reinforcement utilizing different language, the language that a teacher can provide. On the box, the author’s say that this program is a part of an “all-in-one music theory course” which includes books, games, flash cards and this software. I do agree that a student would most likely get more out of using this in conjunction with additional tools but ultimately, music theory is a complex enough subject that a student would mostly benefit by using this program while being guided by a teacher.

Recommendation: For the serious student who needs to drill the fundamentals of music, this is a good program. It is interactive and creative which makes theory a bit more fun. It will be best to use it as a supplement to your music lessons and you may want to add the books that Alfred offers as additional reinforcement.



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