Interview with Jena Root: Using Noteflight in College Theory and Pedagogy

Jena Root is Associate Professor and Music Theory Coordinator for the Dana School of Music at Youngstown State University. She has also taught at St. Olaf College, Syracuse University, the National University of Singapore, and Shenandoah Conservatory. She is the Author of Applied Music Fundamentals, published by Oxford University Press (more info below).

Robin McClellan (aka Noteflight Robin): How did you first encounter Noteflight?

Jena Root: I discovered Noteflight at a College Music Society conference, around 2009. Joe Berkovitz [Noteflight’s Founder and CEO] was exhibiting at a booth for conference-goers, and I asked him how to use it. He just said “here, take the mouse and try it.” And it was that intuitive!

Robin: Tell me about your university, your classes, your students, the musical life there.

Jena: Youngstown is a small state university with a School of Music which is older than the university itself. We have about 250 students at the graduate and undergraduate levels and two full-time music theorists on faculty. I’m the theory coordinator, overseeing the courses and scheduling and placement testing, and I teach the core undergraduate music theory courses, as well as Ear Training. Teaching levels 1 and 4, I get the kids both coming in and going out of the sequence, and it’s nice to see them progress and develop. I teach an occasional graduate or upper division course as well – usually theory pedagogy. In these courses I’m training future college and high school music theory teachers. About two thirds of our students at YSU are Music Ed majors, and the rest are divided between performance (in classical and jazz), history, theory and recording — we have a burgeoning recording and music industry major. I also teach an online theory fundamentals course called Materials of Music, for non-majors and students who are prepping for Theory 1.

Robin: How do you and your students use Noteflight?

Jena: I could go on about this all day because the platform is just so right for creativity, from a pedagogical perspective. The things that are unique to Noteflight: the collaboration and sharing, just make my job a lot easier and more fun. We use Blackboard [a learning management system] at YSU, with a single-sign-on link to a private, contained Noteflight site. I really like this model because the students only have to invest in Crescendo [Noteflight’s premium subscription], and it’s cheaper than buying a textbook.

I use Noteflight in three classes: written theory, ear training, and theory pedagogy. For my written theory course, I use Noteflight’s Activity Template feature for homework assignments. That lets us spend the first third of class looking as a class at students’ homework, with the Noteflight score projected on the screen. I grade homework on a stage-by-stage basis as they improve, and then I have smaller assignments where they receive the credit for having completed it. That way during class I can say “ok who wants to be in the spotlight today?” We can all see and hear the score, and I can say “here’s what this sounds like, and here’s something you could have done differently.” We can revise it on the spot, listen to the revised version as a class, and students can make suggestions. It also becomes a bit of an ear-training exercise: when I play it, the student whose work it is might cringe a little and say “oh I did something wrong there.” And the other students like seeing what their classmates did.

I love Noteflight’s ‘Versions’ tab because I can see a student’s progress, how they improved. We do composition projects in stages, and I can give feedback at each stage. I also love the Annotations feature — that’s something no other program does, as far as I know. You can add an in-depth comment at any precise spot, and because it’s contained in the annotation box, it doesn’t clutter up the score.

Sometimes, for a composition project I will make a sample score first, to get students started. I can make a screen-capture video of myself creating the score in Noteflight and talking about it as I go. That shows the editing process in real time, and it lets them follow my thought process.

Initially, I was giving homework assignments in Noteflight (e.g. two-part counterpoint). Of course, the playback button makes it easy for the student to hear what it sounds like, which makes it difficult to test their ability to write it down and hear it internally. So I thought, “why not give them the test in Noteflight?” Now I proctor tests in the computer lab where I can make sure nobody’s talking to anyone else, and I can see what they’re working on. I set up the test as an Activity Template, and I release the link to it in Backboard [LMS] at the start of the testing period. Noteflight’s Versions tab is also useful here because it tells me when they opened the assignment and finished it.

For my theory pedagogy courses where I’m training teachers, students have to compose figured bass exercises, sight-singing melodies, dictation melodies, and harmonic dictation exercises. I designed the course to include peer-review. Noteflight makes that very easy thanks to the Sharing options. My students can comment and interact with each other, right in the score.

Robin: Have you found any useful tricks in Noteflight that other teachers out there might want to try?

Jena: Some of the more creative, out-of-the-box things I’ve done with Noteflight have to do with ear training. There are a lot of scores in my Noteflight account composed by Rufus J. He’s my alter ego and he writes my sight-singing and ear-training melodies — he’s quite prolific! My website,, is under construction; it will be an open-source site for anybody to practice melodic dictation. Using Noteflight’s customizable embedding options, I can embed a 30×30-pixel view of the score in the web site, which means it’s only big enough to show the play button [sample]. A student can hear it as many times as they want to without being influenced by seeing the score, and then I put a link to the complete Noteflight score so they can see the answer when they’re ready. It couldn’t be easier. I see this method as a way for students to practice, not necessarily as a testing situation. If a student’s skills are at a level where they’re still overwhelmed by the dictation process, then this setup in Noteflight allows them to work at their own pace.

Noteflight’s Collections feature is also handy. For my ear training classes I make banks of melodic and harmonic dictations, and I organize these scores into Collections. If I want to pull one to use in class, I can just link it or screen-shot it into my lesson plans, which are in Google Drive. With Noteflight, everything’s in the cloud and it’s time-stamped. You don’t lose anything and it just works really well.

I also love Noteflight consistently rolls out new software, and I don’t have to worry about paying another $100 for a new version.

Robin: Have you used Noteflight for improvisation activities?

Jena: There’s a push in Higher Ed toward teaching improvisation in theory and ear training courses. In my Theory 1 class, I might for example teach the chord progression to Amazing Grace, and we’ll run that over and over again. I ask them to arpeggiate each chord as I play it on the piano, and I ask them to string the notes together in a different order. Then we talk about voice leading, so if we’re going from I to IV [Roman numeral chords] we might start with “do mi sol… then probably go to fa or la”, etc.

Where Noteflight comes in is when we do an ear-training “karaoke.” I put the chords into Noteflight and students can access the file and practice improvising over it. They can also save their own copy and change the key and the tempo, as needed. Then during the test I say “tell me what key and tempo you practiced this in, and count me off.” On the first run-through, the students listen, and the second time they improvise over it. I think this is a valuable practice tool that Noteflight does well that other programs don’t do as well, or at all.

Robin: Tell me about your new book, Applied Music Fundamentals [published by Oxford University Press].

Jena: The book is basically all my ideas from over the years when I’ve taught the Music Fundamentals course, and how I can make it fun, interesting and relevant. I learned music by ear, and I think I really wrote that book for a 10-year-old me: how I think about music on a very basic, primal level and how I hear it. One thing I think my book does that not many others do is to leverage pop and rock examples via Spotify. I’ve included a lot of hearing exercises like “listen to the first minute of this song and then answer these questions… what’s the rhythm in measure 1 that the vocalist sings? etc.”

Robin: Can’t wait to take a look! Thanks so much for speaking with me and for all these fantastic ideas!

Jena: Thank you!