Date of Award

January 2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Katherine Norman Dearden


Music theory is a core course in all undergraduate music degree programs. Students enter this course with varying degrees of prior subject matter knowledge, which presents a challenge to music theory teaching and learning. An incongruence between the student's prior knowledge and the level of instruction can negatively affect learning, mental health and persistence in the course sequence.

The purpose of this study was to determine what relationships exist among instructional congruence, burnout and attrition in undergraduate music theory students. A survey was developed and administered to music theory students at four universities in the upper Midwest (95.5% response rate, n=171). The sample consisted of two subgroups of first and third semester students. Using Mann-Whitney U tests and Spearman correlations, students' self-reported perceptions of burnout and instructional congruence were compared as well as their intent to continue in the music theory course sequence.

Findings indicated that first semester students who had music theory instruction prior to college perceived the course instruction as more congruent with their level of understanding than those who had not, and were more likely to continue in the course sequence. Instructional incongruence was correlated with higher levels of burnout for the sample as a whole as well as the two course level subgroups. Students who intended to leave the course sequence did not report higher levels of burnout that those who intended to continue. In addition, no significant difference was found between first and third semester students on measures of either perceived instructional congruence or perceived burnout.

The relationship between instructional congruence and burnout has implications for music theory pedagogy. In particular, pedagogical methods aimed at increasing instructional congruence have the potential to decrease burnout. The impact of instructional congruence on students' mental health should be considered by both instructors and departments. Professional development opportunities and incentives for music theory faculty represent a tangible means of increasing instructional congruence while decreasing burnout and attrition.