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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Shea

Specifications grading and popular-music theory, Part 2

Updated: Apr 22, 2023

Before diving into the features of specifications grading, I think I should clarify that the "grading" part is a bit of a misnomer. Does this model have a unique grading system? Sure. Was it designed to minimize student and faculty frustration in response to traditional quantitative grading systems that typically align with standardized testing models (at least in the US)? Also yes.

But ultimately specs grading is a synthesis of multiple educational theories and practices. These primarily include andragogy, "safe grading," motivation theory, and remediation models. As is typical, it's easier to talk about how these aspects arise in practice. Here's the list of class features I included in the last post:

  • open-ended projects whose criterion can be satisfied in a way that is relevant to a student's professional expertise and goals

  • relatively few deadlines

  • pass/fail grading system

  • grade "tracks"

  • a "token" system

This post will focus on the first two, bolded above.

Open-ended assignments and projects

My popular-music students have surprisingly diverse backgrounds. They generally fall into 3 categories: producers and audio engineers, media composers, and performers. Most engage with all three areas on a regular basis. The performer types also vary in terms of genre and practice. For example, this semester we have about 5 singer-songwriter performers, 1 drummer, 1 beatboxer, many guitar and bass players, and 1 musical theater vocalist. Styles range from hip-hop, country, pop, modern folk, to noise rock. What's cool is that this group's interests, skills, and backgrounds reflect the sheer diversity of popular music as an umbrella style.

At any rate, one of the primary goals of andragogy is to offer learners a flexible learning environment. This means that students should be empowered to complete assignments and projects in a way that is most relevant to their professional lives; specifically, by focusing on styles and topics that could enhance their future musical pursuits. And as their instructor, of course there are skills that I think they should acquire. They should definitely be able to describe vocal placement and effects in a mix, identify concrete musical features that distinguish a verse from a chorus, and implement modal mixture, for instance. But how they go about picking up these skills should be up to them.

The course is essentially designed like an inverted pyramid. Students do more prescriptive assignments to start ("compare the formal organization of two versions of 'Don't Think Twice' by Bob Dylan in groups"), but then quickly transition to open-ended projects ("record or compose 5 different types of timbral samples, describe their characteristics using a spectrogram, then use them in a song"). And to clarify, assignments and projects are different things. Assignments are more detailed and prescriptive, while projects are more open-ended. We have 3 assignments per unit, across 3 units, and each unit has its own big-picture project. More on this when I talk about grading tracks.

Assignment 3: Cover Song Analysis

Here's the intro to our third assignment, which was inspired by course readings from A Blaze of Light In Every Word by Victoria Malawey (2020).

In this assignment, you will compare vocal features between two different performances of the same song. Please be prepared to address the following concepts: range, intonation, vibrato, and vocal register.
You can complete this assignment in a variety of ways. Options available to you include 1) a written paper with examples, 2) a narrated PowerPoint or slideshow, or 3) a video analysis. Please review the specs below and determine which format best suits your interests.

And here are the assignment's "specs." The "specs" in specifications grading refers to the detailed list of topics/areas that students should address to satisfy the assignment's requirements. Paraphrasing Nilson, I consistently remind students that I will provide "rubrics and checklists to make it easy for students to tell whether their work is complete, done in good faith, and consonant with the intended learning outcome." Such rubrics or checklists constitute the "specs."

Specs for Assignment 3


  • Include a graphic that indicates the basement and ceiling of both vocalists' registers on a staff.

  • Produce short transcriptions (1–2 measures) in staff notation of the passages where the singers' ranges are at the highest/lowest. You will have 4 excerpts, 2 for Artist 1 (low and high) and 2 for Artist 2 (low and high). Also indicate what formal section this occurs in (verse, chorus, etc.).


  • Point to one or two moments where each artist manipulates pitch in relation to the chord/key. Discuss the potential narrative or affective features of this creative choice. How does intonation coordinate with the lyrics at this point, for example? What does it say about the performer or the character the performer is portraying? Be sure to discuss examples for both artists. (~500 words in writing, 2 minutes if speaking).

  • Create short clips (1–2 seconds) of the moments above. Include them in your submission or play them during your presentation.

  • Note: remember that intonation isn't just "singing in tune." Features like pitch bends and speak-singing are also common manipulations.


  • Provide a short list of timepoints (mm:ss) where a performer uses vibrato, if at all, in both performances. You need not list every single instance, just the most notable ones.

  • If a singer uses vibrato, use a spectrogram and provide a screenshot of the note to illustrate its range. Is it a narrow vibrato? Wide? How does it compare to the same moment in the other performance? Discuss in writing or narration (~200 words, 1–2 minutes).


  • Create a formal map & timeline of one performance.

    • First, label all formal sections. Create boxes or lines that show the relative duration of each section.

    • Use timepoints (mm:ss) and markers along the timeline to indicate where the vocalist uses the following registers: modal voice, belting, head voice, falsetto, mixed voice, vocal fry, rapping, or speaking.

I also always take care to include a detailed list of what they should turn in. All assignments are submitted to our LMS for easy grading.

What to turn in

  • In a single document/presentation, include:

    • The song name and artist for both performances with links to YouTube videos or Spotify.

    • All figures for the range component.

    • Discussion of intonation.

    • A list of instances of vibrato in mm:ss for both songs.

    • A spectrogram screenshot and discussion of one instance of vibrato.

    • A formal map and timeline with markers and timepoints for one performance that indicates where the singer uses the various register/voice types.

  • Other things to upload if not included in a visual/narrated presentation:

    • Any relevant audio excerpts. For example, you definitely want short clips of the intonation section. These can be clips upload to Canvas, Dropbox links, or a YouTube video.

Specs, andragogy, and relatively few deadlines

I sometimes worry that students may get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information I provide them in the specs. However, I think this is largely a holdover from my experiences working with first-semester students. In Theory 1, we do constant low-stakes assessments following the generation and recall techniques outlined in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014) by Brown et al. Because we have to. Theory 1 is all about building up a strong base of fundamentals, so we rarely get to venture into deeper levels of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy. Students in Theory 4 meanwhile are much more capable of diving deeper into course concepts, in part because they have a (semi) strong foundation in theory fundamentals, but they're also simply better at "adulting" and synthesizing knowledge. Our course structure reflects this increase in academic maturity in its relatively few assignment deadlines. In short, I give them the entire unit to complete assignments, so they have the time to carefully review and complete each assignment's specs.

We have a 16-week semester at ASU. I break this up into three units:

  • Form and formal function (Weeks 1–5)

  • Timbre, texture, and genre (Weeks 6–10)

  • Instruments, bodies, and identity (Weeks 11–15)

Each unit features 5 reading quizzes, 3 assignments, and 1 unit project. All materials, save for the quizzes, are due at the end of the unit. I do this for a couple of reasons. First, Nilson recommends it, so that's good enough for me. But in all seriousness, few assignment deadlines supports the spirit of andragogy. Second, nearly all these students are sophomores and juniors who have jobs, internships, or perform at venues on the regular. Rather than micromanaging deadlines on our LMS, constantly responding to panicked emails at midnight every week because someone got sick or simply forgot to turn something in, and making intensive plans for students with learning accommodations, I can simply say "everything is due at midnight on Sunday at the end of week 5."

For the skeptical, I've been floored at how hassle-free this whole experience has been. I'm serious in that I have not gotten a single last-minute email this entire semester saying "Dr. Shea, I had a gig this weekend and just need a little extra time on Assignment 3. Can I turn this in tomorrow, please? It won't happen again."* I truly believe this is because of the agreement we establish at the start of the semester. I walk them through the basics of specs grading, we have a class-long conversation about it during our second meeting, and throughout the semester I remind them of the course's basic expectations. I also close each class with a reminder of the upcoming end-of-unit deadline and what they need to get in. If I had to guess why this works so well, they know I'm giving them a comparatively wide berth, treating them like adults by not micromanaging them, and know that if they procrastinate on something it's on them.

Lastly, I don't want to give the impression that course materials aren't cumulative, or that they can simply do all the assignments at the beginning of the unit without any guidance from me. Far from it. Our in-class time is largely spent clarifying and applying the analytical techniques from the readings. Often I concoct an activity that could serve as a solid starting point for the upcoming assignment or project. I also build in in-class time to get started on projects, especially as the end of the unit approaches, so they can get feedback from me and their peers. Additionally, I tend to frontload the more-complicated assignments and make it very clear how aspects of the assignment can be incorporated into the unit project, which they should be thinking about throughout the unit. All this to say, course skills do build on each other to some degree, but they are also accessible and distinct enough for students to get a firm grasp on the concept within a week, then use the remainder of the unit to practice applying what they've learned in other contexts.

* I did have a student who experienced an extremely busy couple of weeks at their job and had other tests, but they communicated with me ahead of time and we were able to work something out.

Next post will be about the pass/fail system, grade tracks, and the token system! Thanks for reading.

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