TRYING TO RESTORe THE VALUE OF SOCIETY’S FAVORITE ART FORM
Do You Listen?: Restoring the Value of Society’s Favorite Art Form
When was the last time you listened to music? Most people would instinctively respond to this question with something like: “I had the radio on in my car an hour ago.” “There was a cool soundtrack in the movie I saw last night.” “Oh I listen to music all the time. While I drive, exercise, clean, study, read…”
But that’s not what I mean. When was the last time you really listened to music: I mean as an activity in and of itself? That question is a little harder to answer. Have you ever just listened? Done nothing else but focus on musical sound?
Hearing music as a background to another activity is not the same as listening. Sure, something may catch our ears once in a while, drawing our attention to a particular sound. In those brief, rare moments, we are truly listening, but usually the distinct, momentary beauty of music goes by, unnoticed, and that is truly unfortunate. We as a society have become so accustomed to passively hearing music that most of us don't even know how to actively listen.
Part of the reason that so few listen to music as a discrete activity is that it is constantly around us. Music is everywhere, so why would we stop everything else we are doing and just listen? Why? Because we are missing out.
Music is the most commonly experienced art form in the world. Not everyone visits museums or purchases art to hang on their walls at home. Nor does everyone read great (or mediocre) forms of literature, but music is inescapable. We hear it in shopping centers as it subtly manipulates our buying habits. It forms our responses to television and film. Just go to a busy outdoor public place – a park, a college campus, a downtown area. Now watch people as they walk by. How many of them have ear buds or headphones on?
But because music is all around us, we think we know it; we take it for granted. Educational programs from kindergarten to colleges close down music programs, seeing them as unnecessary and thinking they offer no valuable skills. Students taking introductory music courses assume they will receive an easy A for just showing up and staying awake. Popular media tells us that we should be perfectly content with the mediocre sound quality of mp3s because “people can’t hear the difference” between a cheap digital download played from a phone and a high-resolution recording heard through a quality sound system. More and more, society seems to view music as a commodity, rather than a vital aspect of our lives.
Yet most people claim that they love music. Just do a quick Google search for "Quotes about music." I did, and I came upon this: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/topics/topic_music.html. Notice how many of these statements speak of emotions, the improvement of our lives, universal communication, really heady stuff. Now notice how many of those quotes come from non-musicians. Music really is for everyone. Our musical tastes form part of our identity, and make us who we are and how the world sees us. How many people would answer the question, "Do you like music?" with a negative response? Not many. And if we love music as much as we claim to, shouldn't we take the time to truly appreciate all that it has to offer?
My purpose here is not just to complain about society’s neglect of something I happen to love. My true goal is to point out some of the problems that get in the way of people’s true appreciation of music, so that they can be overcome. These problems might be cultural, social, technological, institutional, or issues stemming from the music industry itself. I hope to encourage readers to make music a more active part of their lives, and to that end I will introduce unique listening experiences that you can try on your own.
With any luck, next time someone asks you, "When was the last time you listened to music?", the answer will be, “Why just the other day…”
I have taught Music Appreciation classes in a wide variety of formats and to an enormous range of students: traditional students at four-year universities, online students, community college students, even soldiers taking classes from the front lines of Iraq and Afghanistan. Teaching has been my primary profession this since the late 1990s. In that time I've seen the advent of online learning, at least 5 different textbook titles, and more book editions than I care to count, but until recently I never really gave serious, independent thought to the core question that I should have been asking myself since day one: What do I want my students to learn in my class? The obvious answer to that would be, "to learn to appreciate music." A noble quest, sure, but if I were to ask a classroom full of eager (or less so) students on the first day of the term, "Do you appreciate music?" The resounding response would be, "Yes." Great! My work here is done! Let's go home! You can mail my paychecks to my house...
Clearly there is something else at work here. Just by looking around and seeing how many people listen to music in their cars, while walking, at work, during exercise, etc., etc., I think it's safe to say that nearly everyone "appreciates" music. So what do we need this class for? Why is it a staple of nearly every higher education system in the country? Well, that requires us to look a little more deeply at what music colleges are asking students to appreciate.
Until very recently, all Music Appreciation textbooks followed a similar tried-and-true model: a chapter describing the so-called Elements of Music - i.e. the terminology we use to describe musical sound: melody, harmony, rhythm, etc. - followed by a condensed history of the art form beginning around the Middle Ages and carrying through to as close to the present day as publishing time lags would allow. Different books might place more emphasis on one time period or another, and typically the most modern composers, who lacked the benefit of historical significance, were represented by either the author's friends or, more recently, a "socially-responsible" sampling of composers drawn from under-represented communities (though the way these composers were represented almost always struck me as tokenizing and incredibly condescending). Some books would also include a chapter referencing traditions outside of the Western world and/or popular music, though these chapters were inevitably cursory enough to be seen as a seemingly obligatory afterthought. Suffice it to say, the focus was on Western Art Music from ca. 800-1945.
So, what's the problem with this kind of textbook and approach to Music Appreciation? Well, college students today listen to music all the time, but very few of them listen to art music (be forewarned, I hate the generic term "classical music," so "art music" is my preferred substitute). Subjecting them to a survey of Western art music filled their heads with boatloads of genres, composers, dates, and stylistic traits that had virtually nothing in common with their own musical experiences. If I had a nickel for every time I heard a student say, "Why do we need to know this?" I wouldn't need to teach at all anymore. Sure, they learned something new in my class, and once in a great while, a student would emerge with a new-found appreciation for Mozart or Beethoven, but largely, they lacked the skill to connect this knowledge to anything that they considered "music from the real world." While I continued to spout the glorious significance of the canonical masters of musical history, I, as a proud purveyor of the Music Appreciation tradition was failing my students.
So, what is the solution? How could I demonstrate the significance of all music while making my course useful and relevant to a generation that constantly has earbuds crammed in their heads? Teach students to LISTEN. Those musical elements I spoke of earlier are the building blocks of all music. Every piece of music has sound that has been organized within the backdrop of time, so I began to focus on teaching students to describe those sounds, organizational schemes, and temporal elements in concise, logical terms. Then, they can apply those skills to whatever music they want.
I began to use a huge variety of musical styles to demonstrate these elemental concepts in the classroom: art music, rock, rap, Broadway, children's music, jazz, country, EDM, bluegrass, even novelty songs. My focus is two-fold. First, I want my students to learn to objectively use proper musical terminology to identify and describe the sonic phenomena within a piece. Then, I want them to use those elements to substantiate a subjective opinion of what they hear. If you like this song, what do you like about it? Is it the legato melody or the subtly syncopated rhythm? If you don't like it, tell me something other than, "It sucks."
These are tools that the modern college student can use. Not only do they apply to their own musical lives, but they encourage a more in-depth listening process and critical thought regarding the musical sounds that permeate their world every day. It allows them not only to appreciate music, but to come to understand what it is about the art form that appeals to them. And after all, isn't that the point?
My plan with this website is to recommend an album or two that corresponds to the theme of each essay. Readers can use these examples to expand their musical horizons and try out the processes discussed.
This week, I recommend:
Morning Phase by Beck
I've chosen this album to kick things off because it has a really cool fusion of popular and art music qualities (notice I very carefully avoid the term "classical music," more on that later). While I don't think you will get a very high quality audio experience via this method, the entire album is available streaming on Spotify (www.spotify.com), so you can try it out without an extensive financial commitment. If you want a higher quality streaming experience, the album is also available in full resolution on Tidal (listen.tidal.com). If you are once of those people who appreciates material culture and needs to have something in your hands, Amazon has the CD, or for the hipsters among you, the vinyl pressing is also available (www.amazon.com). And finally, the high-resolution download version available on HD Tracks (http://www.hdtracks.com) sounds excellent as well. I'll talk more about formatting at a later date, but FYI, we downloaded Morning Phase from HD Tracks.
So, what should come of this? I'd like to see people actively listening to the album, giving it some thought, and discussing it in the comments. Tell me what you liked or didn't and, most importantly, why. Which songs particularly stood out to you? What musical elements stood out to you the most? How did the process of active listening work for you? Were you fidgety, or did you allow yourself to become engrossed in the process? Let's see if we can get a conversation based on active listening going! Take the time to appreciate the music!
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.