TRYING TO RESTORe THE VALUE OF SOCIETY’S FAVORITE ART FORM
So, I’ve recently learned that I’ll be teaching 3 sections of Music Appreciation in the spring. 2 of them will meet 3 times per week, and the other will meet twice a week. Normally, a schedule like that tends to leave me confused, as I struggle to remember what I’ve covered in which class and where I am with my course outline. But, this time I have a plan that will not only help minimize my confusion (I hope), but also help me answer a question that I’ve been struggling with for about a year- methodologies for teaching students to listen.
I’ve written about this before, but a typical Music Appreciation textbook features a short chapter that introduces the elements that we use to describe a piece of music (pitch, timbre, dynamics, melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, form, and style) and then launches into an overly-simplified history of Western music, showing how these element evolved and changed over time. It’s a tried and true approach, dating back to the first university-level Music Appreciation book, Thomas Whitney Surette and Daniel Mason’s The Appreciation of Music (Columbia University Press, 1907). As the textbook industry continued to grow and technologies advanced to allow students to read about and listen to great works, the approach remained almost untouched (except new editions which simply added a slightly newer piece to the end).
It would seem that many believed this to be a useful method for teaching students to “appreciate music.” But did it work? Were classrooms full of unwashed masses emerging as the next generation of patrons of the arts, brimming with adoration for Mozart and Bach? No. They weren’t. Were they remembering anything significant about the music they learned? Mostly that it was boring and had no connection their real lives.
So, if the higher education system felt it was important that students learn about music, what exactly was it that students were supposed to know? That remains unclear, but among those of us who teach the class, there has been a shift in our priorities. Rather than insisting that general education students learn about the history of music and study an endless succession of composers whose music they will never purposefully encounter again, why not focus the class on something they do every day? Listening.
And that’s what brings me to my schedule for next semester. I’ve decided to run a little experiment to see how these textbook approaches impact students’ ability to learn to listen. I plan to use a traditional, history-based text in two of my classes, and a book that focuses on listening and musical elements using only a small handful of works drawn from throughout history for the other.
I’m still working out the experimental part of the process, but I think my plan is to teach the introduction to the musical elements in essentially the same way for all three groups, and then give a quiz using questions related to specific listening examples to measure their base knowledge. From there the class will vary, following the books as they unfold and using the materials they offer. The questions on the initial quiz will then recur as part of the final exam (whether as part of the grade or not I haven’t decided), and then I can compare who retained more knowledge of the musical elements in connection with the process of listening.
My hope is that I will discover the right balance between the conceptual and the contextual, so my students can learn to articulate how a piece of music sounds and further understand why it sounds the way it does. Further, I’d like them to learn to use that same approach to all of the music in their lives, so they can describe what they hear, place it in context, and draw connections between those works and the things we learn about in class. We’ll see how it works…
If anyone has any suggestions for scientific approaches or approaches to assessment, I’d be happy to hear them. What do you think is more important to the process of listening, an understanding of how music works or knowledge of a piece’s history? Perhaps a blend of the two? Is such knowledge necessary for “appreciation” at all?
First watch this:
Take a look at this excerpt from one of Leonard Bernstein’s lectures on music, presented at Harvard in 1973. This is only a fragment of one of six lecture he gave in all, but he quite deftly breezes though the history of music from pre-history to modern times in about six minutes. How does then historical knowledge he provides impact your listening on a daily basis? Does it make you hear anything differently?
Then watch this:
In this video, conductor Daniel Barenboim discusses why we listen to music and how we can do it better. It’s a bit fanciful, I’ll admit, but the ideal is a good one. How often do we give ourselves the freedom to listen as Barenboim suggests? For most of us, I’d guess, not nearly often enough. Permit yourselves to make music a true part of your life, and the result will be unlike anything you’ve experienced before.
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.