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?
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.