Teaching music

I have frequently been called upon to teach the intro to fine arts course at Shimer College. It is a challenging course because it falls outside the “read books and talk about them” model that professors and students alike are most comfortable with. Talking about art and music in an intelligent and collaborative way requires a different set of skills than talking about texts, a problem that is compounded by the fact that many people believe those skills are an occult discipline that is unattainable by most — especially in the context of music, with its complex theoretical apparatus. In the worst case, you get some students making up narratives to go with a classical piece, other students (those with some musical performance training) trying unsuccessfully to explain basically what the sheet music probably looks like, and a critical mass sitting in sullen silence because they don’t know what they’re supposed to say.

My approach has been to sidestep the technical terminology to the extent possible and focus instead on giving them obvious things to listen for. Dissonance vs. consonance is an easy one in that anyone with normal hearing can identify either with confidence after the distinction is pointed out. Then we can discuss how dissonance often goes with creating tension, while consonance is more of a release or resolution. This gets them talking about movie soundtracks, showing that in a way they already know how these things work. That initial burst of confidence, the feeling of knowing what they’re talking about, is absolutely crucial. In my experience, nothing else in music can serve that role so elegantly — even the distinction between major and minor keys is a little too sophisticated when the class includes people with no musical training. I often follow up by playing through Bach’s first prelude, then playing the arpeggios as chords so that they can more easily hear the build up of tension and release.

Another successful exercise involves basically listening to a short classical piece over and over again and analyzing it in simple ways. I like to use Glenn Gould’s recording of the Aria from The Goldberg Variations (Spotify link), because it’s simple, it’s only three minutes long, and it’s kind of fun for the students to notice Gould’s weird vocalizations in the background.

I start off by asking them whether they think the piece can be divided into parts. This piece has the virtue of being divisible into four parts of roughly equal length (occuring approximately every 45 seconds). We listen to it a couple times through so that they can get familiar with it, and then the third time I invite them to stop me if we reach a turning point. The first transition is less clear than the second and third, so normally there will be some debate in this area. This gets the students used to the idea of expressing opinions and giving reasons when discussing music. Normally the second transition (at around 1:30) is very clear, as is the shift into the finale (around 2:15), and that gives them a point of reference to specify the transition between the first and second segments. Along the way, we listen to each proposed segment on its own to verify that it sounds like a coherent unit. Eventually, a consensus emerges that there are four parts of about equal length.

At this point, I invite them to listen to it again and write down a few words about the dominant emotional feel of each of the four parts. We go around the table and write down their takes on each part, and — lo and behold! — their answers are broadly similar. There are outliers, naturally, but the existence of such a clear consensus among people who were working independently leads them to try to account for disagreements by pointing toward something the conflicting answers had in common. And so now we’ve graduated to being able to discuss the emotional content of a musical piece in a collaborative way and giving reasons.

Even better, I’ve given them things to listen for and take notes on, meaning that I can now send them home to listen on their own. Normally I like to assign them to listen to the piano and orchestrated versions of Pictures at an Exhibition, then pick out at least one section to analyze more closely — with a special eye toward what difference the orchestration makes relative to the plain piano. Pictures has the benefit of providing a visual point of reference as well, giving the students a little more concrete content to grab onto.

The final pillar of my music intro sequence is to do exercises with rhythm. Instead of introducing them to the vagaries of time signatures, I explain that rhythm in music is normally made up of groupings of either 2 or 3 beats. I tap them out, then call random combinations and ask them to do it. Unsurprisingly, they are able to do it easily. Then I go through Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and let each section run until they’ve come to a consensus on whether the basic rhythmic pattern is 2 groups of 2 (4/4 time), 2 groups of 3 (6/8 time) or whatever. If we have time at the end, I throw them a curve ball with Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

In my experience, that’s enough to give them a foundation to start talking about music in an intelligent, collaborative, but non-technical way. I’ve given them some basic things to listen for, revealed some of the classical music “bag of tricks,” and most importantly, gotten them used to the idea that they can discuss music and give reasons. And when I get them a few years later in the upper-level humanities class, I find that they can still do it. Mission accomplished. Rarely do we see so straightforwardly that we’ve actually taught something.

8 Responses to “Teaching music”

  1. zjb Says:

    I like the division into parts. Was thinking something similar at the big Frank Stella retrospective that just closed at the Whitney in NYC.

  2. Chris Says:

    Not that you need or are asking for affirmation, but I’m a music theory professor and this all sounds pretty great to me. The basics of musical form are essentially “how does this music divide up into smaller sections?” and “is this part new, or a repetition of an earlier part?”, and it sounds like you focus them on these questions really beautifully. Another nontechnical but highly aurally graspable thing that I like to get students comfortable talking about is music’s mood or energy level. This comes in especially handy when, as in many Classical-period sonata movements, the multiple themes of a piece are strongly contrasting in mood.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Thanks for the affirmation. I sometimes also like to do repetition and variation through the Mozart “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” thing, but that one gets a little maddening to do in multiple sections on the same day…. They started talking about repetition and variation spontaneously in the Bach piece, though — at first, the last section seemed to repeat the first, but then they realized it was significantly different. I’ll make sure to highlight those repetition/variation questions in the future. Energy level is another great, immediately evident thing to point out — thanks for the tips.

  4. skholiast Says:

    This is inspiring and worth imitating. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. Jan Maher Says:

    I learned a similar approach from a student years ago about discovering the elements of visual art by having people work in groups with a folder of prints of various art works and identifying the dominant characteristics of each work.

  6. David U. B. Liu Says:

    All good things – and kudos to you for the effective pedagogy. In homage to the Frankfurt tradition and its legacy in New Musicology, you might also try to draw out, even without delving overmuch into specialized knowledge, any number of relations between musical forms and wider cultural developments of their times. Obviously you have to be highly selective in an intro class…

    Philosophic questions: Is music as we think of it a universal or a colonial imposition? In what sense is music an “art” – and of what sort(s)? Music as perception vs. proprioception.

    Physical and environmental approach: physiological source and analogs, neurobiology of sound, aural and muscle memory, interplay with non-human sounds, instruments as technology, periodicity in cosmology

    Anthropological approach: music as play, representation, entertainment, formation, offering to or communication with gods, building of communal unity, comparative temperaments and scales, etc.

    (Social) functional approach: African talking drumming and social communication; ritual-making (conductus, liturgical music, dances, marches, anthems); theatrical accompaniment; state propaganda; narratival forwarding (Lieder in Schubert, Schumann, Wolf; film and TV)

    Socioeconomic questions: Music industry as structured pattern of consumption, how music circulates in economies

    Interart considerations: music and poetry, music and dance, music and visual art (symbolist poetry and impressionism in painting and music), music as performance art (Cage’s 4’33’’, Ligeti’s metronome piece for FLUXUS)

    Some ideas/examples of structural analogies between music, STEAM and the religiopolitical:

    Macro- and Microcosmic ethics in gagaku and its courtly inflections

    Ragas and Indian conceptions of time and avatars

    Gothic polyphony and architecture, scholastic logic (Perotin)

    Renaissance polyphony as Neoplatonic contemplation, and its unimodality as geocentrism

    Tonality, pre-established harmony (Leibniz), and the bifurcation of affect (Spinoza)

    Music as psychogogic theurgy (affective, tempo markings, sound production from the Baroque to the present)

    Mimesis in music (birdsong from Jannequin’s Les oiseaux to Messiaen, storms in Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, water in Liszt, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy), classical Chinese instrumental music

    Music and place (Vivaldi’s La tempesta al mare as Venetian bravura, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, Scottish and Italian Symphonies, Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Souvenir de Florence, dances by Sarasate and Albeniz)

    Music as forms of journey (Schubert, Liszt, Mahler)

    The interplay of the human voice, social dances, rhetoric, astronomy, and dialectic in 18th-century (the Goldberg affording much here)

    Music as (Bergsonian) memory construction (variations incl. the Goldberg, Liszt’s Sonata, Schumann’s Fantasie)

    Equal temperament and Newton gravitation (modulation in Bach’s Invention 1)
    19th-century symphonies and concerto as a function of national statecraft and Carlylian/Napoleonic (“great men”) history compared to their 18th-century precedents (more based on post-feudal hierarchy and community)

    Music and social class (in Mozart: Zerlina vs. Donna Anna, Leporello vs. Don Giovanni vs. Il Commendatore etc.; evolving social sites for different kinds of music)

    Music and nationalism (Russian and Czech Romantic nationalists, Verdi’s Nabucco, Wagner’s Parsifal)
    Europe and its others (turquerie, the Gypsy and the Hungarian, Aida, Samson et Delilah, Madama Butterfly, gamelan and pentatonic inflections in impressionism)

    Music as mythopoesis (Wagner’s Germanism, pastoralism in 16th-century Italy and 20th-century England, secular Christmas carols)

    Music as imperial/colonial triumph (ex. from Saint-Saëns, Elgar, Holst, )

    Music and technology (Baroque and the industrial mill, early Romanticism and the steam engine (Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony), electricity and the sustained dynamics in later Romanticism (slower passages in Wagner and Mahler); electronic music and digital technology

    Rejection of bourgeois humanism in dodecaphony (esp. Webern) and Cage’s chance music

    Philosophic and musical pairs (Schopenhauer and Brahms, early Nietzsche and Wagner, Webern and Adorno, Boulez and Deleuze)

    Music as intercultural exchange or transfer (Sarabande, alla turca and janissary music, Debussy-Ravel-Messiaen, Latin dances, Fado, Cage’s look to Yijing/I-Ching and Zen)

    Music as marker and expression of subcultures (different types of rock: folk, beach, punk metal, acid, grunge etc.); construction of classical vs. popular musics

    Colonialism in various national anthems

    Music as poetry of the oppressed (spirituals and gospel, Soviet tangos, certain popular Cuban and Brazilian musics)

    Timbre distortion as (subaltern) street-play (Armstrong, electric guitar)

    Recent musical rebellion and resistance in rock, hip hop and their recapitalization

    post-colonial (?) popular and “world” musics

    Quid multa? You get the idea.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I will make sure to address all of those points in the 2-3 remaining sessions where we’re discussing music.

  8. David U. B. Liu Says:

    Ha! The deadly perils of crowdsourcing, technosublimity, and reader parrhesia…


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