Shall We Listen to That Again?

I’m working on my syllabus for next semester. This is a new class at a relatively new job, and I have spent approximately 1,000 hours agonizing over the structure of the class and the difficulty of the readings, tweaking the language of the course description, and trying to find the most fair and opportune balance for the assignments. But mostly, making this syllabus has made me reconsider the role of listening in the classroom. Listening to music, that is.

Since I teach at an elite conservatory where all of the students are training to be (or already are) professional performers, we listen to music in every class meeting. This particular course, on representations of the “exotic” in western music from c. 1600 to today, features approximately 30 pieces of music. I treat these pieces like primary sources. The students are expected to listen to the assigned piece in advance, and in class we listen to excerpts in order to ground our discussion. I introduce other musical examples to illustrate points or guide the discussion in new directions. Sometimes the students draw on their own experiences as performers, making connections between the course materials and music they’ve encountered elsewhere.

Okay, to be honest, that’s a pretty idealized version of what happens. The truth is, I never know what to expect when I play music in the classroom. Do you know how it can be difficult to tell if your students are really listening to you in class? Same goes for playing music–there is no guarantee that playing music will generate a lively discussion, or that you will see the light dawn in the students’ eyes after listening to a particularly well-chosen musical example.

That said, I want to encourage the non-musicologists reading this blog to play music in your classes. For variety’s sake alone, it can be worth it. But more importantly, songs can serve as marvelous memory triggers (an obvious example is learning the ABCs to Twinkle Twinkle. Also, check out the Radiolab episode on music and memory.)

Maybe you’re already chomping at the bit, ready to incorporate music into your class? Then allow me offer a few pointers.

1. Explain what you’re about to play, why, and what you want the students to pay special attention to. Don’t expect the music to speak for itself, because everyone will hear it differently. If you want engaged and thoughtful listeners, contextualizing the musical example and giving specific guidance on what to listen for is key.

An example: “This is a recording of the song ‘Rights of Woman,’ performed by the Boston Camerata [on this album]. It highlights some of the debates over women’s rights an education in the 1790s. Pay attention to the tune–does it sound familiar?” (Side note from my dissertation: the tune is “God Save the King,” a melody that was used frequently in patriotic and partisan songs in the Early Republic.)

2. Invite feedback and discussion when it’s over, and ask if they want to listen to it again (I probably say “shall we listen to that again?” seven times a week). If they say they enjoyed it, were offended, or were bored, etc., I like to ask why. My goal is to get students to imagine what music meant to people in the past–I want us to try to hear with historical ears and sensibilities. Recognizing students’ initial responses is the first step in that process.

3. Let things stay a little messy. While I believe carefully introducing a piece is very important, I don’t think that a discussion has to be tidy or technical in order to be effective. Maybe you want to use the 1850s minstrel song “My Old Kentucky Home,” which romanticizes slavery by painting plantation life with a thick coat of nostalgia. Is it discomfiting to realizing how enjoyable the song is, despite its problematic content? Sure, you can rationalize pleasure by analyzing what makes the song “good.” But if you’re not musically fluent, just acknowledging the ambiguity seems pretty effective.

4. This may seem obvious, but make sure you know how to use the A/V equipment. Haven’t you been to conference presentation(s) where someone’s Powerpoint isn’t working? Don’t be that person in your own class. I might as well list my other pet peeves: please don’t play music from your computer speakers (yes, it’s audible, but it sounds terrible) and please don’t be surprised when the internet doesn’t work and you can’t play that youtube clip.

Other nuts and bolts: if you’re looking for ideas about music to use in classes, I suggest you check out the book on popular song by Charles Hamm and American music history by Richard Crawford. I also love Vera Brodsky Lawrence’s Music for Patriots, Politicians, and Presidents, a compendium of primary sources for music from 1764 to 1876.

Finding recordings: in addition to buying albums or songs on Amazon/itunes, etc., I recommend using Naxos Music Online. It’s a subscription database (check to see if your school subscribes–many do). The wonderful Smithsonian Folkways series is also online through the Global Sound for Libraries.

Now, how do you use music in the classroom if it hasn’t been recorded and all you have is the score (or even just the lyrics to a song)? That’s a topic for a future post.

2 responses

    • Ahh, the LOC has fantastic online music resources! Thanks for pointing that out. I also like a lot, because you can listen to historic recordings (including late-19th-century field recordings of Native American music).


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