What should we teach in a music appreciation class?

UPDATE (9/12/12): New Book and Consulting!

Due to high demand, I am currently working on a new book about how to design and teach a modern and relevant music appreciation class. Click HERE and add your email so that you can be the first to know when the book is available. It should be out before the end of 2012! (I promise, no spam will be sent to you!)

Also, I have started to formalize the consulting I’ve been doing over the last couple of years. if you’re looking for a way to add interesting courses to your middle and high school offerings, please contact me HERE. I am available for curriculum writing, presentations, and anything else you or your district might need.

Note: The post below includes a little background story on how I got to some of the conclusions you will see on this blog. If you don’t care about the “how” (or don’t like stories), here are the main points that are outlined below:

  1. It seems that most Music Appreciation classes are actually Music History classes.
  2. Don’t call it Music Appreciation if you’re really going to teach Music History.
  3. Music Appreciation should value the music that our students listen to.
  4. Ditch the chronological teaching of music and focus on broader units.
  5. By expanding the focus on music appreciation, we can make courses like these more interesting to our student populations which will help to grow our music programs.

Keep reading below the break…

It was the first day of the new semester and I had 24 students sitting in their seats as the bell rang. I found myself in an interesting position. Since being hired for my job, I had spent countless hours preparing for my music theory course (which, I’ll discuss later). And while numerous yellow legal pads had been filled with research and planning for Theory, only a few pages had been filled with Appreciation ideas. I had some ideas for how I wanted to structure the class, but nothing in terms of a global vision - complete with projects, lesson plans, and homework.

I had written a course handbook and passed it out. And then I turned to the chalkboard (no SMART Board for me!) and wrote the words “Music” and “Appreciation” on the board. I found myself staring at those two words for a few seconds. Then, I turned to the class and said:

"Honestly, I don’t really know what is meant by those two words. What do YOU think they mean? Why are you here?"

Thinking back on it, I’m sure some kids were immediately concerned about the course they signed up for. Regardless, I had them raise their hands and answer the question while I wrote what they said on the board. Enrollment in my class had skyrocketed from previous offerings for a variety of reasons - the last time the class was offered before I got there, it had 5 students enrolled. A lot of the increase had to do with the perceived success and fun in the Theory course.  Most of the Theory kids hung around for an extra semester together and had told their friends to take a class with me. Other kids just needed to take another class. For those students who answered with something related to music, every response seemed to include the words “music” and “appreciation” in them - like, “I wanted to learn how to better appreciate music.”

In the end, it seemed like nobody in the class knew why we were there! All I knew about Music Appreciation was what I had read from some previous syllabi (graciously provided to me) and what I had read online or heard from other people.

The problem was not that I didn’t understand what the term “music” meant - I feel pretty comfortable defining that. It’s that other word. Appreciation. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. To be honest, I still don’t!

The following thoughts and observations are from my experiences trying to keep up with that class and I hope they can provide somebody else with some food for thought.

It seems that most Music Appreciation classes are actually Music History classes.

I did some quick “research” (Ha! For a blog? Silly, I know) and typed in “Music Appreciation Syllabus” and ‘High School Music Appreciation Syllabus”. I was curious to see how other courses described their course objectives. Let’s take a look:

  • Wikipedia: Music Appreciation is teaching people what to listen for and to appreciate different types of music. Usually music appreciation classes involve some history lessons to explain why people of a certain era liked the music they did.
  • University of Delaware: “This course is intended to expose you to a variety of music and musical experiences through lecture, discussion, and experiencing a lot of listening… Our main focus will be on what is commonly termed “classical” music, art music of Western European tradition…”
  • Brookdale Community College: “This course is designed to help the student critically listen to and development an enjoyment of extraordinary music. The student will understand, recognize and hopefully delight in a wide variety of musical forms and formats… This course will be solely focused on Western “Art” music (“Classical Music”) composed between the dates of October 31, 1517 and January 22, 1927.”
  • Rogers State University: “Music Appreciation seeks to inform the student about the indigenous beginnings of North American music, to explain 20th Century music in terms of the origins of the popular styles of blues, jazz, country, rock, and pop, and survey the Western “Classical” tradition from the middle ages to the 20th century. The class concludes with lectures on the significant music produced by Oklahomans.” (Note: I love the last component of this course. Definitely something that could be utilized in a public school classroom.)
  • Bishop Fenwick High School: “…In music appreciation, all students will be educated in the basic fundamentals of music and how to be aware of them in the music of today’s (and yesterday’s) world…”

Clearly, I removed a lot of text, but I did take the full text of all of the course descriptions above and threw it into Wordle and got this (click the image to see it larger):

What do you notice? The words music, appreciation, western, classical, tradition, history… and so on and so on. Already this tells us that this small collection of music appreciation courses view Western traditions in music as being more worthy of appreciation. Either that or the teachers don’t feel comfortable branching out.

We know that all music can be worthy of study. Why do we keep repeating the same mistake over and over? This leads me to my next point.

Don’t call it Music Appreciation if you’re really going to teach Music History.

This is one thing that I’m positive about. I’m more than willing to discuss the merits of a music history course in the context of a public school music program. However, if you are looking to teach the history of music, then simply call the course “music history”. Just look down the hall to your Social Studies department. Do they call their courses “World Appreciation” and “American Appreciation”? No. That’s silly. It’s important to name the course correctly so that there is a guiding force throughout the planning and execution.

Music Appreciation should value the music that our students listen to.

Today’s students have more access to music than any previous generation. We should take advantage of that! Our students should walk out of the classroom listening to their music and thinking “Wow, I understand this better!”. Hopefully, you’ll be able to expand their interests in the process, but by ignoring the cultural marketplace you just isolate your relevance in their mind.

My students seemed surprised when I would talk about the “artistic merit” (for lack of a better phrase) of their favorite bands. They were shocked when I spent an entire day talking about the genius that was Michael Jackson (there WILL be a post on that sometime in the future). Why are they so surprised? I think it’s because they simply assume that music lives in different realms: theirs and ours. Cool versus lame. Fun versus serious.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Ditch the chronological teaching of music and focus on broader units.

As a profession it’s important that we broaden our approach to teaching the appreciation of music. I attempted to break up the traditional approach to teaching this course by eliminating a chronology to the subject matter and focusing on larger topics:

  1. Music as Identity
  2. Music as Innovation - the relationship that exists between the introduction of new technology and the resultant changes in music (or vice versa).
  3. Music as Biology - a study of the real physiological impact of music on the brain and body.
  4. Music as Furniture (Soundtracks, music in public spaces) - an examination into how music can impact the environment around us.

I just blogged about the Identity unit. You can check it out here. I’ll be talking about the rest later.

Other topics I’d like to introduce include:

  • Music as Revolution - the role of music in shaping major cultural changes.
  • Music as Culture - the larger cultural signifiers of various types of music.

A non-chronological format like this allows for the students to be hearing music from a wide variety of cultures and eras simultaneously. This makes the class feel less like a history class (which we’ve talked about) and more like a study of the real phenomena called “music”.

Remember, our students listen to music all day on their cell phones and iPods. This gives us an advantage over other subjects - our students are already aware of the power of music in their personal life. It’s our job is to expose them to the role music has in shaping the lives of everybody around the planet in a variety of situations.

Lastly, why is this important? (I feel like I answer that question a lot on this blog)

Two reasons:

  1. There is no music that has more “value” than any other. Period. Music exists everywhere and we need to embrace that reality.
  2. Increased enrollment in classes like the music appreciation class I describe would help to save jobs in teaching music.

With budgets being slashed, it is important for our profession to reach out to the other 90% of students in our schools who do not participate in organized music at school. 100% of those students are interested in music on their own and we need to capitalize on that. I truly think it’s essential if we’re going to remain viable in the 21st century.

Let me know if you’ve got any thoughts.

Recent posts:

  1. weallliveinastupidbunnysuit reblogged this from teachingmusic and added:
    brilliant this is
  2. lewesde reblogged this from teachingmusic
  3. panoramicsound reblogged this from teachingmusic and added:
    I wanna take a course like this.
  4. teachingmusic posted this
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