Music Appreciation

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I’m writing this post as my Music Appreciation class takes an exam. With the quiet time to think about the class as a whole, I started to wonder why we don’t teach it to music majors. The way most appreciation courses are taught, much of the material is duplicated in musicology courses designed for majors, but I don’t think it has to be that way. If the goal is strictly to help students appreciate (that is, understand what they hear in) music, the course doesn’t have to be so historically grounded. In particular, I think a lot of music majors enter college not knowing how to actively listen to music, and that is the primary skill I’m trying to teach in my appreciation classes. I certainly had to learn that through trial and error, and I wonder if maybe my progress would have been faster had I enrolled in a formal “appreciation” class.

I learned to listen critically through regular trips to the Chicago Symphony and other live performances, through reflecting on criticism I received of my own playing, and through applying content from my theory and history classes. But usually, my acquisition of the skill was a day too late. Somebody would make a reference to the return of an ascending motif, I would smile and nod, and then I would go home and learn what I needed to know. For students like myself, who didn’t go to arts-intensive high schools, wouldn’t it make sense to have a freshman-level course discussing what music is, from both cultural and experiential perspectives? Then, when the musicology professors played listening examples, students would have a foundation in place for how they should approach the task. Many freshmen start from “it sounds pretty” and need to be led through the identification of the layers and details in the music.

In the current political climate, I recognize that it can be difficult to add more courses into a program. Students are already spending five or six years to complete a “four-year” degree, and music programs already have more class requirements than most other courses of study. Maybe this kind of course could be offered as a pre-requisite to music theory, with a placement test to skip if appropriate. Maybe it makes sense to schedule the appreciation content as just one unit within a freshman orientation class containing lots of preliminary “how to be a student” type information. The solution to this kind of curriculum problem will likely vary from state to state and from school to school, but the applicability of the skill set is universal for all types of music majors in all geographical areas.

Such a large-scale change is, of course, well outside of my influence. I have control only over my own studio, so I think I’m going to start implementing some of this content in a formal way for my first-semester students. I will ask students to complete listening assignments in addition to practicing — after all, practice can only be partially effective without critical listening skills.

The idea of offering Music Appreciation to students in other majors is a great way to improve the cultural literacy of our society. Music appreciation is for everyone — including music majors. By not offering an appreciation-style class to music majors, we are assuming either that most 18-year-old music students already have a strong foundation in critical listening, or that they don’t need to. I think both are demonstrably false, and it is up to myself and my colleagues to change our behavior accordingly.