Musical Form and Active Learning

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Laura Basini, Music

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2002

Problem: The most important organizational design of Classical and Romantic musical works was known as Sonata Form. One of the most revealing ways of considering works from these periods is to trace the ways in which this musical structure was modified over time, or the ways in which individual composers manipulated it. Thus it is crucial that students of music history firmly grasp the basic principles of this form.

Since each musical piece, however, is obviously already constructed, the teaching of Sonata Form is usually passive: segments of the form, and their functions, are pointed out or labeled as the piece is heard or studied. It became clear while teaching this class that a more active engagement with Sonata Form was desirable so that students could fully appreciate the way in which each segment carries out a particular function in the design. I also wanted to mitigate the boring reputation of learning musical forms by creating an unusual activity.

Strategy implemented: I therefore decided that one way of achieving an engagement with Sonata Form would be to have the students approach the design not as an already-complete entity, but as a series of principles from which a form could be built. In order to build such a form, each pair of students was supplied with an envelope containing a number of pieces of paper with segments of music printed on them; each segment was a segment of the Sonata Form. Students were asked to build the piece of music to place the pieces of paper physically in the correct order on the basis of their knowledge of the principles of Sonata Form. I wanted to bring a seemingly abstract concept to life by placing students in an unfamiliar position: that of the composer. They would have to engage more actively with each passage of music, working out what each did in musical terms, and how each led to and from its neighbors. I also hoped that having students physically move around pieces of paper on the floor space would de-familiarize the classroom and encourage discussion.

Assessment of objective: Since there was a right answer at which students should arrive, it was relatively simple to evaluate from this exercise to what extent they had understood the principles of Sonata Form. Most groups stumbled at the same points, which indicated the most problematic parts of the form. Students consolidated their learning by completing a more traditional exercise on Sonata Form as a follow-up task, which also provided a useful means of effectiveness assessment.

The real value of the exercise, however, lay in the students discussions of their conceptions of Sonata Form with each other, and their active reasoning of why each segment must occupy a particular place in the musical design. From this I was able to gauge how accurately they had received and processed the information given to them in passive form during lecture. In addition, the format of the exercise allowed certain students whose written work was unexceptional to come to the fore: some showed more confidence when faced with musical text, and took on a new role explaining concepts to others.