I Love to Listen to Music, But I Don’t Know Anything About It

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Melina Esse, Music

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2001

I hear variations on this theme nearly every time I teach Music 27. At the beginning of the term, many students feel more than a little apprehensive; unfamiliar as they are with the specialized language of musicians, will they be able to make others understand what they hear? My challenge at the start of the semester was twofold. First, I needed to instill confidence by showing how this new language (specifically the “jargon” musicians use to talk about meter) can be used as a tool to describe our own experiences with music. In addition, I wanted the students to understand the difference between listening and hearing. In order to succeed in the course, they would need to practice directed listening: “listening for” rather than “listening to.”

My solution to this twofold problem involved getting the students to articulate knowledge they already intuited, and devising an exercise that encouraged them to think critically about their familiar modes of listening. Since most students have moved their bodies to music at some point in their lives, I decided to build on this bodily knowledge the very first day of class. After introducing the basics of meter, I presented a number of musical examples, from country waltzes to jazz standards, from marches to funk, and advised students to listen for the percussion section. As we listened, we attempted to translate our sense of strong and weak beats into an exaggerated arm gesture and quiet taps, respectively. The students quickly overcame their embarrassment and stifled laughter and soon were moving and counting out the meter together as a group.

A follow-up assignment asked them to compare and reflect upon the relative merits of listening to music as background and this more focused mode of listening. I asked them to put on a song of their choice while performing some other task and to record their impressions of the piece, then to listen a second time solely to determine the song’s meter. At our next meeting, we discussed their findings and found that in many cases, the song itself seemed to change depending on how we were listening. We also learned that listening in a concentrated manner often helped explain our emotional and bodily responses to music because meters often carried complex associations. I was impressed with the way the students were able to understand meter’s role in organizing their musical experience, and at their ability to critically examine this personal experience in a wider context.

The effectiveness of this approach was proved as the semester progressed. Not only were my students able to talk about a piece’s meter, they were able to approach technical language with confidence. More importantly, however, they learned that there are a variety of listening modes. Many students were surprised to find that focused listening could be a limiting experience, one that drowned out other (perhaps more important) aspects of the music. By “listening for,” they realized that they could choose to “listen for” any variety of things, even for pleasure. This emphasis on the listener’s role in creating musical meaning had several unexpected benefits. In later discussions of the musical “happenings” of John Cage and others, students easily grasped the fluidity of these musical works by recalling their first assignment: they already knew that listening to the same piece in different environments and in different ways profoundly altered their experience of the “music itself.” By making this leap, the students were able to understand a very difficult concept, that the musical work comes to life only through the act of performance and through our attention to it. The knowledge of their own significance in the making of musical meaning had, I believe, a transformative effect on those very students who doubted their abilities at the beginning of the term. Not only were they able to “know something” about music; through a critical engagement with their own assumptions, they were able to know themselves.