If ‘Writing about Music is Like Dancing about Architecture,’ Maybe it is Time to Draw: Using Visual Aids to Introduce Musical and Stylistic Analysis

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Francesca Rivera, Music

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003

Teaching problem/issue: Music 27 is an introductory music survey course, geared towards students with little or no experience in Western music history or music analysis. In one semester we cover nearly 1000 years worth of music, focus on over 20 different composers from several countries, and introduce students to music-specific terminology to engage in stylistic analysis. The works of specific composers represent dominant stylistic trends and aesthetic principles during different periods in Western history, and demonstrate the relationship between social movements and individual artistic expression. Students have difficulty engaging in stylistic analysis, applying music terms to describe sounds while referencing time-period-specific factors to place the composer in the context of a particular social milieu. Without the terminology or solid knowledge of the historical context in which the composers worked, students can’t move beyond simplistic taste statements such as “I like it,” or value-laden judgments such as “That is pretty” or “That sucked!” My problem, then, was to help them quickly memorize key musical concepts with sufficient depth of understanding to recall the term and apply it effectively, and to help them connect the works of individual composers with the larger time period in which they lived so they could apply “extra-musical factors” in their analysis.

Method or strategy implemented: I experimented with a means of learning that involved neither prose-based description nor sound-based demonstration. Many textbooks contain simplistic timelines, with a few pictures and bullet-point based factoids. I thought the active process of building a timeline might be productive. After all, students would need to do real research in order to make an effective timeline. I added a creative element by assigning a purely visual timeline, avoiding almost all prose. I hoped the visual image would act as a memory aid as they listened, allowing them to more effectively engage in active listening, which would ultimately improve the quality of their prose-based descriptions of musical sounds and the significance of those sounds. Each visual timeline compared three style periods of the students’ choosing (e.g., “Renaissance, Late Baroque, and Impressionism”) so the side-by-side approach would make obvious the contrast between periods. As the goal was to find a visual image that would trigger their memory during the final exam, they could draw, cut out pictures from magazines, or download images from the web, but they couldn’t include more than a word or two to describe each image. Each time period required visual representations of commonly found ensembles, genres, melodic structures, biographic details of one composer, and one contemporaneous non-musical event that occurred in that composer’s life. For example, a “Classical” era timeline might have a picture of Mozart (composer), a photo of a string quartet (ensemble), a picture of a traffic light (representing “stop-and-go rhythms”) and a drawing of the original U.S. flag (a contemporaneous “non-musical” political event).

Assessment of outcome: The class in which the students presented their timelines was fun and productive. We created complete stylistic and historical profiles of each period on the blackboard, based on their timelines. This reinforced their ideas (they saw they were “correct” when someone had a similar image), while allowing them to fill in gaps of knowledge (when they saw someone had an image they hadn’t thought of). As no knowledge came directly from the GSI, the students became a little more independent and learned to share knowledge amongst themselves. The ultimate proof of success came during the final exam; the quality of their compare-and-contrast essays were outstanding, and they provided many more details to prove their points than they had on the quizzes. They also hadn’t confused composers and time periods as they had done on the quiz that preceded the timeline. Finally, an unexpected benefit of this exercise was to help me assess and assist my problem students; I discovered there were students with great ideas but weak writing skills, that before the timeline I didn’t know whether their poor-quality work was the result of lack of comprehension, effort, or writing ability. When some did a great job with the timelines, I was better equipped to assist them in expressing their thoughts in prose.