Musical Representation and Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Holly Watkins, Music

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2001

Addressing the question of how music can represent images or ideas poses serious difficulties for music scholars, let alone for undergraduate non-majors. While instrumental music is widely presumed to lack semantic content, many well-known pieces of music, such as Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, nevertheless set out to evoke specific images or poetic ideas. How, then, might a GSI introduce the thorny problem of musical representation in a class — Music 27 — which assumes no familiarity with musical notation or performing ability?

I decided on a two-way approach designed to give students first-hand experience in generating music from an image and in generating images from music. As an opening exercise, I asked students to close their eyes and conjure up any image they chose, in as much detail as possible. Then, while keeping their eyes closed, I asked students to add a soundtrack, so to speak: I encouraged them to imagine music that seemed to go with their image. Several volunteers shared their audio-visual conjurings while I wrote their responses on the chalkboard. This led to a more detailed discussion of several ways music can represent, which proceeded directly from students’ input. For example, one student’s image of a race car revving up at the starting line led to a discussion of how low, rumbling strings or thundering percussion might imitate the sounds the car itself makes. Another student’s vision of scantily-clad, sun-drenched male beach goers led to the more complex issue of representation by association, of how a certain kind of trombone line is able to signify “sexy.” The impressive specificity of the students’ imaginings facilitated a wide-ranging discussion of musical representation, and I was especially pleased by how many were eager to share their own music-images.

Next, I reversed the direction of the exercise: without telling the students the title or showing them the painting that inspired the piece, I played the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” movement from the Musorgsky work. I asked them to write down any images that came to mind while listening, and to connect those images to the categories of representation we had outlined. When students shared their responses, they were surprised by the amount of agreement between their ideas: many had imagined a scene with small animals in a kind of chase. We were able to understand those choices in terms of how the light and quick music simulated rapid motion and the high wind timbres seemed to indicate small creatures. These similarities led to a broader discussion of how film and television music has created a common representational code, which is based on the specific techniques we explored.

To assess my teaching strategy, I created a follow-up assignment for which students wrote a short essay on another selection from Musorgsky’s piece, “The Polish Ox-Cart.” I asked them to discuss the piece in terms of the now-familiar categories of representation. The level of imaginative engagement stimulated by this approach impressed me, and I believe that the students truly developed a richer understanding of classical music — the ultimate goal of Music 27 — through these exercises.