Analysis in the Music Classroom: A New Perspective

2011Symposium_1_2One of the best ways to engage students in higher level thinking and greater rigor, and raise their musicianship to the next level is to have them do music analysis. Music analysis is the gateway to interpretation and substantive musical understanding. Analysis is needed for fully experiencing music; it brings those musical elements that are less obvious than the melody and rhythm section parts to the listener’s or performer’s attention. Furthermore, it is also important for music educators to teach music analysis because students, who by and large are casual listeners, are not likely to attempt music analysis on their own, or even know what it is. Students should be proficient in using analysis as part of their preparation to perform a piece, and as a tool to understand and become more engaged with the music to which they listen. Analysis  also familiarizes students with the inner workings of music in general, and in the process prepares them to compose. The centrality of music analysis to music education is evidenced in its inclusion under performing, creating and responding in the new music standards.

Because of our pre-service training, analysis to most music educators probably brings to mind Fux speciesimage05 counterpoint, Schenkerian analysis, and four-part harmonization of melodies. Learning such things rightfully has a place in high school AP music theory classes, and other advanced secondary music courses. But none of this is likely to be of much practical value to most students, because relatively few of them spend much time listening to or performing renaissance counterpoint, and when they do listen to 19th century art music, they’re more interested in it’s emotional impact than on the function of an augmented sixth chord. They do spend a lot of time listening to other genres of music, and some spend a sizable amount of time playing and singing it too. The music analysis that students should be doing is the sort that is relevant to their musical involvement. For many music educators, this means we must take a more inclusive view of analysis.

Broadly speaking, analysis is the examination of the parts that make up the whole, and how those parts relate. When it comes to music, there are many kinds of parts available for inspection. In addition to prolongations, progressions, and the urlinie, parts of the whole also include orchestration and timbre, grouping of small musical ideas into motives, phrases, themes, theme groups, sections and pieces, parallelism, meter, occurrences of tension and release, expressive elements such as articulation, dynamics, and tempo, the use of background parts in relation to a melody, and the relationship between rhythm, background and melodic parts.

All of these are accessible and practical for most students, and are open to study not only from a notational perspective, but also from listening-responding, performing, and creating perspectives. For example, students can analyze the use of rhythm in building tension in a piece, and then explore the affect on the tension of changing the rhythm through performance of altered versions. Or, they could analyze the meter of a musical passage, and then explore the affect on meter of changing the articulation, again through performance of altered versions. Analysis is in this way brought into the creative process, and given relevance it can easily lack if left solely within the context of score-study-type music theory.

Notice the music analysis framework being proposed here does not require the student to have a college-level proficiency in music theory or even functional harmony. The analysis is of music as the student experiences it, not as a composer wrote it down. If the student is listener, the analysis is of what the student hears. If the student is singing or playing, the analysis is of what the student is performing. And the student exercises creativity and judgment when creating and evaluating alternate versions. Where the student’s performance is at variance with music s/he is reading, the performed and corrected performance can be analyzed as what was performed, and the student can learn not just what the mistake was, but how the mistake changed the composer’s intent. Reconciling the difference involves the student in valuable problem solving and uses metacognition. This view of analysis, that it is of what is experienced, unifies the task with performing, creating and responding content standards. It places analysis where it belongs, as an integral part of musicianship in the broadest sense, and avoids isolating analysis as a remote activity practiced only by scholars, and inaccessible to the general population of music lovers.


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