Have you ever asked a student why they selected a particular song for listening? When I have asked, students typically cite that they identify with the song, or they like the beat. Either of these answers are a good start, but none of them go far enough. If music is going to have more than a superficial or background place in our students’ lives, they must be more conscious of what drives their musical decisions, and what aspects below the surface cause them to like particular songs and genres more than others. In the new arts standards, there is an enduring understanding for selecting music to which students will respond. “Individuals’ selection of musical works is influenced by their interests, experiences, understandings, and purposes. The parallel enduring understanding for selecting music to perform is similar: “performers’ interest in and knowledge of musical works, understanding of their own technical skill, and the context for a performance influence the selection of repertoire.”
What do these enduring understandings tell us about how music is selected for classroom music? First, they tell us that the responsibility for selecting music for responding and performing is that of the student, not the teacher. The teacher’s responsibility is to teach the students how to select musical works for use in classroom activities. To do this, the teacher guides students to call to mind their interests, experiences and understandings, and to be aware of the purpose for which the music will be used. Experiences and understandings are relatively easy to get a handle on. Students can list music they have heard, and musical things they have done, including music they hear in their home played by someone else, music they play in band or chorus, or on a recorder or guitar, music they have composed. All of these experiences will have brought the students to certain understandings about the music they have experienced, through listening, performing and/or composing. They can then select music that matches these understandings and experiences. For example, a student who plays guitar with friends can select a song he or she can play, or that has a chord they just learned.
Interests can be somewhat harder to come by, because they easily get confused with preferences. Students will say they are interested in what is familiar, and not interested in other types of music. If students give this answer, it’s time to go deeper with them. Ask them about musical experiences outside of school and away from their peer group that they value. If the student makes music with siblings, parents, or friends, those performance experiences will likely be meaningful to the student because they are had with people who are important in the child’s life. This can legitimately indicate interest. If the child has composed music, this too indicates interest, not only in composing, but in the kind of music he or she has composed. Music teachers can and should encourage students to pursue these musical interests, seeking more knowledge about the music, and more understanding on how to respond to, perform, or even compose music of that genre. Making connections between interests a student already shows, and other types of music that are unfamiliar but that he or she would very likely enjoy based on known preferences is important work for the music teacher, and leads the way in the student discovering new areas of musical interest.
The purpose for which the music will be used is also important to consider. Many students use music to change or affirm emotional states. Students that are highly excited because they just came from gym may appreciate quieter music to calm them down, while a class that has just taken a major test may want to select music that is fast and animated to help them recover form the sedate environment they just left. A music teacher could use either choice to meet the learning objective for the day, but will have greater success when the selection is well matched to the students. As we move from teacher selection to student selection, music instruction will become more relevant to our students, and our students will become more motivated by the musical experiences they have in our classrooms.