What Is The Context?

2011Symposium_1_2Most ideas and words can easily be misunderstood without context. Take the word chair. If I sit on the chair, he’ll expel me from the committee. If you were thinking of a piece of furniture, my sentence didn’t make much sense. You had to know I was talking about the chair of a committee; a person. Slightly more meaningful would be a phrase. For example, “to be or not to be, that is the question.” Most will recognize this phrase from Act 3 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but will know little if any of the story of the play from which the phrase comes, or of the high quality of the play as a whole. It is good to know the phrase, but better to know the work.

So it is with musical themes. Music students, especially instrumental students, learn countless “themes from” in their music books. The purpose behind including these is no doubt to enrich the students with a knowledge and familiarity with great themes from musical masterworks. But if the teaching never goes further than the eight or sixteen measure theme, a vast array of learning and enriching has been missed. If one is teaching “theme from Surprise Symphony,” is the important thing that there is one loud chord that surprises us in an otherwise dynamically soft context? No, of course not. The important thing about this theme is that is the theme upon which a wonderful set of variations is written, and that this theme and variations is one of four movements in a symphony written by Franz Josef Haydn. Students should listen to the whole movement, and make a study of variation form, not just learn to play the theme, or more often the first half of the theme.

Another instance of a problematic context is when classical music is used for commercial use such as advertisements or movie soundtracks. Again, the familiarity and popularity that exposure to classics in the popular media produces is a positive thing, but if left to the versions heard there, students will again get a limited or misleading notion of what these musical works are all about. There was a commercial a few years ago for Direct TV that featured the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. The use of that music in the ad made it possible for me to play the beginning of the Lacrimosa for my students, and have them immediately recognize it. That’s good. But they had no idea that it had been written by Mozart, or that there was more to the Lacrimosa than the seconds of music in the ad, or that even the entire Lacrimosa movement was part of a larger work, written as a memorial for someone’s death. Playing the whole movement, and excerpts from other movements gave them an understanding of the requiem form, and a more balanced, though still incomplete experience of Mozart’s Requiem. Other classical works used in movies and television warrant the same attention. Our students are hearing these works, so music teachers would be wise to take advantage of this introduction, and take study of these works further than a one minute sound bite.

Classical music used in the media also presents a second opportunity. Why did the advertising firm representing Personen / Musiker / Liszt / am KlavierDirect TV decide to use that particular music for that commercial? What was the music expressing that matched what the advertisers wanted to express or have consumers feel as they were watching the ad? Trying to get inside the minds of advertisers who use classical music is a great way to teach expressive intent of the composers of this music. Of course, the same can be taught about other genres of music used in commercials, thereby broadening the study of expressive intent from classical music to popular music. I tell my students that all music expresses something. When a visual image is paired with music, the music can strongly suggest what the visual image expresses. It can be fun to play different music to commercials or movie scenes that originally had just music (no speaking) and compare the emotional affect of the scene or commercial with different music. This too is a study in context.

As we teach a diverse repertoire of music to our students, we must be careful not to skim the surface to shallowly. We must always present music with enough context to accurately represent the genre, specific musical work, and expressive intent, and give students a fair opportunity to accurately interpret and analyze what they hear and perform. Every theme has a context of music that surrounds it, every musical work has a context of other works written in the same genre, culture and time period. We must be sure to include both contexts, going far beyond assigning a theme fragment.

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