Expressive intent is an important element in the new core arts standards for music. Under the standards, students determine the expressive intent of the composer, and how the composer uses musical elements to achieve that intent. Students also determine how they will use musical elements to express both the composer’s and their own intent. When listening to a performance of a musical work, expressive intent can be the basis of evaluating the performance. Questions like, “how well did the performers convey the composer’s expressive intent” are good prompts for responses. At times, the composer may have indicated what the intent was through spoken or written words. For example, several popular songwriters wrote songs in honor of Martin Luther King after he was assassinated. When a composer or songwriter states their expressive intent, then listeners can critically evaluate how successfully the song achieves the stated intent. On Monday, I posted links to several songs about Martin Luther King, anticipating Martin Luther King Day next week.
One of those songs was “Dream Speech Auto-Tune” by The Gregory Brothers. The song is just what the title implies: a recording of Dr. King giving his famous speech was processed with an auto-tuner so that both pitch and timbre were altered to create a melody sung with the typical electronic timbre we are used to hearing in contemporary popular music. The song was intended to honor Dr. King, but has always been controversial. I played the songs mentioned in last Monday’s post, including “Dream Speech Auto-Tune” for my middle school students. I told them what the intent was, to honor Martin Luther King, and what the song was, a recording of Dr. King run through an auto-tuner, and then asked them to give me their opinion as to if The Gregory Brothers succeeded in honoring Martin Luther King with the song. Of the approximately 80 students I played the song for and asked their opinion of, only two thought the song was honoring, and one of those was not sure. Interestingly, a mitigating factor for those two was when the song was written. If it was written close enough to the event so that it was a reaction to it, then the song might be honoring; but if it was written far removed from the event, then it would not be honoring. I asked them if the song were written in the 1980s would it be honoring, and they though it would. Then I told them it was written in 2009, and they wavered. This example is a good illustration of one way expressive intent can be combined with student opinion to teach students about music.
Many times, expressive intent will be more concerned with emotional expression than paying homage to an individual. Because most of the music students listen to are popular songs, and those songs have lyrics, an issue they often encounter is how well the music expresses the emotions of the words. Popular music, because it is so mainstream, is also prone to be cast in predictable forms that anticipate continued popularity but dull expressive impact with musical cliches and intra-song similarity within the work of individual artists. If it worked to produce the last hit, it will work again to produce the next one. In this context, it is a valid question to ask how well each melody suits the lyrics to which it is set. Similar musical settings suggest similar lyrics. The relationship between variety of lyrics and song topic and variety of music for those songs can begin fruitful inquiries for students. One song will often be more successfully expressive than a similar song with lyrics or music that is dissimilar and from the same artist. Composition projects can spring from realizing that a particular lyric could be more effectively set to different music, or that a particular melody could be more effectively set to different lyrics. All of this creative output is started with evaluating the success of the realization of the expressive intent. Expressive intent and related student opinion is a powerful resource in the music classroom.