This morning, I played William Walton’s “Crown Imperial March” for my seventh graders. I asked them to listen to the music and then tell me what they thought was being expressed through the music. As often happens, several students gave answers that were responses to the music, but were not answers to the question I asked. I patiently thanked them for giving an answer, but requested that they answer my question. Nevertheless, the responses they did give were informative in a different way, and led to a separate discussion later in the class. Let me explain.
One student said that the music sounded like the Nutcracker. I thought that was interesting, because I knew that this student had heard very few classical music works except The Nutcracker, which I took them to see when they were in fifth grade. So based on that very limited sample of classical music, Walton’s work had enough in common with Tchaikovsky’s ballet to trigger the connection. Both works were written for large symphony orchestras, both are written on a sonically grand scale, and both suggest stately, classical movement. Without being familiar with other classical music works written for large symphony orchestras on a sonically grand scale, the only connection available to this student was with Tchaikovsky. But there are dozens of works that fit that description, and not all of them sound like Tchaikovsky or Walton. The more this student listens to these other works, the more discriminating she will become. With a larger sample of familiar repertoire, she will be able to tell the difference between composers and works that are similar, but different in more subtle ways.
I’m fairly confident that we can all remember a time when we could not tell if a symphony we were listening to was by Mozart or Haydn. In general ways, their styles and works are very similar. Only after hearing many works by both composers did we acquire the ability to tell the difference. We learned to listen to the phrase lengths, which tend to be longer in Mozart, and for the breaks with convention, which tend to be more frequent in Haydn.
Knowledge of a repertoire of music is necessary for a listener to become a discriminating listener, able to respond knowledgeably to what he or she is hearing. We can think of this kind of knowledge as “knowing of.” There is another kind of musical learning that is also needed. We can think of this kind of knowledge as “knowing about.” This is where context comes in. The environment for which and in which a musical work is created. I have simplified the definition of context for my students down to three words: purpose, place, performer. The context is the purpose for which the music was composed, the place in which it was intended to be performed, and the performers for whom it was composed. Of course there is more to context than that. There is, for example, historical and stylistic considerations. But for a working understanding of context, I find that purpose, place, and performers works well. “Crown Imperial March” has a clue in the title about its purpose. It is a march. When one listens to the work, one can easily recognize that this is not a street march, but one for some grand or solemn occasion. Many of my students guessed that the music was from an opera, or from a movie theme park. When I told them it was for the coronation of a king, they immediately related the music they heard with this purpose. The Nutcracker, on the other hand, does not contain any music that could be mistaken for a coronation march, though it does contain a different sort of march. It is with points like this that the discrimination and critical thinking can really get going and they are only made possible by the use of context. When students “know of” by being made familiar with a musical work, and “know about” by being taught the context, they are able to study music in greater depth. You are teaching with more rigor, and they are learning with more depth and interest. Everyone comes out ahead.