I often find that my students have a very limited view of the musical landscape. Many of them listen to one kind of music and see no reason to spend their time exploring new genres or styles. Knowing this, I have always felt that it was part of my responsibility as a music educator to introduce my students to music they would not otherwise encounter. Sometimes, students are surprised to find that they like an unfamiliar kind of music. Other times, I find that they are not aware of the fact that the music to which kids their age in other areas of the United States or in other countries is sometimes very different from the music to which they listen. In both cases, being able to bring knowledge to bear on decisions of musical preference is often the missing link. Students can easily say what they like and don’t like, and can determine if a song is within their ability to perform or understand musically. But often they have more difficulty using knowledge to select song or determine preferences.
This is in part because students don’t always know what there is to know about a song or musical genre, and they may also not know what such knowledge has to do with what they like or don’t like about a song. Students are often quick to dismiss a song they don’t like, but are not likely to stop and think about why they don’t like it. Today in a seventh grade music class, I gave students a list of popular songs and asked them to pick the ones they felt the class would most enjoy singing. One of the songs that was often selected was “If Only” by Dove Cameron. Although many thought it would be a good song to sing, when I played it many didn’t want to listen. One student said it was a “sleepy” song. I used that observation to launch a discussion of the use of musical elements in the song that made it sound that way. We included tempo and dynamics in the discussion. Why would the songwriter use a slow tempo and soft dynamics for a song?
If only I knew what my heart was telling me
Don’t know what I’m feeling
Is this just a dream?
The song is about emotional uncertainty and confusion, and about disbelief in what is real. What kind of music best expresses the emotions a person is going through who is experiencing thoughts like these? By considering the artistic choices that led the songwriter to choose a slow tempo and soft dynamics, the students realized that for what the song was meant to express, it was a well-written song. As a result of this insight, some of the students thought they would like the song more the next time they listened to it. They also realized that by usually or even always listening to songs in which the composer has utilized the same musical elements the same way, they are experiencing only a limited range of emotions in the music to which they listen. To more completely participate in the human experience, and music is a landmark part of that experience, a person must participate in a variety of music in which a diversity of expressions and artistic decisions are made. This participation includes performing, listening, responding, and connecting; all four artistic processes in the national arts standards. It also includes going beyond the lyrics and the groove to also probe the use of musical elements to express feelings and emotions, and to create musical structure, which is what allows music to make sense to us.