Getting Beyond the Associative Property of Music

2011 Symposium2

Music is a highly associative experience. I’m always interested in what is going on the the minds f my students as they listen to music, particularly classical music. Of course I can’t know for sure– no one can see into the mind of another person–but through careful questioning I find it valuable to try to find out. I have observed that for most of my students, especially my middle school students, their thinking about what they are listening to often doesn’t go beyond what the music reminds them of. For example, many students will immediately think of Dracula when they hear the beginning of J.S. Bach’s toccata and fugue in d minor. and of the introductory video movie theaters play when they her the opening of Richard Strauss’ Thus Sprach Zarathustra. (Notice that a previous generation connected this music to the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.) But after the initial and recognizable theme, they begin to tune out.

I think this is because they have much less interest in what they cannot connect to their own experiences. But connecting is only one of several ways I want my students to respond to music I play for them. I want my students to respond to the composer’s use of specific musical elements, and of expressive intent. I want my students to audiate the meter and tonality, and to use their bodies nervous system (in tensing or relaxing) and movements to interpret and understand the music. To do this, I have to present them with questions that direct their attention away from the connections and toward these more specifically musical things.

In order to keep the experiencing of the music as enjoyable as possible, my music consumerfirst line of teaching will not be form or structure. I want to start with what the student is hearing and perceiving on his or her own first. I might start with the question, “what in the music grabs your attention first?” If they respond with a connection, e.g. “It reminded me of Dracula,” then I will say something like, “okay, but what does the music do that makes it good Dracula music?” I would try to lead them into a discussion of one or more musical elements, such as rhythm, tessitura, or tonality. Any of these three might contribute to grabbing the listener’s attention, and to making it associative with Dracula.

From there, I would go to “what other things do you notice about the music? This is a wide open question. Anything that relates to the music is an acceptable answer. It could be the instrument they heard, the contour of the melody, the tempo, or whatever. The idea here is to get the students to realize what musical elements are in play, and how they are used in combinations to realize an expressive intent.

That will lead me to perhaps the most important question: “With what feelings do you find yourself responding to this music?” Here’s where I try to determine if they found their bodies tensing or relaxing, if they found themselves moving to music, or even just wanting to stand up and move around or yell “yeah” at a loud and triumphant moment. If the students are interacting with the musical elements and not just the connections and associations, then they will at least begin to have emotional responses to the music. When this happens, they have a whole new realm of music to talk about, and a whole new way of experiencing and enjoying classical instrumental music. By the way, I use instrumental music because I don’t want them responding to and being distracted by a text. Once they are engaged with the expressive and emotional aspects of music, then they are in a position to understand how music amplifies the meaning of words in many vocal classical pieces. While this doesn’t always happen in vocal classical music, it occurs more frequently in the classical genre than in the popular music they are more familiar with. The idea of words being tailored to music instead of being sung to a quasi-generic or formulaic melody and chord progression is a novel idea to many.

Finally, I like to give the students a chance to learn from each other and to share the positive things they have discovered about the music. To this end, I will ask them, “what is one thing you’d like others to know about this music?” This is a good exit ticket question, because it gives me a good idea of what each student is taking away from the lesson. Throughout the lesson, students have been brought to a deeper understanding of music.


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