When Teaching Music Appreciation, Keep It Simple

2011 Symposium2

I’ve always had a love for classical music. I’m not sure why, but for as long as I can remember, and my family tells me it goes back further than that, I have pulled myself away from distractions and settled in to enjoy a symphony, concerto, or sonata. With this background, it is not surprising that I enjoyed a music appreciation class that I took in high school. The class gave me the technical low down on music I already enjoyed, and introduced me to music that added to my listening repertoire. I’m convinced that this all worked for me because the explanations of sonata form, fugues, and so on came after I was an experienced listener and after I had developed a love, or “appreciation” for the music.

I have observed that trying to come at it from the other direction is not nearly so successful. It is very difficult to develop a love for classical music in an inexperienced listener by explaining musical form, history, and theory . In fact, what better way to drive people away than to tell them they have to study all of these things before they can hope to enjoy the music? A great symphonic or chamber work is great because it has been and still can be enjoyed by anyone, even those who are unaware of what technical matters the composer was using to create the musical work.

While it will be fascinating to many to learn how these masterworks are put together, it is essential to realize that the nobility or ferocity or tenderness or anguish or unbridled joy that comes forth out of the music is what brings about enjoyment from music. I or anyone else no more needs to know the composer’s bag of tricks to enjoy his or her music than one needs to be well versed in literary form to enjoy a good play, novel, or poem. Great artistic works speak for themselves, and do not need to be analyzed to reveal that which brings us enjoyment. Analysis brings its own enjoyment to those who choose to pursue it, and as I have said, to those already familiar with a work, but it should never be made an obstacle or gate through which the novice listener must pass as theoretical expertise were required for entrance into the  concert hall. There is nothing wrong with analysis, or

New World Example

Opening of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor

studying music theory or history, but these things must be taught a the right time. Just as reading music cannot successfully precede aural/oral audiation, music theory cannot successfully precede gaining experience listening to music which will afterwards be analyzed.

So where should one begin. Most people naturally enjoy music they are familiar with. This makes introducing them to new music challenging, and to a new musical genre even more so. The more familiar ground we can rest on the better. Many of our students will  know more classical music than they realize. Between hearing classical themes in cartoons, movies, television commercials and video games, the overall sound of a symphony orchestra is likely to be familiar to most. Begin with something they are likely to have heard before, like the toccata from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, or the introduction to Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. Have a conversation with the students on what they like about these pieces, what emotions they experienced from the music, or just having them try to describe what they heard. We can insert music vocabulary as they respond, but we are not trying to be technical at this point. Once a few pieces have been enjoyed, suggest other pieces that are similar. If they liked Offenbach’s “Infernal Galop,” perhaps they will also like a gallop by Kabelevsky or Shostakovich. If they liked the Allegro form Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, then perhaps they will also enjoy the first movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony.

Many composers wrote variations before they wrote symphonies or sonatas. When you want to introduce form, follow their lead and start with variations. The great advantage in this is that you can select variations on a theme that is familiar to your students, making it fun to travel through the variations. Mozart’s variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” or Beethoven’s variations on “God Save The King” are good choices. When you are ready to teach sonata form, use a piece you have already had your students listen to and respond to in the ways I discuss above. As with the variations, with a familiar theme they will be better able to understand the developments, and by repeating works, you will also be building greater familiarity. Students seem to universally like the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and Mozart’s symphony no. 40 in g minor, or Dvorak’s “Overture Carnival” are good choices.

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2 thoughts on “When Teaching Music Appreciation, Keep It Simple

  1. Great post! I’ve informally taught a kind of historical survey of classical music on a couple occasions, but avoided too much technical abstraction for beginners– it is far better to start with their OWN experience of actual listening and from there the teacher can broaden that listening base.

    There are many different levels of musical appreciation (Copland taught in a beautifully clear way), and the sensual surface comes first. The emotional suggestiveness of the music is a great to engage the beginner too because it gets her to reflect on her own interactions with the music. And certain pieces seem to emphasise certain emotions — and here is a way to connect to the listener: the sorrow of The Swan of Tuonela, the fury of Holst’s Mars, the joy of Beethoven’s ninth, etc. The beginner can then see even more deeply the various emotional ‘shadings’ and differences that music can convey which is easily taken for granted.

    And while doing all that you can begin to point out — like a tour guide — what is readily available to the beginner’s ear– recurring motives and themes, variations on the melodies. Simply raising the awareness of the listener of the ubiquitous four-note motive in the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth reveals how in classical music very few materials are used to construct the music (I liken it to ‘musical DNA’). But this is something readily available to the beginner’s ear, all the teacher has to do is help make the listener consciously aware of it. No need to know at this early stage key changes, sonata-allegro form and such. This is all too abstract for a beginner. The beauty is in the listening, not the analysis (theory is important, to be sure, but hardly at this stage!

    The beginner needs something more concrete in their own experience to latch onto– appealing to individual experience first can provide a sense of self-confidence which will help enable her later down the road to identify more abstract concepts, and how all that has its own deeper beauty too. The point is not just simply ‘knowing about’ music, but to learn how to fall in love with it. Otherwise, the teach can inadvertently create the opposite effect– apathy, confusion, or dislike.

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