One of the more challenging piece of the National Core Arts Standards (NCAS) for music has been having students select music to experience. For years, I chose the music my students would rehearse, perform, and listen to. This was expedient, because I could select music based on what I wanted my students to learn and be able to do. While I haven’t, and don’t need to completely abandon choosing music for my students, I do need to turn some of the selecting over to my students. The authors of the NCAS stated in one of the enduring understandings that “Individuals’ selection of musical works is influenced by their interests, experiences, understandings, and purposes.” These four influences are not ones that students often think about on their own. For the most part, they choose certain songs because they like them, and if pressed for a reason, will usually respond that they like the beat, the lyrics, and/or the artist. They’ve not usually thought of it in terms of interest, but rather in terms of preference. Interest is a much more promising basis for learning, because interests motivate curiosity and questions, which then lead to learning. Preferences, on the other hand, tend to bias students toward simply continuing to maintain their current listening habits without looking into them with any depth or detail.
Experiences are the gateway to students making connections between a musical work and their personal lives. When a student wants to experience a musical work because they heard their parent singing it, a brother playing it, or because they heard it in a commercial for a product they like to use, he or she is making such a connection. To get at experiences, we might ask students, “what special meaning does the song have for you because of your own personal experiences?” We might also ask, “What musical patterns are used? How has the songwriter/composer used specific musical elements to express what the song is about?” Or we might ask, “when you choose to listen to this song, what do you want to get out of the experience?” With this question, we are getting at what personal benefit they have received from listening to music before, such as improving one’s mood, or getting motivated to compete athletically or getting relaxed after a tough day at school.
We are also knocking on the door of purpose. Why did the composer or songwriter create this music, and why did the performers present this music? This can be informed by the cultural context in which the musical work was created, or by the personal experiences of the composer. In the first case, the music might be intended for a ritual, celebration, or ceremony, it might be intended to tell a story, make a point, or it might simply be intended to entertain while conveying the expressive intent. For this, we might ask, “what are the experiences of the composer or songwriter out of which he/she wrote the musical work?” or “How is this musical work reflective of the culture from which it comes?”
Both composer/songwriter and performers have a purpose for presenting music to an audience. The composer/songwriter has an expressive intent in planning and composing a work, and the performer has an expressive intent born out of planning and presenting an interpretation. In each case, someone is trying to express something or be expressive of something, through the music. For the listener, finding that intent becomes a purpose for listening, just as finding out what an author has to say is a purpose for reading a book. For this, we might ask, “How has the composer used specific musical elements to express that the musical work is about?” The answer to this question teases an interpretation out of the listener, founded on the performers’ and composers’ intents. If there are lyrics, we can ask “what do the lyrics mean? What is the main message or point of the lyrics?”
Understandings get at what students know about the composer, musical work, musical genre and cultural and historical context. These are topics often found in traditional music appreciation classes, but without interests, experiences, and purpose, understandings can quickly become uninteresting and a nuisance to learn. Having understanding about music must inform understanding of music, the later of which is a product of experience, not just abstract learning. For understandings, we can ask “what musical style does this work represent, and what do you know about that style?” Many students can identify the style, but then really don’t know much about it. I played a song for a 7th grade class the other day, and they all recognized that it was hip-hop, and even told me that it was obvious, which of course it was. But then I asked them, right, it’s hip-hop, now what do you know about hip-hop culture and about rap music?” All they could tell me was that it had a good beat that is unlike the beat of other genres. This response was all I needed to see that I need to delve into the “about rap music” and not just use rap music as a material to teach rhythm and composing. I’m going to teach them the experiences of a few rap artists, and the social and cultural contexts in which and for which they created their songs. The songs I use will be those that they select based on their interests, experience, understandings and purposes. And so we have come full circle, applying the essential understanding with which we began.
As we teach our students selecting music to experience, we need to keep a few goals in mind. Here is what I want my students to be able to do once I have taught them this unit. I want them to understand how music is influenced by interests, experiences, understandings and purposes through learning information about the music, culture, historical era, lyrics, and so forth. I want them to be able to explain the purpose of programming and what is considered when making playlists for concerts, CDs, and radio stations are made. I want them to know definitions of musical elements such as articulation, dynamics, harmony, style, tempo, timbre and texture. I want them to be able to label musical elements while listening to music, and I want them to be able to compare across multiple listening samples.