Problems in Responding to Music

Version 2There are essentially three things to which a person can respond in music; structure, form, and emotions. Structure are those things in music that we intuitively understand, such as beat, phrasing, and meter. Because of the natural way we perceive these structures, we are able to sort out the musical sounds and organize them in ways that make sense to us. Beat is particularly interesting. Because metrical structure is hierarchical, there are several beats that can be perceived at any moment while listening to music. One might perceive the quarter note beat, the eighth note beat, the half note beat or even the measure beat. When teachers teach young children beat, they are generally looking for a motor response as evidence that the child understands the beat, but difficulty or failure to show a beat with physical movement is not necessarily an accurate indication that the child cannot perceive the beat–the difficulty can be a disconnect between cognitive perception and motor response. On the other hand, a teacher should be observant of which beat a child is showing with movement. A teacher may be expecting the quarter note beat shown with a patch, but the child may show an eighth note beat, and be perfectly in time with it. Such a response cannot be considered wrong, because it is one of the several levels of hierarchical beat structure that is in fact present in the music to which the child is listening. Teachers don’t need to teach students how.

Form is the result of structure. Phrasing structure, more accurately called grouping structure, presents a hierarchy of nested phrases that, at the highest level forms whole sections or even movements of a musical work. Structure reveals that motives are nested in phrases, phrases are nested in themes, themes are nested in theme groups, theme groups are nested in sections, sections are nested in a movement. The results of all of this nesting is form. The “A” section or the first theme are elements of form, whereas the phrases and meter are elements of structure and the building blocks of form. Structure delineates the units which can be heard as same or different, whereas the organization of same and different elements constitutes the form.

Emotions are those feelings that are aroused within a person in response to hearing music. True emotional response to music is limited to the four basic emotions of fear, anger, sadness, and happiness.  Music arouses physical responses that mimic what we feel when we are truly angry, afraid, sad or happy. Music does not actually frighten us orMusic-Feelings-300x197 anger us; instead it stimulates us by setting off the same or similar physical responses as those triggered by the actual experience of being frightened or angry. Other feelings that we attribute to music are likely associations we make between circumstances or events and a specific musical work. We might, for example become sad when hearing music that was played at a loved one’s funeral, or we might become happy when hearing music that was played at our wedding. These responses to music have nothing to do with the music itself, but are about the circumstances. Whereas a musical work will arouse fear emotions in most people, because the initiation of the fearful experience is common to most, a. musical work to which the response is an association to an event will not arouse the same emotion in people who were not at that event or who did not experience that circumstance; therefore, whereas children will respond similarly or identically to the storm movement in Beethoven’s 6th symphony, they will respond dissimilarly to Pachelbel’s canon. The dissimilarity is because some children will have heard it played at a relative’s wedding, others in a movie, while others are hearing it for the first time, with no circumstantial experience to influence their response. These will respond to the calm demeanor of the music, and perhaps call that happiness.

Whether a child is responding to structure, form, or emotions, there remains a problem in assessing responses to music common to all. True responses to music are physical. That is, responses to music occur as activity in the nervous system that causes movement, heart rate changes, “goose bumps,” sweaty palms, and so forth. These physical responses are triggered primarily by structure and by non-structural elements such as dynamics, tempo, and timbre. These responses are far more complex than what children can typically describe in words, pictures, or even movement. While teaching music vocabulary is important, and gives students the tools needed to describe and write about music, vocabulary can also become an unfortunate restriction when it comes to understanding responses to music.

A child can respond that a musical work was “scary” with relative ease, but will likely resort to using learned vocabulary to explain why. For example, the child might say the music was scary because it was loud and fast, or because of the timpani or trombones. But this response can easily lead to unfortunate generalizations that loud fast music is always scary. There are other things going on here that are not easily described or even known. There may be an association with other music, that heard in scary movies for example, that also used the deep timbre of trombones and that was fast and loud. The beating of the timpani may have coincided with the child’s heartbeat and so made an especially strong emotional impact. These kinds of responses are likely occurring, but are left undetected by student and teacher alike because they cannot be made known through the child’s verbal response.

While it is natural to ask children something to the effect of “what emotions were expressed in this music?” it might be more to the point to ask the children to monitor their physical response while they listen. At the end of listening, the teacher might ask, “are your palms sweaty now?” “Did your heart start beating faster when the music got really loud?” Often, more can be learned from observing children’s body language while listening than from relying on their verbal accounts or answers to our questions or worksheets. It is important that we connect with these authentic responses, because this is the level at which students are truly experiencing the music. When we jus right to discussions about form, we can easily be superimposing relatively irrelevant things, and distracting everyone from what really matters to those who were just immersed body and soul into a great musical experience.




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