With the National Core Arts Standards now in their third year, music educators have grown accustomed to thinking of music education in terms of four artistic processes: creating, performing, responding, and connecting. One could argue that responding and connecting are present in creating and performing, so that responding permeates everything a person does with music. Responding is also the process students who do not participate in performing ensembles are frequently guided to in classes known variously as music appreciation, general music, or music history. Because responding to music includes virtually every student in any given school, it is imperative that music educators understand this artistic process, and what students are or should be asked to do in a music class when they are responding to music.
There are four primary tasks a student can perform when responding to music. These are selecting, analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating. The first of these, selecting, is critically important, though it is often overlooked. Students should be given as much latitude as possible in selecting music to which they will respond. When teachers determine to present students with a list from which to choose, the selections should include a spectrum of cultures, traditions, historical contexts, and genres. If there are Asian students in the class and only music from Western cultures are included, then those students are being culturally disadvantaged in that class. Restrictions that include time limits or language that violates school policy may be necessary and are acceptable, though I will have more to say on the language issue at a later time. It is in the selection task that students should be given the opportunity to explore, enjoy and expand their experiences of music of their own culture and from their personal experiences of music.
The next three tasks, analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating, really need to be preceded by another–that of observing. Asking a student to analyze something they have not observed renders the analysis meaningless to the student because they do not really know what they are analyzing; they cannot relate their analysis, no matter how well done, to anything they experienced in the music. So once a musical work is selected for responding, students must just listen and make observations of what they hear. What culture is this music from? How do we know? What does the music cause us to want to do or cause us to feel? What effect does the music have on our bodies or emotions? What sudden changes or contrasts did we notice? What musical elements were used to create those contrasts? To cause us to want to move or dance, or to speed up or heart rate, or to relax us? Have we heard this music before? If so, where have we heard it? To what form does the music conform? What timbres do we hear, and what are the instruments or combinations of instruments that created those timbres? These are just some of the things our students can observe. All are potential objects of analysis.
Once the students have made observations, they are at least somewhat familiar with
the musical work, and are aware of what is going on in the music. For analysis to begin, students or the teacher select something from the students’ observations and make it the object of analysis. While observation answers the question “what do I hear?” analysis answers the question “how does it work?” or “how did the composer do that?” If students observed that the music sounded like it was from a particular culture or country, then have them analyze what in the music made it sound that way. It could have been the scale that was used, an instrument that was used, or even a text that was sung in a particular language. Students can find all instances of things in the music that indicate the culture or country of origin. Or perhaps the music was written for a particular purpose, and that purpose is suggested in what was observed. John Adams’ On The Transmigration of Souls was written to remember those who died in the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. It begins with the sounds of emergency vehicles and then proceeds into a solemn reading of names or the declaration of “unknown” for each victim. That the music was composed for the purpose of honoring a group of people who died is easily recognizable, but the use of musical elements is why it sounds as it does, and is a good basis for analysis. Though most of us did harmonic analysis in our undergraduate music education programs, I do not recommend having students do harmonic analysis unless they specifically observed chord progressions, or made observations of chords.
This brings us to interpretation. Here, we want the students to find meaning in the music they have heard. Some of that meaning will have been discovered during analysis if students have analyzed what in the music caused them to feel a particular emotion. Interpretation answers the question “what does it mean?” What was the composer or songwriter trying to express in the music? If the students have found through analysis that the music is largely soft, slow, legato, and composed for gentle sounding instruments like perhaps flute, guitar and harpsichord, then it may be the composer wanted to express tranquility, peacefulness, or resignation. We might ask, “how did the composer bring out the qualities of tranquility and peacefulness in his use of musical elements?” We might also ask, “How did the performers’ decisions on how soft and how slow to play the music help create peaceful, tranquil music?” “What did you hear in the performance that indicated to you that the performers were trying to make the music as peaceful and tranquil as possible?” We can also ask students to perform phrases from the music to demonstrate how they would make the music sound peaceful and tranquil.
Lastly, we come to evaluation. Evaluation answers the question “how well did the composer, songwriter and/or performer do in creating or presenting a musical work with clearly conveyed intent? The evaluation can be based on what was learned from analysis, did it work well, from interpretation, did it effectively convey intent or meaning, and from other established criterion. This other criterion could be based on how well the creator adhered to cultural norms, how effectively orchestration was used to create interest, clarity, and variety, or how one musical work compares to another. The objective is for students to objectively apply an established criteria, and not so much what that criteria is. The only caution is to not use criteria that privilege one type of music or one culture over another.
Responding to music is a rich and fruitful artistic process. It has the potential to engage students in learning and lead them into high level thinking and scholarship. It should not be viewed as a task given to those who are not in an ensemble, for to regard it this way is to overlook the deep musical understanding that awaits all students who engage in responding to music as it has been discussed here.