What Are The Answers To Music’s Essential Questions?

Music educators now have essential questions on which to base their instructional units and by extension the lesson plans within those units. These questions are meant to get at the heart of the discipline of music. They are not like questions students might be asked such as “what is binary form?” or “who was John Lennon?” No, essential questions give students a starting point for inquiry and authentic learning experiences that bring them face to face with the heart and soul of our discipline. Students answer these questions by doing things that are learning experiences designed to bring them around to understandings that they can transfer to new musical situations because those understandings are universally important within the context of music. In other words, essential questions get at learning that is important to all musical situations, and not limited to a particular topic or genre, or what have you.

Let’s look at some of these essential questions, and examine how their use plays out in a music classroom. It is hoped that doing so will not only help music educators get a firmer grasp on planning music instructional units with some real depth to them, but will also be of use in writing and revising music curriculum.

Although I will to go into detail for every essential question, I would like to list them, so that you will be able to explore them further on your own after you have finished reading this article. Here they are.

  • How do musicians generate creative ideas?
  • How do musicians make creative decisions?
  • How do musicians improve the quality of their creative work?
  • When is creative work ready to share?
  • How do performers select repertoire?
  • How does understanding the structure and context of musical works inform performance?
  • How do performers interpret musical works?
  • How do musicians improve the quality of their performance?
  • When is a performance judged ready to present to an audience?
  • How do context and the manner in which musical work is presented influence audience response?
  • How do individuals select music to experience?
  • How does understanding structure and context of musical works inform a response?
  • How do we discern the musical creators’ and performers’ expressive intent?
  • How do we judge the quality of musical works and performances?
  • How do musicians make meaningful connections to creating, performing, and responding?
  • How do the other arts, other disciplines, contexts, and daily life inform creating, performing and responding to music?

Wow, that’s quite a list of questions. Let’s just look at a few of them and see how we go about making them useful to the teaching of our students. Let’s start with the first one: how do musicians generate creative ideas? Before we can get very far with this one, we must impress upon our students that they are musicians. They must understand that we are not teaching them something that only other people do, people who happen to make their livings in music. No, we are teaching them things that they as student musicians do; that these things are within their abilities as students of music, and things that by doing them will show them the way to and through enjoying making music in a variety of ways.

Once students have personalized in this way what we will be having them do, then we can begin in earnest. How do musicians, that is how do you as a musician, generate musical ideas? It all starts with experiencing and familiarizing oneself with musical elements in music to which they listen. First by listening, then by imitating, and lastly by creating bits of music that show a command of musical elements, students are then ready to improvise, which is the first way they, musicians, generate musical ideas. Improvisation should include a good deal of musical play and exploration. This was expounded upon by Carl Orff, who placed great value on improvisation.

How student musicians generate musical ideas by improvising looks different depending in part on the age of the child. For example, if I hand a drum to a 3 or 4 year old child, he or she will often take great delight in banging on it as fast as they can. This child is generating musical ideas by doing what they take delight in doing, without thought to form, beat, meter or anything else. To a pre-kindergarten child, the answer is they generate musical ideas by doing something that they enjoy aurally and kinesthetically. There is delight in making fast loud sounds, but there is also delight in moving their arms excitedly and fast.

Now if I give a drum to a 6th grade child, they probably will still enjoy playing fast and loud, but what they are playing now has structure. This older child will play a groove, perhaps recreating one from a favorite song, or one that elicits the same feel. The difference is that by 6th grade children have acquired a vocabulary of rhythm patterns, beats, riffs, grooves and favorite songs that a 3- or 4-year old has not. The 6th graders improvisation is informed by experiences with music that a 3 year old has not yet had. So the answer for a 6th grader is that they generate musical ideas by drawing upon familiar patterns, beats, grooves and riffs, arranging them in various sequences in order to make their improvisation sound like something they like in other musical works.

The differences in the answers for a pre-kindergarten child and a 6th grader necessitate different instructional practices. Both age groups are given music to which to listen, and both are given opportunities to improvise. The differences are that the younger children spend more time listening and giving brief musical responses, while the older children spend more time giving more extended musical responses, and spend less time listening to acquire a working musical vocabulary. So in terms of a curriculum, the question is asked for all students, but the learning objectives and expected outcomes (the answer to the question) are different according to age and experiential differences.

I would like to briefly look at a second essential question from our list above; “how do we judge the quality of musical works and performances?” This one can be tricky, because students often have difficulty distinguishing between preference and quality. Again, this question is built over years, and indeed begins with preferences. We begin at an early age talking about personal and expressive preferences, and use them as the basis for judging the quality of musical works and performances. This is the most natural way of thinking about what good music is and what bad music is. When a child says “that was good” or “that was awesome” they likely mean they really enjoyed that music, and if pressed for a reason why, they are likely to say they liked it because it was loud, fast, exciting, or it reminded them of music they heard at their older brothers wedding. The music in some way positively affected them, or they made a positive connection to it, and so they judged the music to be good, or better. Similarly, if the music “bored them to tears,” they are likely to say they didn’t like the music, so it was not good.

To be sure, many musical works that are that boring are probably not good, but there are arguments to be made to support music that bores us being good music which we just happen to not like. For this to occur, criteria must be employed as the basis for the judgment. Perhaps the structure or compositional technique is a wonder to behold, even though the experience of listening to it is anything but. For example, the motivic development in the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, or the expressive timbres and inflections of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire are may well be judged as wonders to behold, but if one absolutely hates symphonic or atonal music, then they will not judge both these works highly, though they demonstrate high levels of composing prowess. It is the ability to explain why one judges a musical work the they do, and to develop criteria for doing so that marks the progression of this essential question through the years. Once again, the question is asked of all students, regardless of age, but the expected outcomes and corresponding instruction are different according to developmental considerations.

In both examples, the idea that essential questions are universal to the discipline is well illustrated. When music educators are guided by these essential questions, their instruction and the achievement of their students goes profoundly and deeply in the discipline of music; it penetrates music beyond superficiality and into the very best of its richness. I encourage you, whether you are a practicing music educator or a music education major, to review all of the essential questions listed above, and to think through each one as it relates to your students. You cannot miss the most important aspects of music if you will follow these questions.

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