Using Student Observations to Improve Instruction

Two of the most important questions to ask music students are, “what do you hear,” and “what does it sound like?” These are important questions because everything one can learn or know about music starts with what is observed, and for a hearing abled person, that observation is of what is heard. Knowing what a student has heard gives the teacher important data from which to proceed. It reveals what expressive, structural, or form elements the students perceives and upon what the student is forming an understanding of what they are hearing. From knowing that, the teacher can then direct the students’ attention to other elements, or introduce them to other elements that will advance that understanding.

The second question, “what does it sound like,” indicates where the current music experience fits into the students’ lives. As a trained musician, I tend to find more disparity than similarity between musical works than others with little or no formal musical training. Someone will say to me that a certain song sounds like a certain classical work, and ask if I agree. Frequently I will be bewildered about what the similarity they heard might be, until I search for structural commonalities and discover that there is a chord progression in common, or that the two melodies, when reduced in a Schenkerian way, are much more similar than they are at the surface level, confirming that people do reduce music down in their perception of it as Lerdahl and Jackendoff claimed. By considering the student’s simile, I can learn a great deal about their level of familiarity with genres of music, a familiarity that either enabled, if it is high, or prevented, if it is low, the comparison.

If the student does not know what it sounds like, then I may prompt them with another work of a different style, one they are likely to be familiar with such as a pop or rap song, and probe to see if they can make a connection. At this point, I am broadening the students aural view, introducing new applications or uses of the item the student is listening for, and driving home the point that all music comes from a creator’s manipulation of the same elements of music, used in different ways to create different sounding results. It is like an artist saying, “have you ever considered using that brush stroke in this way,” or “have you ever seen those colors combined before?”

Questions about what is observed lead to questions about what does it mean? In music, meaning is abstract, embedded in the emotional effect the sounds have on listeners and performers. At this point, we are moving from what is observed in the music, to what is observed in the person hearing the music. “How do you feel when you hear that music?” Students can become aware of emotional and physical changes that come about upon hearing the music to which you are directing their attention. “Did you become excited? Startled? Relaxed? Did your heart start beating faster? Did you find yourself moving or wanting to move? In answering these and similar questions, students make connections between the physical stimulus that is the music and that is the same for everyone, and their personal response to that music, which can vary from one person to another.

Those responses can vary, because listeners have different answers to the two questions I posed earlier: “What do you hear, and what does it sound like?” As the answers to those questions vary, so too will the responses to the music. This leads to the next question: “What did you hear in the music that started you feeling that way, or doing that?” Now we are getting to not only the specific element(s) perceived, but also to how the composer used or manipulated the specific element(s) in this musical work. At times, there will be general agreement. “I became excited when the music got fast.” At other times, there will be disagreement. “It scared me when it suddenly got loud.” “I got happy when it suddenly got loud.” I might reply, “Why did you get happy when the music suddenly got loud?” Now the student must analyze the experience. It might be something as simple as, “I was happy because I was bored during the soft part, but when it got loud I really liked it. I was glad it wasn’t soft anymore.” This student is responding to dynamics. “Do you think the sound of the trumpets and trombones had anything to do with your happy feeling, or could it have been any combination of instruments and it still would have made you just as happy?”

Notice I have not told the class what my response was. I don’t want to influence what they say, so I keep my own answers to my questions to myself, at least for now. Once I have heard all the responses from the class, I will share my responses after telling them that they are only my responses, and that their answers are just as good. Sometimes, before I begin this, a student will outright ask me, “what did you feel while you listened?” This is great, because it indicates further interest in what we are doing. If other students have yet to respond, I will promise to tell them after I have heard al of their responses.

I consider all of this responding to music as important groundwork to performing and creating activities that will follow. Having proficiency at perceiving and understanding music must precede interpreting, performing, and creating music. This is because students must gain understanding through listening and develop a vocabulary to discuss what they understand before they can apply those understandings to forming an interpretation, performing an interpretation and composing their own musical work. In order to elicit responses in others similar to their own they must be in command of the musical elements as interpreters, performers and composers. They gain that command through first listening to, responding to and analyzing other people’s works, then transferring learning to the other musical processes.

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