Incorporating a Writing Skills Program Into a Music History Curriculum

October 1, 1979

In Volume Eighteen, No. 1 of SYMPOSIUM, Nancy B. Reich concludes her article on the need of bibliographic instruction to undergraduates with "It is my hope that suggestions, comments, and questions on courses in music bibliography or courses which incorporate such instruction will be explored . . . in the pages of this journal."1 It is in the spirit of that statement that the following description of the program at Brooklyn College is offered. Instruction in the use of the music library and its basic bibliographic works is part of the program. (It consists, rather embarrassingly, of a single session in the library given by the music librarian.) However, the thrust is chiefly towards preparing the students to write acceptable music history research papers. The components of the program are: 1) the library session, 2) five writing assignments attached to the first course in music history, music of the pre-Classic and Classic eras, and 3) four music history writing workshops.

The library session includes the standard instruction in the organization and use of the library. Some of the basic bibliographic works are explained and given on-the-spot use. These include Baker's Biographical Dictionary, The Harvard Dictionary, Grove's, Heyer's Historical Sets . . . , and Music Index. Some instruction in bibliographic citation and how to recognize reprint editions is also included. This session immediately precedes the first written assignment in the music history course.

The first assignment is a pair of short bibliographies on a composer and a subject. Intended as an exercise in using basic reference sources, such as the dictionaries and encyclopedias discussed in the library session, the assignment also asks students to include journal articles—all in correct citation format.

The second assignment is a two- to three-page sketch of the life and works of a composer. Rather than listing the most famous composers about whom there is a voluminous literature, instructors usually suggest secondary figures that require some detective work. In the eighteenth century, for example, Elizabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, Johann Quantz, and Leopold Mozart are appropriate topics.

The third assignment is a short description of a musical work that is no longer than a symphonic movement. This task focuses on the difficulties of combining stylistic observation with historical fact. The students may be told to follow a model such as the commentaries in historical anthologies, for example, Masterpieces of Music before 1750, or the instructor may indicate the particular type of description required. Since these descriptions must be both short and highly informative, they are not easy to write.

Some imagination can come into play in the fourth assignment, in which we ask students to "produce" a hypothetical "historical concert" and to write program notes to accompany it. The students choose the pieces and arrange them in a musically attractive and historically coherent fashion. Record anthologies are often useful models for such an assignment. Program notes are understood to be something between Tovey's Essays in Musical Analysis, which Tovey describes as program notes for the concert room,"2 and encyclopedia articles that are compilations of fact. Although the concert or recording must be didactic, that is, intended to illustrate the stylistic development of a genre or a composer's musical growth, there is a welcome area of choice for the individual.

The final assignment is a standard term paper. Usually we give students a list of topics, but they may suggest their own project as well. Acceptable topics are those which call on the various skills developed in the previous assignments. The paper is preceded by an outline and bibliography as a check on organization and quality.

The writing workshops are perhaps the most ambitious part of the program. They comprise four seventy-five-minute sessions held outside of normal classes. We wrote a syllabus for the workshops that is a musical supplement to such general guides on writing as Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Included in it are examples of incorrect writing, each paired with a corrected version. "The performance was remarkable" represents a type of example given in the syllabus, this one to demonstrate the poverty of information in such expressions. Two possible versions of correct writing are given: 1) "The performance contained the most out-of-tune playing I've ever heard"; and 2) "The performance was remarkable for the precision and accuracy of intonation displayed by the group."

A passage from Grout's History of Western Music appears with three re-writes to illustrate flowery and pretentious writing, the misuse of conversational clichés, and habits derived from pop journalism. Exposure to these generally improves the students' opinion of Grout. We also try to emphasize the value of writing that is objective, informative and precise. Hence, there is a section giving some sample descriptive adjectives typically applied to music: "good" ones (conjunct, triadic, lyrical, dissonant) and "bad" ones (mellow, cheery, charming, virile). We try to do this part of the workshop in a light spirit. No one wants to receive a catechism of acceptable words to describe the intimate business of aesthetic reaction. Still, we like to suggest the need to translate personal response into communicative observation.

Other sections contain examples of jargon and paraphrase, again both good and bad, as well as information on making outlines and taking notes.

Although each of the workshop sessions includes a discussion of the examples in the syllabus, we mainly use classroom time to concentrate on a particular skill needed to write a music history research paper. The subject of the first session is outlines. A topic is presented to the students who, in a guided discussion, compile and organize categories of information on this topic. A familiar topic is chosen to insure lively student participation. Most recently the topic was "The Beatles." The students, themselves, work over the topic quite thoroughly, the role of the instructor being to: 1) summarize the discussion from time to time, 2) prevent its becoming side-tracked or bogged down in trivial detail, 3) eventually derive general principles from the specific details of discussion, and 4) relate the workshop discussion to pertinent material in the syllabus. To achieve all of this in seventy-five minutes the session must be fast paced, the discussion relatively free of repetitiousness and firmly directed towards its goal. As those of us who have taught it can attest, a successful session is a wearing experience.

Subsequent sessions are concerned with taking notes, describing a piece of music, and organizing information from several sources. The working procedures of all of them are quite similar. For example, the students attempt to take notes on, that is, demonstrate that they can read and understand, pages 110-111 of The New Oxford History of Music, volume 7, where a discussion of Mozart's earliest operatic compositions appears. Near the end of the session they are given copies of notes prepared earlier by the instructor, which are then compared with the product of the session's discussion. The third session begins with the critique of a review taken from a local (very local) newspaper. Its general quality can be determined from the following excerpt: "The next item for presentation was Miss — performing Six Variations in F major, Opus 34, by Beethoven. In truth it was the same piece played six different ways. . . . The sixth section was cheery and played allegro. Interesting enough Miss — started out this section in 4/4 time and gradually slowed to 3/4 time." Quite dependably, the students tear it apart with considerable relish, but then, the tone having been set, they must try their own hand at describing the minuet and trio from Haydn's Piano Sonata in D major, Hob. XVI/4. The ensuing attempts are rife with criticism and revision. They usually produce one short paragraph and a part of a second, a neatly typed version of which is distributed at the next and last session.

Using a topic such as "The Hurdy-Gurdy in the Music of the Classic Era" and sources such as the articles in The Harvard Dictionary, Grove's Dictionary, and Sach's History of Musical Instruments, in the final session we try to organize the information according to the principles of a good outline, noting discrepancies among the three sources and problems that might require further research. The particular value of the materials just cited are that: 1) they cannot be easily paraphrased and contain little of quotable value, 2) the pertinent information cannot be readily copied from them paragraph by paragraph, source by source, and 3) even a basic definition of the instrument requires combining information from several of the sources. These points are not lost on the students; the instructor sees to that, after the students have struggled with the material and, usually, rejected paraphrasing and quoting, rearranged the information, and produced a viable definition in the process. No attempt is made to put any of the results of the session into writing. At this point the workshops end and each student will now (hopefully) apply the recently acquired (again, hopefully) knowledge and skills to the writing assignments made in the history courses, individually.

The full effects of the library instruction and writing workshops on the students' papers are not easily determinable. We have not, for example, attempted to secure carefully chosen groups; that would give the program a "remedial" cast; instead we simply expose all students to the program and hope for the best. When the program was first introduced three years ago, instructors comparing the quality of paper writing—before and after—felt that the quality had improved somewhat. The greatest successes seem to have been in the most concrete matters, viz., the handling of footnotes, bibliography, and quotes. It seems likely, too, that we have gotten students to rely less on paraphrasing, particularly that which borders on plagiarism.

There has been less success in getting students to take proper notes, prepare effective outlines, do systematic research, or use the music library most effectively, for all of these are the hardest skills to acquire and the ones most easily compromised when students are faced with rapidly approaching deadlines. Nor does the program effectively reach all students, for there are always some who seem to prove the adage about leading a horse to water. However, on the more pleasant side, there are also those students who show us, successful papers in hand, how much they have gotten from the program. Most pleasantly, the present program will be officially out-of-business at the end of the current term, and that is, perhaps, the program's greatest success. For the Fall 1979 term, the one library and four workshop sessions will be replaced by a full, 30-instructional-hour course—a course which derives directly from the impetus of the program just described, and a course, we might add, which will include more bibliographic instruction.


(Copies of the Writing Workshop Syllabus can be obtained from the Department of Music, Brooklyn College.)

1Nancy B. Reich, "Using the Music Library," SYMPOSIUM, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring 1978), p. 140.

2Donald Francis Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), I, 1.

1911 Last modified on November 9, 2018