Music in General Studies: A Look at Content and Method

October 1, 1986

For the last three or four years, Music in General Studies has been a primary topic of discussion and writing. The report of the College Music Society's 1981 Wingspread conference sought to encourage interest toward ". . . developing discerning judgment about and keener responsiveness to music."1 At least two aspects of the Music in General Studies curriculum surfaced as areas for concern: methodology and course content.2 Both areas continue to require further clarification and structure. This paper provides a method and an orientation toward curriculum content that accepts the development of students' "responsiveness" to music as the central purpose of general music classes.

The 1981 Wingspread conference report noted that "the status of general music within this fix is not easily determined. . . . The intangibility and temporal nature of music demand special methodology."3 The task of methodology, in this instance, is to bridge content ". . . with courses aimed at developing connoisseurs, responsive, reflective qualified listeners."4 The method presented in this article is termed "responsive" because it attempts to provide an approach that allows teachers and students to remain open to any dimension of meaning that might be uncovered through music listening. The method will be presented in detail later in this article.

Concerning the issue of curriculum content, "Music faculties stand accused by some of our colleagues of ignoring the study of music as cultural metaphor. . . . Courses in popular culture, such as film, seem to relate directly to an understanding of experiences of life and society. . . ."5 It is difficult for non-music majors to relate to much of the music of the classics. There is, of course, one genre of music that most students identify with very naturally, rock music. General music curricula need not ignore the relationship of music to culture and society. Rock music provides a content that will immediately engage students. It will also allow teachers to move more readily into other styles. Such a move, however, requires a responsive method that emphasizes the commonality in the musical experiences of rock music and the classics. Thus a fundamental organicity between a method and a content for general music is called for.

Responsive music listening is an act of critical thinking marked by a commitment to listen to and articulate, as fully as possible, the unfolding message of any musical work. "Responsiveness," understood as a mode of orientation in curriculum development and criticism, is not a new notion.6 Responsive music listening requires a commitment to let musical works show themselves in any way or dimension of meaning that might occur. The logic here is that any method structures the manner in which we can respond to the various dimensions of meaning that might surface in music listening. What is important to remember is that the nature and limitations of the questions we ask of a musical work concomitantly limit the kinds of answers we can receive. Thus the scope and ultimately the fruitfulness of any appreciative inquiry into a musical work are directly tied to the method employed.

It might be helpful to preface a detailed account of this method with a brief overview of more traditional methods for musical listening. The most established methods are, in broad terms, formal and historical. To a degree, the latter includes or overlaps with the first; historical analysis often includes a description of formal elements.

Formalist methods attempt to make explicit the structure and function of the elements that constitute a musical work's syntax. The easiest example is undergraduate music theory and form and analysis classes. This important approach allows one to understand the materials, the underlying functional logic, and the very rules of grammar that constitute many (though not all) musical styles. Formalist methods ignore, however, what music might refer to. Musical meaning that lies outside of music's formal elements is often termed "referential meaning." Referential meaning in music is, at an obvious level, the program or story in descriptive music. An example is the war scene in the 1812 Overture. Most listeners in Western cultures tend to understand that such a scene is being referred to by the music. Referential meaning also points to the life-world of a composer. This is not as obvious as a story line but it does emanate from many works. Certainly one important treasure in great music is the "opening of the world" of the composer.7 By design, however, this cannot be discussed (that is, one cannot respond explicitly to the "world" of the composer or to any dimension of referential meaning) when a formal approach is utilized.

Historical approaches to music might seem to present referential meaning in music insofar as they discuss the facts of the period and style that surround a particular work. In fact, however, the information that is gathered and delineated cannot properly be termed "referential meaning" in its usual philosophical usage. Meaning is referential insofar as symbols refer to something outside their syntactical meaning. If we consider the word automobile, its syntactical meaning includes its function as a noun, the number of syllables it is constituted of, etc. The referential meaning of this word, on the other hand, refers to the thing and the idea of the thing to which it points, that is, a car. We can use the word automobile without having one at hand and anyone can understand what and to what we are referring. Susanne K. Langer notes that this is so because symbols capture and convey the logic of the things they represent.8 The word automobile functions as a symbol because it does not have to point to any specific factual car that is here at the moment but names those things that have wheels and engines, etc. To the symbol automobile inheres the logic of what is common to any car and thus refers to it.

Music is also a symbol system or language. Similarly, its referential meaning must inhere in the music. That is, in order for something to be properly termed the referential meaning of music, that meaning must somehow grow organically out of the music. The facts that Bach never visited France or Italy and that he died in 1750 do not inhere or grow organically out of a piece of his music. These facts are extrinsic (though not necessarily unimportant) to his music. This kind of historical information tends to be extrinsic and thereby cannot be correctly termed "referential" as explicated above.

Underlying both methods (formal and historical) is an implicit commitment to the objective stance of the appreciator. The listener must not articulate his own feelings overtly in his description of the music. This would bring a subjective countenance to the method that is not in line with the technical and scientific paradigm that most intellectual activities (inside and outside music) follow.

We are now faced with a dilemma. Students experience rock music in anything but a purely formal or historical manner. They experience it openly and personally. While formal or historical analyses of rock music might be supportive, ultimately a teacher must deal with the nature of the experience of rock music that young people have in their daily interaction with it. The responsive approach to music listening provides such a method.

Underlying the responsive approach is an image of the manner in which the human mind interacts with the world. This image is characterized by creativity, spontaneity, freedom, and action. Man is not simply a passive reactor to his environment, as many behavioral experimenters would have us believe. Man is able to inject himself into his environment (including musical experiences) as an active and creative being.9 I have presented the implications of adhering to an antiquated mechanistic model of mind (utilized in some of the research that is carried out in music education) elsewhere.10 The point within the context of this paper is that students do not experience rock music like scientists in the act of dissection but as creative and spontaneous persons immersed in the experience of the musical work.



The first step of the responsive method calls on the teacher to announce that a rock piece will be played on the stereo. The students are instructed to listen to the piece "openly," allowing the music to lead and possess their perception. If they wish, the students may write out thoughts about the piece as they listen. After the piece is played the class discusses it in any dimension. Some students might speak to the instrumentation or the work's rhythmic thrust (syntax). Another dimension of meaning discussed might be the meaning of the words or the piece's general mood (semantic). With older and more sophisticated students it is possible that, at this early step in the process, a discussion might ensue of the significance of how this piece seems to capture a sense of human existence or culture (ontology). Both semantics and ontology are areas that can be termed "referential." They grow from the work yet point to something outside of its syntax or formal elements. If the piece is very long or complex, several "open" listenings and subsequent discussions may be required. This is a flexible aspect of the method and will depend upon factors such as the length of class and the maturity of the students.

The second structural step requires listening specifically for syntactical meaning. The teacher asks the class to ignore or bracket out what the sounds might refer to (semantic or ontology); at this point the students deal with the sound itself. Much of a syntactical discussion is similar to the formal approach described earlier. There are two distinctive differences: the overall responsive method does not limit discussion to musical syntax (although it is limited to syntax during this second structural step), and there is a call for listening to the "sound as such."11 The notion of the "sound as such" is more fundamental than that of the "sound in form." Listening to the "sound as such" is something like listening to sound for its own sake. The teacher directs the students to listen for and to describe the texture, timbre, and quality of sounds.12 One might respond to a rich echo in the voices or perhaps a flat and dry-toned vocal. The guitar might be marked by a biting metallic quality or low, full, and round notes that seem to explode and then dissipate. Listening to the drummer in this manner might result in the articulation of the sizzling clasp of the high-hat as it takes part in a counterpoint with the deep-toned tom-tom, crisper snare drum, and the ground-like thud of the bass drum. Keyboards, strings, horns, and any other instruments utilized each have a particular syntactical quality that can be separately listened for and articulated. Putting these separate syntactical sounds back together is a rather rich step in hearing the "sound as such." This is accomplished without reference to higher levels of syntax that include form, style, structure, functional harmony, etc. Each instrument stands out autonomously in its unique sound with the others because of these fundamental listenings. Yet as one's perception is opened to the entire range of the sounds of all of the instruments together, the individual autonomy of each instrument is not lost. Instead the sounds of the individual instruments fit and blend into the overall syntactical puzzle.

Highly trained performers, producers, and music listeners often listen in this way. When a performer carefully monitors his tone or when a producer must decide how much echo to add to a recording, neither listens to the music through traditional formal or historical approaches. Each listens to the sound for its own sake in order to solve some problem of musical sound qualitatively. Responsive music listening brings the student closer to listening to sound in this manner. Much of music education is constituted of formal and historical accounts of music. While these are important, they may in fact train us to listen away from the "sound as such." The fruitfulness of responsive listening is therefore not limited to general music students. Listening solely to sound is an activity that characterizes non-musicians at a rock concert as well as a great performer listening to his tone during a performance. The level of sophistication may be different, but both are essentially responding to the sound for its own sake.

After listening specifically for the "sound as such," one remains at the syntactical level (the second structural step) in order to discuss the work's formal elements, that is, to discuss the sound in form. After the articulation of the various sounds of the instruments, you will find that the class is much more amenable to analyzing the work formally. As most music educators are trained in this dimension of analysis and already implement this kind of activity in their teaching, I shall not discuss it further.

The third structural step is to move into a semantic dimension. The meaning of the words or text forms the first obvious level of semantic meaning. At a deeper level, one also might discuss how a piece (with or without a text) expresses various human feelings. Moods like happiness, sadness, excitement, anxiety, frustration, joy, and anger can be expressed in an essential musical form and articulated critically.13 Rock music often attempts to present a social view or value. In this sense it may mirror some of the cultural attitudes and trends in the West during the last twenty-five years. Discussion of this dimension of semantic meaning can be lively and insightful, broadening the intuitive (but not often explicated) sense that many students have concerning this music.

As the semantic discussion moves into issues that point to a culture or that capture a glimpse of the values or critical questions and decisions by which any historical period may be characterized, one begins to border on an ontological horizon. This brings us to the fourth structural step in this method. Great rock music, like any work of art, can "ground" or "preserve" history as it sets into sound the composer's insight and experiences of his own world.14 The concept world used in this way is more than the physical planet. It is our dynamic interaction with the time in which we live. Our lives are marked by the potential to act; decisions to act one way or another are to a degree limited by one's cultural traditions. The ontological world of 1986 in Western culture is markedly different from that of 1886. If music is to a degree a mirror of the world in which it is created, it is easy enough to compare the music concerning war (for example) from both times in order to acquire a sense of the manner in which the people of each epoch viewed war. Late nineteenth-century Western art concerning war is often marked by attitudes of nationalism and concepts of heroism. The filming and documentation, for all to see, of two world wars and many military conflicts since have changed how the people of today generally view war; that change is manifest in today's music (and art). As music and the arts mirror and articulate a changing ontological world, they help to support and clarify it. At the same time, some art works look ahead and inform us of new directions. In this way, all the arts and the ontological world in which they are created interact in a continuous and dynamic dialectic as each informs and helps to give direction to the other. We do live in a very different world from that of 1886. Music and the other arts, to a certain extent, record, clarify, and preserve that historical perspective.

An example of an ontological discussion of a rock piece might be of help. In listening to Days of Future Past by the Moody Blues, an overt attempt seems to be made to present a particular approach to life. Distinguished by Eastern philosophy, this album functions at the ontological level in several ways. The album takes place within the span of one day. Each song title demarcates a time of the day: "Dawn," "Morning," "Lunch," "Evening," and "Night." Each of these synthetic time segments remains always part of time. The Moody Blues attempt to undercut chronological time in order to present the essence of a day. The listener is called upon to pull out of the rat race of a rushed "lunch" (marked by chronological time) and to see and enjoy life and nature in a new, fresh, and unhurried manner. The text notes that "children seem so wise" in their ability to let time simply slip by so that a day "can last a thousand years if you want it to." The songs progress with a deepening sense of enlightenment as they metaphorically present the day as a path toward an Eastern oneness with nature in which a person can appreciate "lightning bugs" not as insects but as a dancing "firefly brigade." While these ideas are certainly not original to the Moody Blues and can be considered variations on a theme that has run through the centuries, the manner in which these ideas are presented is typical of the late 1960s (the album was released in 1968), and to a degree this album helps to preserve a sense of the world that surrounded a young generation in Western culture during that period.

This metaphorical path to enlightenment is not presented as a steady or unbroken way to transcendence. In the fourth movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony the struggle to transcend in man (symbolized in the music) is also marked by victories and failures. In both works, sections regularly interrupt the transcendence of man and pull him back into ordinary existence. It is not until the end of both works that a full sense of victory over the ordinary is experienced. In the case of the Moody Blues work, the last piece, "Nights in White Satin," takes on considerable significance. In listening to the text, a usual semantic interpretation is that this is a story of a person who has broken off a relationship with someone else with whom he is still very much in love. After listening to the entire album and discussing it at an ontological level, however, it becomes clear that the person to whom the text of this last piece sings a repeated "I Love You" is in fact God. God, in this Eastern context, is a oneness that includes all things, nature and man. The loneliness and the separation that are alluded to in this song are not due to having broken up with a girl friend, but characterize the transcendent man's inability to experience the ordinary way of living in chronological time.

In the course of this empathic venture through the work students begin to realize that the semantic in fact grows out of the syntax as the ontology grows out of and is clarified by the semantic. Each dimension of meaning carries the other further than anyone of them could have gone separately. To leave out an ontological discussion of Days of Future Past would result in the loss of its unfolding message about how a particular generation in the late 1960s attempted to articulate, in musical form, their view of life. This is a work that is different from the works of sociologists, historians, and journalists. Music frequently presents an insight into the world of a historical people with a profundity that no discursive form could match. In my own experiences in teaching undergraduate general music and graduate aesthetics classes, there is a consistent response by students of surprise and gratification when the ontological discussions unfold. "So that's what it means!" they remark with excitement and interest. I quickly embellish their statement by noting, "That's what it might mean." There is no correct or incorrect version. Interpretation may be more or less expressive or responsive to the work; at the ontological level it certainly cannot be right or wrong.15

At this point in the responsive method, the teacher again asks the class to listen "openly."16 This allows the class to respond to any dimension of meaning. In this last open listening each dimension of meaning (syntax, semantic, and ontology) may stand out and interact, forming a conceptual gestalt. Each level of meaning remains a separable dimension, yet there is an inner connective organicity that holds them together in a dynamic state. The sound is different from ordinary sound because a crystallization of the world we live in has been set into it.

The method is clearly circular; it begins with listening "openly" to the whole work, then separates the syntactical, semantic, and ontological levels, only to put them back together again in the final "open" listenings. Many analytical approaches to music listening break down because after a formalistic analysis the pieces are never put back together again. As a result, the full force of a work is not experienced by the students.

Students begin to sense that there is an implicit value position in this approach. In order for a rock piece to be great it must not only display great manipulation of musical materials (syntax) but it must also ground a glimpse of the world in which the composer lived. Students now have a structure through which they can articulate the reason why they intuit that a particular piece of rock music may be entertaining and excellent for dancing yet is not compelling. If a piece does not allow a student to experience some sense of his or her "life-world," then an important criterion for greatness has not been met by the work. Different works will display varying degrees of ontological significance. Similarly, different levels of general music students will inherently be equipped to go as far as they can in substantive discussions of rock pieces. It is the teacher's responsibility to tailor the level of discussion of rock music as in any other style.

Think for a moment about the structure of many general music classes. Usually the main periods of musical styles are covered in chronological order. The logic that underlies such an approach is simply that of the administration of music in chronological order. A responsive approach to teaching general music is grounded in the experience and description of music. If rock music is more accessible to certain students or classes it could be presented first (chronologically). With the model of responsive music listening and description implemented in rock music, the class might then move to the music of other periods. The masterful manipulation of sound (syntax) and the experience of a past ontological world in the music of Beethoven might be more accessible to general music students after having similar experiences in rock music. The philosophical prescription directing the class content and method is that all of the musical selections studied are works that may function at many levels of meaning; this in turn requires a responsive attitude on the part of the listener. Thus, the bridge connecting and undergirding the content in a general music class is a responsive method that is committed to letting the work show itself to us.17 Moreover, the impact of incorporating rock music into the curriculum in general music goes beyond an appreciation of this genre for its own sake. It could be a key to opening students to an experience of all great music that is at once addicting, challenging, and enriching.

1A Wingspread Conference on Music in General Studies Sponsored by The College Music Society in Cooperation with The Johnson Foundation (July 10-12, 1981), 5.

2A third aspect discussed, teacher training, will not be considered in the present article.

3Music in General Studies, 10.

4Ibid., 9.

5Ibid., 15.

6See Larry Braskamp and Robert Brown, "An Interview with Robert Stake on Responsive Evaluation," in Evaluating the Arts in Education, A Responsive Approach, ed. Robert Stake (Columbus, Ohio: Merrill, 1975), 33-38.

7See Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art," in his Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 17-87. This is not a reiteration of the nineteenth-century notion that musical meaning is directly tied to the actual feelings of a composer. The opening of his world by the composer is viewed by Heidegger as an act of abstraction that crystallizes his being (i.e., his existing) in a particular time and place in cultural history.

8Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key (New York: New American Library, 1951), 53-78.

9Isidor Chein, The Science of Behavior and the Image of Man (New York: Basic Books, 1972), 6.

10Lawrence Ferrara, "Research and Practice in Music Education: The Problem of Dislocation," College Music Symposium 22 (1982):65-72.

11F. Joseph Smith amplifies this concept in The Experiencing of Musical Sound: Prelude to a Phenomenology of Sound (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1979), 91-117.

12Thomas A. Regelski has an excellent chapter that presents strategies for listening to sound for its own sake (a process he calls "Action with Sound") in Teaching General Music: Action Learning for Middle and Secondary Schools (New York: Collier Macmillan, 1981), 67-123. See also Lawrence Ferrara, "Allowing Oneself to be Moved: A Phenomenology of Musical Evaluation," in Qualitative Evaluation in the Arts, ed. David Ecker (New York: New York University, 1981), 125-51.

13Susanne K. Langer notes that music presents this dimension of "feeling" in a "virtual" and not an "actual" form, Feeling and Form (New York: Scribner's, 1953), 69-103.

14For a systematic discussion of the content in this fourth structural step, the uncovering of ontological significance as an act of "grounding history," see Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, 17-87.

15Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Seabury, 1975).

16The "open listening(s)" called for here constitutes the fifth and final step of the "responsive method" delineated in this article. Thus the five structural steps of the method are open listening(s) and discussion(s), listening(s) for syntax and discussion(s), listening(s) for semantic and discussion(s), listening(s) for ontology and discussion(s), open listening(s) and discussion(s).

17For an example of an in-depth analysis using this method, see Lawrence Ferrara, "Phenomenology as a Tool for Musical Analysis," Musical Quarterly 70 (1984):355-73.

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