College Music Appreciation: Pedagogical Approaches and Preliminary Findings

October 1, 1996

Up until the mid 1980s it was not uncommon to encounter students beginning music appreciation courses who could read notation and articulate perceptions about musical works using appropriate terminology. College was the time to build on their prior knowledge and musical experiences by acquainting them more fully with historical epochs and styles. Those with weak general music backgrounds caught up, sometimes with the help of teaching assistants or remedial sessions.

Unfortunately, the wheels of pre-college preparation have fallen off. Because of budgetary constraints and shifting priorities, an increasing number of students are receiving little or no music education other than through performance opportunities. Three years ago, Edward Rothstein made the following claim in the New York Times:

Whatever minimal infrastructure once existed for the teaching of music in public schools has been dismantled during the last 20 years with almost horrific nonchalance. And without music education, the art-music traditions of the world come to seem merely sonic entertainments competing in a crowded aural marketplace for the right to provide pleasure.1

Whereas in the past courses in music history and literature have constituted the bulk of undergraduate offerings for non-majors, music appreciation may well have become the more critical mission, particularly in instances where curricular demands leave little room for "free electives." How is it possible in a single semester to develop life-long skills and interests, to introduce chronology and style to students who, for the most part, lack an understanding of music terminology, cannot identify the sounds of orchestral instruments, and are unable to perceive aspects of rhythm, melody, and harmony? Would time be better spent developing skills and understandings formerly taught at the pre-college level? Is remediation the name of the game?

In discussing curricular planning for music education, Estelle R. Jorgensen offers the following observation:

There is a dialectic tension between the desirable and the possible, between what teachers want to do and what they can do. Constraints in this vision are viewed as creative possibilities, both restrictive and enabling, that operate in respect of each phase in the process of curriculum design. A synthesis of elements of the desirable and the possible results in the realizable, the reality of "what is."2

One obvious solution is to avoid or minimalize remediation. By limiting the study of sources of sound and musical elements to a brief, initial orientation, more time can be devoted to history and literature. There are usually several textbooks on the market, often pre-packaged with recordings, which take this approach. Explanations of musical works tend to be more descriptive than analytical, with the bulk of coverage oriented toward biographical and historical background.3

Students at least become acquainted with composers and their works. They may also gain a broad perspective about musical style, although it is doubtful many can articulate the differences based on perceptive listening. In fact, the biggest limitation may be the relative restriction of time available for the development of aural analysis, a skill judged by many to be a crucial link to aesthetic response. For this reason, courses designed in this manner more appropriately should be entitled "Understanding Music" rather than "Appreciating Music."

Another perhaps more pragmatic solution is to emphasize remediation. By devoting an entire semester to understanding and perceiving musical elements, students can begin to respond more directly to music's aesthetic qualities. This relationship has been articulated by proponents of the aesthetic education movement and confirmed in at least one study at the higher education level.4 Several college texts emphasize this approach, employing a variety of recorded excerpts to illustrate specific musical phenomena.5 Titles often incorporating "perception" or "involvement" imply the intent of getting students acquainted with music primarily as sound rather than for associative and historical reasons. The hope is that they will further pursue musical experiences with heightened aesthetic awareness. Unfortunately, because of time constraints, the risk is that they will graduate without learning much about their own cultural musical heritage.

The third choice is to combine aspects of the first two solutions into what can be best described as a "contextual learning approach." Terminology is defined and elemental components are analyzed concurrently with studying and listening to musical works. These, in turn, serve as exemplars for specific chronological periods, prompting a further investigation into historical background and stylistic evolution. Because of time limitations, it is not possible to cover an extensive amount of literature. However, by concentrating on a few works from each period, students begin to gain a historical perspective while learning to perceive and understand at least some of the actual properties of music.

Many of us know teachers who have employed this approach in a variety of disciplines. Few music texts are ideally structured for this method; however those with a substantial amount of historical information and an abundance of recorded musical examples may be suitable as student resources.

All three solutions have their virtues. But how effective are they as a basis for teaching undergraduates with limited prior general music education? Jessica Halpern focused on the first two of these approaches, which can be further identified as follows:

1. The historical approach. A study of music from a chronological perspective to include biographical and general historical information.
2. The analytical approach. The examination of musical works for presentation of musical elements and overall style.

In reviewing experimental studies, she made the following observation:

Although research comparing historical and analytical approaches toward music appreciation has been scant, the debate is apparent in the wide variance of the formats of textbooks supposedly having the same goal.6

In her own testing Halpern found the historical approach to be superior in creating more positive responses to music. However, since information provided to students was limited to readings, it is not surprising that the analytical treatment was "perceived as wordy, confusing, and dull."7

Certainly teaching strategy should have bearing on overall effectiveness. Glenn L. Hosterman compared cooperative learning with the more traditional learning/demonstration method using 190 students. The first procedure emphasized teacher-student dialogue with frequent questions and answers, whereas the other relied heavily on the lecture method. Although there were no significant differences between groups on the musical elements and historical portions of the final exam, listening skills were considerably improved using the cooperative approach.8

Unfortunately, no study could be found comparing the contextual learning approach previously mentioned with the historical and analytical methods. Accordingly, I administered a pretest-posttest experiment with students during the 1993-94 school year in an attempt to get some "hard evidence." Specifically, I wanted to find out how effective all three approaches were in enhancing perception of musical elements. In preparing for and designing my study, I came across Edwin Gordon's convincing discussion about the relationship between music appreciation and understanding in Learning Sequences in Music. The following comment especially caught my eye:

Audiation is fundamental to the understanding of music, and thus it is the basis of music training theory. To understand music, one must give meaning to music by audiating its tonality and meter. The audiation of those two basic aural elements leads to a sense of tonality and a sense of meter. Given a sense of tonality and a sense of meter and appropriate instruction, a student can learn how to audiate style, form, expression, and harmonic progressions in music.9

My own observation of undergraduate learning has led me to believe that skills can be developed with non-music majors in hearing other specific types of musical events, such as differences in tempo, dynamics, melodic style, and chordal complexity. However, as a first step, it seemed desirable to proceed carefully by limiting this initial evaluation to those fundamental elements cited by Edwin Gordon—tonality and meter.

By the end of the school year, I hoped to learn the answers to the following questions:

1. How well do students with little or no secondary level general music experience hear duple vs. triple meter and major vs. minor tonality?
2. How relatively effective are the three procedures in enhancing these skills during a one semester college music appreciation course?

203 students received one of the following "treatments:"

1. Procedure A: The Historical Approach. A textbook emphasizing the chronology of classical style as exemplified by major composers was chosen. An initial orientation about sources of musical sound (types of voices and instruments) and the elements of music was limited to the first two contact hours. Classroom activities were devoted primarily to the presentation of historical and biographical information and the playing of representative musical works.
2. Procedure B: The Analytical Approach. A textbook emphasizing a listener's approach to understanding music was chosen. Using an abundance of musical selections as exemplars, the entire semester was devoted to a systematic study of the following topics:
Sources and mediums
Elements of music
Musical genres
Listening examples from various styles such as rock, jazz, and classical were used. However, little attempt was made to relate these works to their historical context.
3. Procedure C: The Contextual Approach. An initial orientation period lasting approximately ten contact hours was conducted to develop sufficient skills to aurally analyze musical works using a "Style Analysis Checklist." The remainder of the course was devoted to studying representative musical works from the major historical periods. Historical, biographical, stylistic, and anecdotal information was presented in conjunction with the analysis of these works, as deemed appropriate. A textbook emphasizing historical chronology was chosen.

The Iowa Tests of Music Literacy: Level I (for grades 4, 5, and 6) were administered at the beginning of the semester as a pretest and at the end as a posttest. These are the only nationally standardized music achievement tests published in the United States. Results for students meeting the following criteria were compared:

1. One semester or less of secondary level (this included junior high or middle school) general music experience
2. One year or less of private study (at any level)
3. No secondary level music ensemble experience
4. One year or less of elementary music ensemble experience

43 students, identified through test questionnaires, met these criteria. Percentile rankings, converted from mean scores, are presented in Table 1.

Table 1

Achievement Test Results
Rhythm Tonality Average
Procedure A (Historical)
Pretest 40 67 54
Posttest 26 50 38
Procedure B (Analytical)
Pretest 45 34 39.5
Posttest 45 55 50
Procedure C (Contextual)
Pretest 29 34 31.5
Posttest 63 76 69.5

The results produced some interesting comparisons and conclusions.

1. Pretest scores were quite low. Remember, these are percentile rankings for nationally standardized tests given to fourth through sixth grades.
2. Students taking music appreciation using the historical approach actually did poorer on the posttest.
3. Those taking the analytical approach remained the same for meter but gained 21 points in percentile ranking for tonality.
4. Students taking the contextual approach showed significant improvement, moving ahead by 34 percentile points for meter and 42 for tonality.


Incidentally, students with more than one year of private study (not considered for this study) scored considerably higher in these pretests. William E. Doyle determined that students receiving private study also tend to earn higher grades in music appreciation.10

While only preliminary, the evidence from this experiment indicates that students with little or no background in secondary level general music can develop sufficient skills to perceive differences in meter and tonality contextually while becoming acquainted with musical works and relevant historical background. This limited study at least partially supports my observations that most students can begin to hear "basic things" like tempo, meter, types of melodies, major or minor tonality, dynamics, texture, and simple forms. Historical and anecdotal information seems to increase readiness for listening. In concurrent testing for course grades, students participating in Procedure C were able to express, in writing, the stylistic characteristics of musical works, including some historical context (see Table 3). Indications are that we "can get two for the price of one." It appears we can effectively enhance perception and response to musical elements by studying works, for example, as products of the Western classic tradition.

For those whose curiosity is piqued by this study, I offer the following curricular design for organizing a similar contextual learning approach:


Unit 1: Orientation (2-3 contact hours)

Topics include factors affecting listener response such as "cultural filtration," definitions of "music" based on traditional and contemporary techniques, and an acquaintance with the properties of sound (acoustics). An abundance of listening examples combined with interactive discussions are used. Works such as Mitsuzaki Kengyo's Godan Ginuta and Karlheinz Stockhausen's Mikrophonie I are especially good for generating student responses.


Unit 2: Performing Media (3-4 contact hours)

Essentially, a remedial phase for (re)aquaintance with voices, instruments, and combinations. Yes, a video recording of A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra still works.


Unit 3: Introduction to the Elements (2-3 contact hours)

At this point, only a preliminary orientation. Nomenclature related to rhythm, melody, harmony, key, texture, and form is introduced contextually as musical excerpts demonstrating specific elements are played. For example, Georges Bizet's "Farandole", from L'Arlésienne Suite Number Two contains clear examples of monophony, polyphony, and homophony.

This phase culminates with a discussion of "style analysis" as a method for incorporating historical as well as analytical perspectives.11 "Style Analysis Checklists" (see Table 2) are disseminated and reviewed, followed by application to a musical work by the instructor.


Table 2

Style Analysis Checklist


   Composer (Arranger) 
   Title (Movement, Act) 

General Features 
  Length (Number of Parts) 

Cultural Affiliation 
  Place of Origin 
  Chronological Period 
  Specific Style 


Sources and Mediums 
  Individual Instruments or Voices                                  Electronic Sources 
  Combinations                                                              Non-Traditional Medium 

 Meter (Symmetrical vs. Assymetrical)                           Tempo and Changes 
 Rhythmic Patterns (Ostinato, Syncopation) 

 Lyrical                                                                         Contemporary 
 Instrumental (Athletic)                                                  Monotonal

  Simple vs. Complex                                                    Block Chords vs. Arpeggios 
  Consonant vs. Dissonant (Tone Clusters) 

 Major vs. Minor                                                           Tonal-Centered 
 Modulations                                                                 Polytonality 
 Modality                                                                      Atonality 

  Prevailing Levels                                                         Changes (Terraced  or Graduated) 

Tone Color 
  Quality Description                                                     Unusual Production of Tones

 Monophony                                                                 Heterophony 
 Polyphony                                                                   Combinations 
 Strophic                                                                       Rondo 
 Through-Composed                                                     Sonata 
 Binary                                                                          Fugue 
 Ternary                                                                        Use of Motives 
 Theme and Variations

  Language                                                                     Meaning 


Historical Perspective 
 Conditions and Influences 
 General Trends and Practices 

Representative Features of Work 

Unusual or Distinctive Qualities

Units 4-8: The Heritage of Music (remainder of course)

A survey of representative works from the main historical eras, in the following order:

Medieval and Renaissance

This sequence is chosen so that students will first experience and analyze music from "the common practice period." The Classical Era seems to be a logical point of departure because of its tendency toward musical directness and conciseness.

At the beginning of each new historical phase, selections chosen as "frames of reference" are played several times in class and evaluated for each stage of the "Style Analysis Checklist". Many readers will recognize this as a Gestalt learning sequence.

First Listening—Background—Synthesis (A)
Ensuing Listenings—Analysis—Analysis (B)
Last Listening(s)—Evaluation—Synthesis (A)

Relevant historical information is presented contextually to include social, political, and religious influences, general cultural and artistic trends, and biographical information. Students are subsequently assigned additional outside listening and study for each chronological period. A relatively comprehensive text with cassette recordings serves as a primary student resource.

Near the beginning of the course, most of the analysis is done by the instructor. However, as the course progresses, students become more involved and interested in discussing their own "findings" for assigned musical examples. By the end of the course, many are able to articulate stylistic differences between eras and composers based on audiation. Table 3 presents an analysis completed by one of the students during an actual test. The musical work was one of several pre-assigned for out-of-class study. The final in-class analysis was conducted using the "Style Analysis" format.


Table 3

Student Analysis



Composer. Bela Bartók

Title. Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. 4th Movement

Genre. Orchestral work

Purpose. To convey a sense of nationalism through use of primitive and folk techniques

Origin. Hungary

Chronological Period. 20th Century (1936)

Specific Style. Bartók never wholly abandons tonality and key. Favors primitivistic rhythms. Focuses on construction.


Sources and Mediums. Variety of percussion, piano, double string orchestra, celesta

Rhythm/Meter. Dancelike and jazzlike animation. Meter is 2, fluctuates to 3. Multimetric. Tempo allegro molto

Melody. Contemporary, angular, jagged, bombastic

Harmony. Dissonant and thick chords. Plucks on strings. Jagged

Key. Keyishness. Tonal-centered

Dynamics. Forte (prevailing level). Sudden changes and clashes

Tone Color. Primitivistic. Bittersweet

Texture. Homophony

Form. Rondo. ABACDBA

Text. None


This is Bartók's most exciting and most performed work
The arrangement of players on the stage is very specific
Uses what almost appears to be two separate orchestras
Combines primitivistic and national elements.

The development of perceptive listening as a basis for historical and cultural understanding is one of the most challenging and rewarding tasks required of a music educator. At its best, it becomes a dynamic, collaborative endeavor. Its importance as a method for enhancing learning simultaneously in the cognitive and affective domains should not be underestimated.


Dallin, Leon. Listener's Guide to Musical Understanding. 8th ed. Dubuque: William C. Brown, 1994.

Doyle, William E. "Relationships Between Prior Musical Experience and Success in a College Music Appreciation Course." D.M.A. diss., University of Southern California, 1988. Abstract in Dissertation Abstracts International 49 (1993), 3651A.

Funes, Donald J. Musical Involvement: A Guide to Perceptive Listening. 2nd ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

Gordon, Edwin. Learning Sequences in Music. Chicago: GIA Publications, 1988.

Halpern, Jessica. "Effects of Historical and Analytical Teaching Approaches on Music Appreciation," Journal of Research in Music Education 40/1 (1992), 39-46.

Hosterman, Glenn L. "Cooperative Learning and Traditional Lecture/Demonstration in an Undergraduate Music Appreciation Course." D.Ed. diss., Pennsylvania State University, 1992. Abstract in Dissertation Abstracts International 53 (1993), 1440A.

Jorgensen, Estelle R. "The Curriculum Design Process in Music." College Music Symposium 28 (1988), 94-105.

LaRue, Jan. Guidelines for Style Analysis. New York: W.W. Norton, 1970. 2nd ed. Warren: Harmonie Park Press, 1992.

Rothstein, Edward. "The ABC's of Music—And How!", New York Times, 16 August 1993, 27.

Smith, Camille M. "The Effects on Listening Perception Skills of Two Approaches to Teaching Music Appreciation to Non-Music Majors at the College Level." Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1980. Abstract in Dissertation Abstacts International 41 (1993), 978A.

Winter, Robert. Music of Our Time. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing, 1992.

Yudkin, Jeremy. Understanding Music. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1996.

1Edward Rothstein, "The ABC's of MusicAnd How!," The New York Times, 16 August 1993, 27.

2Estelle R. Jorgensen, "The Curriculum Design Process in Music," College Music Symposium 28 (1988), 99.

3See, for example, Jeremy Yudkin's recent text, Understanding Music (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996). Robert Winter takes a similar approach in Music of Our Time (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing, 1992), devoting approximately ten percent of his book to sources of sound and musical elements.

4See the conclusion reached by Camille M. Smith in "The Effects on Listening Perception Skills of Two Approaches to Teaching Music Appreciation to Non-Music Majors at the College Level" (Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1980), abstract in Dissertation Abstracts International 41 (1993), 978A.

5Donald J. Funes takes this approach in Musical Involvement: A Guide to Perceptive Listening, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992). His musical exemplars are chosen from a variety of styles and cultures in an attempt to make musical experiences both pertinent and informative. See also Leon Dallin's Listener's Guide to Musical Understanding, 8th ed. (Dubuque: William C. Brown, 1994). Over two-thirds of the book is oriented toward sources of sound, musical elements, and genres.

6Jessica Halpern, "Effects of Historical and Analytical Teaching Approaches on Music Appreciation," Journal of Research in Music Education 40/1 (1992), 40.

7Ibid., 45.

8Glenn L. Hosterman, "Cooperative Learning and Traditional Lecture/Demonstration in an Undergraduate Music Appreciation Course" (D.Ed. diss., Pennsylvania State University, 1992), abstract in Dissertation Abstracts International 52 (1993), 1440A.

9Edwin Gordon, Learning Sequences in Music (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1988), 22.

10William E. Doyle, "Relationships Between Prior Musical Experience and Success in a College Music Appreciation Course" (D.M.A diss., University of Southern California, 1988), abstract in Dissertation Abstracts International 49 (1993), 3651A.

11This approach is based largely on Jan La Rue's Guidelines for Style Analysis (New York: W.W. Norton, 1970), 2nd ed. (Warren: Harmonie Park Press, 1992).

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