Building on Tonic: Integrating Information Literacy into the Music Curriculum

October 1, 2001

"You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough."
William Blake1

"You mean you can't take less," said the Hatter, "it's very easy to take more than nothing."
Lewis Carroll2

". . . the prime objective of all educational programs in music is to provide the opportunity for every music student to develop individual potentialities to the utmost."
National Association of Schools of Music3


Several years ago, Dr. Matthew Rohn, professor of art at St. Olaf College, made the following statement as he introduced me, a music librarian, to an art history class: "As scholars at the end of the twentieth century, your challenge won't be in finding information; rather, it will be in sifting through the accumulation of too much information available to us all." This is, indeed, the dilemma facing each of us as we navigate in this twenty-first century world of exponentially expanding information.

What are we doing to equip our students to cope with an environment in which the only true constant is change? A world in which students are at once more connected to a global community of information and more isolated from meaningful discourse as they discover and attempt to evaluate this information from the solitary environment of their dormitory rooms?

Critical thinking is at the heart of what we attempt to convey to students at the college level, whether in the practice room, the rehearsal hall, the seminar room, or the library. In this world of "too much," however, the educational experience must be one of constant pruning and harsh evaluation. Just as we expect our students to focus on the most important musical elements in their practice or to produce only the best, most pertinent sources of bibliographic information, so must their curriculum be pared down to include only the most essential elements in music education—a difficult task when the possibilities available are both tantalizing and ultimately confusing.

In 1977 Howard R. Bowen, professor of education and economics at Claremont Graduate School, stated:

Most studies show that 50 to 80 percent of what is learned in courses is lost within one year. . . . The important substantive aims of higher education lie in the realm of residues. . . . Perhaps most important of all, the residues may include tendencies, triggered by college, that encourage exploration and learning.4

In order for students to truly "be equipped to function and interact with the total society," and "to adapt to changes in the society,"5 they must learn to navigate, understand, and ultimately evaluate the constantly changing universe of information at their disposal. They must develop habits of critical exploration and learning that will serve them throughout their lives. The ability to find and evaluate information lies at the very heart of this philosophy, and it must be integrated into every aspect of our students' music education—from their finding the best edition of printed music for an upcoming lesson to determining the academic credentials of the authors they cite. And it must not be put off until graduate courses in methodology and research. The rapidly changing nature of this information underscores the importance of methodology versus content, supporting the premise that "the manner in which you go about obtaining material for research on any single college paper is more important in the long run than the material you obtain."6 In other words, it encourages educators to stress those experiences that will become the residues that promote life-long learning.

Library educators have long stressed a student's ability to locate information in an ever-changing landscape as the key to being a truly educated person. In 1989, the American Library Association defined information literacy as (1) knowing when information is needed, (2) identifying the information needed to address a given problem or issue, (3) finding the needed information, (4) evaluating the needed information, (5) organizing the needed information, and (6) using the information effectively to address the problem or issue at hand.7

Patricia Breivik, one of the leaders in the field of information literacy, encourages us to use resource-based learning in combination with critical thinking to achieve true information literacy in a society where resources are constantly changing.8 She states,

To produce information-literate graduates, higher education can no longer accept a teaching environment in which a significant portion of faculty view students as mere passive receivers of information. Instead, students must be coached through the every-changing mazes of information so that they can become sophisticated users of information resources and technologies. They must be able to gather needed information from a variety of sources, test the validity of information as it remains constant and as it changes from discipline to discipline, place information into various contexts that will ultimately yield its pertinent meaning, and remain skeptical about information while discriminating between fact and truth.9

Music poses the additional challenges of being both a cumulative and multi-format discipline.10 Since the first musical instruments were developed, musicians have depended on and been accustomed to changes in technology and a variety of information formats. We are used to the changes that technology has wrought, transforming, for example, recorded music from wax cylinders to acetate to vinyl to compact discs to Internet streaming. In many ways, the addition of electronic bibliographic data is simply another aspect of this continuum, a process to which musicians are accustomed if not comfortable. Music students are also used to the fact that information about music manifests itself in multiple formats. Students have almost always needed to find printed and recorded music in addition to information about musical works in its wide array of formats.

At the same time, the proliferation of information in every format poses significant considerations for students in the arts and humanities. Students cannot automatically judge a publication's worth by its imprint date, and they often need to incorporate information spanning several centuries as they approach a research topic. As people involved in this cumulative discipline, we encounter the challenge of not being able to throw out the past as we embrace the future. Information about Palestrina or Landini is just as relevant to our general music curriculum (and therefore library collections) as that of Cage, Coltrane, or Reich. Contemporary criticism of premiere performances needs to be meaningfully combined with recent scholarship on a composition, just as students must be aware of the differences in performance technique stemming from technical developments in musical instruments. Throw in an increasing awareness of world music, "new" musicology, and the fact that any undergraduate can have resources unavailable (if not unimaginable) to doctoral students just a decade ago, and one feels immediately the validity of Alvin Toffler's warnings about "future shock"11 and the effects this rapidly accelerating pool of information may have upon our society. Comprehensiveness is no longer possible—or perhaps even imaginable. At times like this, selectivity becomes essential for scholarship at all levels. And selectivity should imply thinking critically about those items selected.

As we choose what to stress from this overabundance of information, music educators need to include the skill to find and evaluate information as a basic tenet of music education. Just as students learn the basics of proper tone production, fingerings or intonation as they learn to create music, so must the skills inherent in finding and evaluating information about music be incrementally and repeatedly taught and reinforced. "If critical thinking is to mean anything it must be preceded by critical teaching."12 Producing students who think critically about music and who have the tools to continue to grow in their knowledge about it is crucial to the future of music in our society.

Previously isolated music library collections (accessible only through on-site paper card catalogs) have given way to integrated online catalogs of campus library collections. Simple keyword searches may bring up matches across the disciplines, cross-fertilizing research papers with extraordinary richness—or an abundance of confusion. In addition, both ends of the "flow of information" so often stressed when considering search methodology have been significantly expanded. Students are now able, through the Internet, to become parties to the previously inaccessible "invisible college" through professional listservs and web sites. They have the ability to contact composers or scholars in the field with a click of the mouse . . . a step that used to be reserved for those students who had spent hours of research with juried and edited secondary source material and a well-considered, proofread letter. Similarly, a related Internet site may bring them into contact with the other end of the research continuum—primary source material for which they have very little context.

Just as one wouldn't expect a novice piano student to begin with Liszt piano transcriptions, we cannot expect beginning music students to master the complex and often dissonant harmonies in this rapidly expanding world of information.13 Students must somehow be able to assimilate the information into a meaningful form: they must be critical thinkers from the very first stages of study. Alistair B. Fraser notes, "[Web] access is not insight. A printout of your web resources should be as incapable of communicating the insights those resources offer as, say, a printout of the words of 'Ode to Joy' is incapable of capturing Beethoven's 'Ninth Symphony.'"14 The advent of more "expert" search engines only promises to exacerbate this problem as information consumers have more and more decisions made for them, often without their realization.

It is easy to assume that libraries and music departments will automatically support one another's goals and aspirations—and that students will be able to integrate skills from each area as they prepare to make, teach, and listen to music in our quickly changing society. Research has shown that "a library instruction program will not succeed if it is generic. . . . Instruction [in library/information skills] must be strongly course-related."15 The National Association of Schools of Music has recognized the need for instruction in the use of music libraries and states that "instruction in the use of the library will be provided" at accredited schools.16 Although this instruction could be achieved by either library or music department personnel, collaboration between the two would build upon mutual strengths of knowledge as well as distribute the burden of keeping up with technological and informational change. Asserting that "library programs must be based around learning, not around libraries,"17 teacher-librarians June Gross and Susan Kientz conclude that, "Assignments constructed in partnerships between teachers and teacher-librarians are more likely to be 'authentic,'"18 and "[Librarians] collaborating with teachers is the only way to ensure that information literacy skills will be learning within a meaningful context." 19 In a 1996 article in Notes, Mark Germer encouraged music librarians to become active partners in curricular discussions about music, providing input "from a professional perspective that remains, to no one's benefit, little solicited."20

The Music Library Association has addressed a framework for information literacy in music. An article posing questions for determining course content that would incorporate issues of information literacy for music undergraduates appeared in the March 1996 issue of Notes.21 While not assuming that every institution would have a music librarian on staff who could be actively involved in helping with information literacy needs, the article attempts to codify types of information and presents a series of questions to ask when developing new course material. By asking these questions at the time a course is being developed, information literacy issues can be integrated into the content of the course material and the heart of its educational objectives. Building course content with information and critical thinking skills in mind not only "help[s] students construct knowledge in ways that make sense to them individually,"22 it is essential in preparing musicians to cope with their worlds.

In a 1999 retrospective review, Tom Kirk, College Librarian at Earlham College, defended the purpose of bibliographic, or library-related, instruction by describing the "whys" as well as the "hows," the "mundane" and the "eternal" of teaching information literacy at the heart of the curricular goal:

The context, content, method, and technology of bibliographic instruction have changed substantially over the past 25 years. . . . But content, context, methodology, and technology are only the hows of our work.The whys remain essentially the same. The whys of information literature and bibliographic instruction are both mundane, to save students time and have them perform better in courses, and eternal, to empower students with the capacity to be effective, self-directed learners.23

During the time that it has taken you to read this article (and certainly during the time that it has taken for this information to leave my pen and come into your hands), our world has changed significantly. New composers have been born and new musical compositions exist. Information about music (both trustworthy and not) on the Internet has increased dramatically.24 And innovations in creating, storing, and retrieving printed and recorded music have pushed us yet a bit farther down this seemingly endless continuum of change. At the same time, students have been practicing major and minor scales, have struggled to identify Neapolitan sixth chords, or have discovered the joy of listening to Bach's B minor mass for the first time. As we teach students these basics, both mundane and eternal, let us also—incrementally, sequentially, systematically, and above all consciously—teach them the skills to become life-long learners of the "whys" of music in this world of "too much" information.

1William Blake, "Proverbs of Hell," from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (London: Oxford University Press, 1975), xix.

2Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, in The Annotated Alice, with introduction and notes by Martin Gardner (New York: Bramhall House, 1960), 101.

3National Association of Schools of Music, 1999-2000 Handbook (Reston, VA: National Association of Schools of Music, 1999), 6.

4Howard R. Bowen, "The Residue of Academic Learning," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 14 November 1977, 13.

5National Association of Schools of Music, 1995-1996 Handbook (Reston, VA: National Association of Schools of Music, 1995), 69.

6Elizabeth Frick, "Teaching Information Structure: Turning Dependent Researchers into Self-Teachers," in Theories of Bibliographic Education: Designs for Teaching, ed. Cerise Oberman and Katina Strauch (NY: Bowker, 1982), 205.

7American Library Association, ALA Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report (Chicago: American Library Association, 1989), 7.

8See, for example, Patricia Brievik, Student Learning in the Information Age (Phoenix, AZ: Oryx, 1998), 22-33.

9Ibid, p. 3.

10For a summary of reference services specific to performing musicians, see Jane Gottlieb, "Reference Service for Performing Musicians: Understanding and Meeting Their Needs," The Reference Librarian 47 (1994): 47-59.

11Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (NY: Random House, 1970).

12Chris Atton, "Critical Thinking and Critical Librarianship," in Alternative Library Literature, 1994/1995: A Biennial Anthology, ed. Sanford Berman and James P. Danky (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1996), 157.

13Few beginning piano students, however, would have the sense of success they may achieve with the Internet when attempting to perform music beyond their grasp.

14Alisair B. Fraser, "Colleges Should Tap the Pedagogical Potential of the World-Wide Web," The Chronicle of Higher Education, 6 August 1999, B8.

15Gloria J. Leckie and Anne Fullerton. "Information Literacy in Science and Engineering Undergraduate Education: Faculty Attitudes and Pedagogical Practices." College and Research Libraries 60 (January 1999): 27.

16NASM 1999-2000 Handbook, p. 63.

17June Gross and Susan Kientz, "Collaborating for Authentic Learning," Teacher Librarian 27 (October 1999): 21.

18Ibid, p. 22.

19Ibid, p. 24.

20Mark Germer, "Wither Bibliographic Instruction for Musicians?" Notes 52 (March 1996): 760.

21Amanda Maple, Beth Christensen, and Kathleen A. Abromeit, "Information Literacy for Undergraduate Music Students: A Conceptual Framework," Notes 52 (March 1996): 744-53. This article builds upon a list of resources and skills outlined in "Bibliographic Competencies in Music," Notes 40 (March 1984): 529-32. For an overview of music library user education at the turn of the century, see also Leslie Troutman, "User Education," Notes 56 (March 2000): 620-27.

22 Marjorie M. Warmkessel and Joseph M. McCade, "Integrating Information Literacy into the Curriculum," Research Strategies, 15 (Spring 1997): 82.

23Thomas G. Kirk, "Course-Related Bibliographic Instruction in the 1990s." Reference Services Review 27 (1999): 241.

24Between January 1999 and January 2001, for example, the number of registered Internet hosts in the Internet Software Consortium's Internet Domain Survey increased from 43,230,000 to 109,574,429. (Source: Internet Software Consortium <> (7 May 2001).)

2747 Last modified on October 20, 2013