: Music Appreciation

What do we really mean by "Music Appreciation"? Can it be taught? If so, what are some of the ways in which successful college music teachers have handled this subject?

SYMPOSIUM has invited four distinguished teachers of "Music Appreciation"from different types of schools in different parts of the countryto write about ideas they have and ways in which they have taught this very important collegiate course.

As always, the editor of SYMPOSIUM welcomes comments from readers concerning this subject.

In addition to Robert K. Beckwith, the other participants in the Symposium were Jeanne Bamberger (University of Chicago), Henry Leland Clarke (University of Washington), and Philip Friedheim (Hunter College). Their articles also appear in College Music Symposium, Volume 8.


The basic objective of a course in Music Appreciation is—or should be—the training of ear and mind to be as receptive as possible, and as flexible as possible; to achieve as broad a range of comprehension of music as the student is able.

To appreciate assumes understanding; understanding involves as basic and profound a knowledge as possible together with the ability to deal with or use the facts. One hopes that the student will eventually be able to think in musical terms. Naturally this is only possible when there is some knowledge of what music is and what its meaning might be. Such knowledge must include understanding that music deals essentially with organizations of sound and time, that structure involves balance and proportion, contrast and repetition, and that both intellectual and emotional factors are present.

Primarily, teaching should be directed toward ear training, or comprehension directly by hearing. It is obvious that ballet and opera for instance also involve other senses, but music itself comes to us through the ear. Much score study involving as it does theoretical knowledge of harmony, counterpoint, rhythm and orchestration is probably beyond the scope of this discussion. It can certainly be argued however that all study of music on whatever level enhances appreciation. From this viewpoint any study of music might be considered a form of music appreciation, but we are here concerned with the listener and not the trained musician. It is our responsibility to make it apparent that music is one of the great creative activities of man, and to assist the amateur (in the best sense of the word) to understand and enjoy this art form.

Music Appreciation is therefore the understanding and enjoyment of the art of music. The profundity of the experience depends on the individual.



Since the basic purpose of a music appreciation course, as I construe it, is to train the ear to listen and the mind to comprehend and deal with musical events, it follows that a grasp of the essential nature of music is critical. Whether the approach is from the broad concept to the specific application or the reverse is immaterial. The mechanics seem to be of less importance than the art of the teacher. For me at least, starting with the general basic concept, then observing the specific case, and finally returning again to the basic concept is the most fruitful approach.

The two most basic elements in music are sound and time. Perhaps just as basic a factor, since music certainly involves communication, is the problem of communication itself.

Regardless of whether I am dealing with opera, or symphony, or whether the course is a general survey course, I begin by playing excerpts of a few minutes from five or more widely contrasting pieces of music. The class then proceeds to a discussion of the factors common to all examples as well as some of the differences. While technical information is largely excluded from any discussion at this stage, certainly some of the qualities of sound and time can be profitably discussed. The question of what sound is, what musical sound might be—even whether there is such a thing as musical sound, whether the musicality of the sound depends on the context, volume, quality or pitch, these should be inquired into. If there is to be breadth of understanding, if the student is to be equipped to listen to Guillaume, Morton Feldman, Mozart, or John Cage, there must be at least some comprehension of the wealth and variety of sounds available. Similarly there must be an awareness of real or clock time and our subjective reaction to it, of dramatic and musical time, of pulse or the lack of it, of tempo, meter, rhythm, syncopation, etc. It is certainly an open question whether melody, harmony, counterpoint and specific orderings of time should be entered into now or later.

I have sometimes found it fruitful, particularly when dealing with secondary school students, to consider communication and perception at this point. Indeed such consideration can sometimes focus attention on music more pointedly than any other device I know of. Asking a student to describe to the class an object using all senses except sight, or to draw an object on the blackboard that cannot be seen, purely from someone's description, can be very revealing of how difficult communication can be. Asking for a statement of what has occurred during the first five minutes of a class can be similarly revealing of how poor our powers of observation can be. At this point I have usually brought up the problem of notation, which is of necessity not precise, of some various approaches to notation, of the difficulty of the interpreter's comprehension and realization of the score as it represents the composer's concept, and of the listener's perception or understanding of the music as it has been realized. Simply facing the students with a simple rhythm for which they must devise an understandable notation sharpens their awareness of the dimension of time, at least as it appears in a simple rhythmic figure. Naturally as the student's awareness increases the understanding of the factors of sound and time should be developed as far as possible.

The organization of these elements into some form can be considered next. I prefer to deal with the sonata-allegro, the fugue, and the rondo forms at this point rather than with any of the simpler forms, at least partly because I find the dynamics of these forms very exciting.

The sonata-allegro form, if it exists at all except as a convenient reference pattern, has undergone so many changes without apparently exhausting its potential that most of the essential elements of structure can be considered within its framework. Aside from works of the classical and romantic composers who conceived many movements related to this pattern, there are such twentieth century works as Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements (movement I), with its recapitulation presenting the themes in reverse order, and its remarkable development section in which elements of the additive Baroque-like and concerto grosso styles are present; and the first movement of Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 4 which uses a 3 part structure, bearing some relation to exposition, development and recapitulation.

The significance of the introduction as a critical structural and generating element is readily apparent in the first movement of Schubert's Symphony No. 9, Brahms' Symphony No. 1 (movement 4), or the first movement of the Franck Symphony in D Minor. The possibility of the coda as a second development section is similarly apparent in many of the Beethoven string quartets and symphonies.

In fact, in the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven one can readily see that the sonata-allegro pattern can have three, four or five sections all of dominating structural significance. Aside from the three sections—exposition, development, and recapitulation—there may be present also the introduction or the coda or both, as basic structural elements rather than simply as more or less incidental beginnings or endings.

It can be fascinating to look into the structure of the first movement of many of the Haydn symphonies where one is apt to find particular emphasis placed on almost any part of the sonata-allegro pattern; even the bridge or transitional passages at the expense of that normally expected in the more thematic parts. Haydn's attitude is sufficiently quixotic or playful so that almost anything is to be expected. The developmental evolution of a movement on a relatively simple level can be observed in the first movement of Mozart's Symphony No. 36 in D Major in which most of the material evolves from the first five measures. The absence of a second theme as such (the first is restated in the dominant key) supports the idea of the sonata-allegro as a harmonic rather than a melodic concept. The great variety of ways in which the patterns are used in the classical period clearly indicates that the period is anything but serene or static. On the contrary, it is one of great turmoil and of brilliantly rich realizations of all sorts of structural ideas.

In a much more involved way most of the material in the last movement of the Brahms Symphony No. 1 can be derived from the first few measures. This procedure can become a tricky intellectual game and can lead us all too easily into the dead end of juggling notes around in a sort of musical jigsaw puzzle.

During the discussion of structure and in the context of the works studied, I have found it helpful to give the students a rudimentary knowledge of harmony (essentially of 18th and 19th century practices) including at least chord structure and simple progressions, possibly a brief excursion into figured bass, melody with some discussion of intervals, scale patterns, contour and metrical and rhythmic organization, various contrapuntal procedures, the orchestral score, and so forth. It must always be made clear that all of these are presented as no more than limited examples, that there are many other styles and approaches and that yet others will appear as time passes. I consider it vital for the student to understand that the context determines the validity of any sound used by a composer, and that a proper perspective be maintained whatever work or style or period is under consideration. One should never lose sight of the fact that in music we are dealing with organizations of time and sound however predetermined or random they may appear in performance.

In the fugue and the rondo patterns an analogous flexibility of approach can also be found. In particular in the fugue, where we are faced with a structure that places more emphasis on melodic-contrapuntal procedures than does the sonata-allegro pattern, one can readily consider various contrapuntal devices by themselves. It is of course necessary to observe the interrelations of counterpoint and harmony as correlative elements of the structure. After the fugue and after some consideration of melody and counterpoint it is possible to investigate not only music from the renaissance and earlier in which counterpoint is so vital and in which harmony has a different nature, but also much music from the twentieth century when once again counterpoint becomes critically important.

The rondo form, which is in some ways less involved than either the fugue or sonata-allegro patterns, can become the starting point for an excursion into multiple patterns or poly-structure. For instance, the last movement of either Beethoven's third or ninth Symphony clearly involves both rondo and variations, not to mention the fugal nature of some sections. Indeed when one considers the structural richness of the opening chorus of the Bach Saint Matthew Passion, or Beethoven's Ninth Symphony one wonders if this very richness of structural concept might not be characteristic of great music. I find such ideas not only intellectually challenging but emotionally exciting—another instance of the interrelation of the intellectual and the emotional in music.

But—when one has considered these matters the surface has hardly been scratched. One must naturally be concerned with the overall structural concept of the total work, not just with the separate movements. It is exciting to gain some insight into the cyclical structure of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony where so much of the thematic material of all four movements can be traced back to the beginning of the first movement, to become aware of the interrelations of the d minor and vol8id561 major tonalities which reach a kind of climax in the striking discord at the start of the fourth movement, and which finally emerge triumphantly into the sunny and majestic D major. It is also of value to point out that there are elements of the rondo structure in all four movements. The most penetrating analysis of this work hardly seems to exhaust its richness.

Some other examples of cyclic structure are perhaps easier to deal with. For instance, the usage of the chromatic 3 note scale figure in the Brahms First Symphony can easily be pointed out as a unifying element; or the direct melodic quotation from movement to movement in Franck's Symphony in d Minor is easily heard by the student.

It is usually wise to involve the student as directly as possible either by means of special individual assignments or class projects. For instance an elementary grasp of the serial process can be gained by having the class devise a rudimentary 12 tone row, and then construct a simple piano piece in which the melody and harmony are derived from the row. Such a demonstration can be as elementary as necessary or as refined as class ability will permit. Dynamics and rhythm might also be serialized as a further demonstration. Some understanding of the nature of opera can be achieved by assigning a work such as Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. If one asks the students to assume that they are responsible for a touring company which is to produce the opera, and that they must therefore consider all elements necessary to produce the opera much is immediately accomplished. Each student must be aware of the casting and orchestral needs, the staging needs—lights, costumes, props, etc.—the general style of the work and so forth. From this initial assignment one can then proceed in class to a consideration of how one would stage a static aria or an ensemble, and as a natural basic consideration concerning the musical and dramatic structure of both the complete work and the individual scene, in order that the staging bear a rational relation to the style of the opera. The student with proper guidance can also then begin to understand how and why the musical realization of a dramatic moment can crystallize an instant in time by adding a new dimension, i.e., that of musical realization or commentary. A new concept of reality can then be developed and—hopefully—an understanding that music, or any other art form for that matter, has a reality and validity of its own.

Suggestions such as these should be taken as examples of one kind of approach. Their success and the richness of the student's understanding depend on the teacher's skill and wisdom in using them as tools to assist the student in realizing what music is. There is no real limit to the depth of penetration that is possible. Once again let me emphasize that much depends on the teacher's ability to enlarge upon, develop and explore the concepts and material presented. Knowing when to seize upon the moment for a more detailed study of any one musical element is an art in itself.

I have usually found it advisable to spend one or more classes discussing the two aesthetic problems, or rather seeking an answer to the question, "What is music"? and, "What does music mean"? No one expects to find a real answer to either, but it is, or can be, illuminating for the students to grapple with these problems. By the middle of the semester the students should have developed enough discrimination and have had enough listening experience to be able at least to discuss these problems intelligently. It seems important to me to conduct this discussion with constant reference to specific works. It is not enough to be abstract—one must ask why the Bach Mass in B Minor is great, or if some of John Cage's more extreme works are music at all.

Outside work such as reports and reading or listening assignments have scarcely been mentioned. I usually require reports that call mostly for the assembling of factual information which I feel the student should have, but which I do not choose to deal with in class. I have usually also called for a written report after the class discussion of the nature of music, greatness and meaning. Such a report requires careful thinking and some research on the part of the student. Listening assignments are coordinated with the classroom work and are intended either to supplement or to prepare for a specific class, or to provide for continued study of a given work or problem. Outside reading assignments usually consist of suggested readings from a variety of different sources. In general the students are expected to parallel the class work at their own discretion with supplementary readings which may be drawn from a bibliography including periodicals as well as books and major reference works. Students are expected to increase their listening experience by attending the concerts of the College Concert Series. Occasionally reviews of the events are also required.



Testing for Music Appreciation, as I have defined it, presents a very difficult problem, one which I have not yet been able to handle to my satisfaction. Since I understand by Music Appreciation the development of a skill, which is always in the process of evolution, it is not sufficient to call for a simple recitation of factual information or a simple recognition of bits of music. What must be tested is the clarity with which the ear hears and the understanding with which the brain deals with what it perceives. I use a variety of sources of information in estimating how much a student has grasped: papers requiring factual information, papers dealing with aesthetic problems, concert reviews, classroom discussion (unless the class is too large), and examinations.

A typical factual paper might be about a specific composer or a specific period. A "composer" paper for instance will include normally a brief biographical sketch, a reasonable comprehensive list which should at least indicate the volume and variety of the composer's works, a discussion of the fundamental aspects of his style, and as penetrating a discussion of one work as the student is capable of.

Papers dealing with aesthetic problems such as meaning, greatness, the nature of music, the relation between function and form, the composer-performer-listener complex and so forth, are normally very short but normally also require a considerable amount of thinking and should also involve a considerable amount of reading as well. This sort of paper can be very revealing indeed. Reviews of concerts can be similarly revealing at least partly because the student is placed in a regular concert environment and is forced to examine his own reactions critically. Some guidance with respect to the content of the review is probably necessary, especially for the first one.

Hour examinations and final examinations usually take the same form, the only distinction being in the length and the amount of material covered. Normally the examinations are divided into three parts. The first includes the recognition and identification of musical examples, but also requires a discussion of the stylistic factors that are actually heard during the excerpt under consideration. There are also normally a number of excerpts from presumably unknown works which the student is required to discuss and to identify by composer, or approximate date of composition, or period, or possibly all three. The second type of question usually calls for specific facts of one kind or another such as dates, numbers and types of composition, structural outlines, general stylistic characteristics of a period, and so forth. The third type of question requires (hopefully) the ability to deal with the facts which have been acquired together with the listening experience. Such questions might ask the student for a comparison of the styles of different composers, or to trace the evolution of a structure or a style, or to show that the styles of the twentieth century can be regarded as naturally evolving from the Romantic period, or to discuss the conflict between the gigantic and the minute in the nineteenth century. The possibilities are too great to call for more than a few examples.

One should be able, in most cases, to arrive at a reasonable estimate of how well the student has understood the music he has listened to, how well he is able to deal with fresh musical experiences and how much factual information he has acquired (or at least that he knows where to find it). It is considerably more difficult to reach any conclusion about his potential for future development, but since this is a matter for his own pleasure, we are happily not required to reach any such conclusion. It is pleasant (as we all know) to discover that some seed planted in a Music Appreciation course has borne fruit in a lifetime of pleasure. It is hard to wait twenty years or more to know it for a fact however.

Perhaps in the final analysis all we can do is hope! One wonders if tests are worth it.

4616 Last modified on November 14, 2018