Teaching Introductory Music Courses with a "More Comprehensive Perspective"

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Any college teacher who teaches an introductory music course to general students—the kind of course that has long been called "music appreciation"—can benefit from reading the 1989 CMS Report Number 7: Music in the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Reassessment. It is not that the report focuses on introductory courses or on the needs of general students. But appended to the report is a "Survey of National Practice" in Music in General Studies courses, based on questionnaires circulated in 1982 and 1989, and this survey tells a lot about music appreciation courses as they have actually been taught: what goals the teachers have set for themselves, what musical traditions they have taught, how they have organized their courses, and so on. Music appreciation courses, as they are represented in this survey, exemplify the need for exactly the change that the text of the CMS report recommends: a "more comprehensive perspective" in the musical traditions we teach and in the terms and methodologies we use to teach music.

One subject not mentioned in either the report or the appended survey is the subject of textbooks. But any course is shaped to some extent by the textbook the teacher chooses, and the freedom of teachers to redesign their music appreciation courses along the lines recommended in the CMS report therefore depends to some extent on the availability of textbooks that facilitate such redesigning. Accordingly, I have examined some—not by any means all—of the new and newly revised music appreciation textbooks, looking for examples of the "more comprehensive perspective" that the CMS report advocates. A look at any half dozen of these books shows that they almost uniformly follow a traditional format (a short section on the elements of music, followed by a chronological survey of Western classical music) and that while they all take some steps to broaden the traditional canon, those steps too are remarkably uniform. In most cases the broadening can be described as a touch of Clara Schumann in the middle and a bit of B. B. King at the end.

To take the recommendations of the CMS report seriously, I believe, would require a more fundamental reform of introductory music courses than can be accomplished using any of the currently available textbooks. In the following essay I would like to consider what that reform might be like and what kind of textbook would be needed to support it.

What impresses me most favorably about the CMS report is that it begins by asking who our students are. The authors of the report emphasize the cultural diversity of American college students and call for the diverse musical cultures of the students to be recognized and studied in the music classroom: "There is mounting evidence that monocultural education, to the degree that students are required to deny their heritage to adopt a new one, has had a deleterious effect on individuals, family groups, and society" (p. 8). This is a challenge to the tradition of music appreciation courses, admitting that students come to college already endowed with musical culture and asserting that they should study the music they already appreciate. It is a challenge as well to what the teachers surveyed in the Survey of National Practice reported as their leading goal in Music in General Studies courses: "Building future audiences" (Report, p. 58, Chart 24). Once students are recognized as having their own musical culture, "building future audiences" begins to look like stealing audiences from one kind of music for another.

The challenge is increased by the recognition that students come to college with many different musical cultures. Virtually every music appreciation textbook uses music that is assumed to be familiar to its readers to pave the way to the study of music that is assumed to be unfamiliar—often the "familiar" music is nursery songs and patriotic songs used as first examples of the elements of music. What happens to this practice when familiar music becomes a real object of study, not just a paving stone, and when "Yankee Doodle" and "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" can't be assumed to be familiar to all students? What happens when we recognize that students come to college with some experience of many kinds of music—that there is cultural diversity within students, not just among them—and that some students identify with kinds of music that others detest?

One response to this complexity is to take the students' experience of music as an object of study in itself, asking them, for instance, to study the differences between listening to music they already love and listening to music that is completely new to them. If they are offered a sufficiently varied array of examples, all students, no matter what their musical background, can make important discoveries about the complexities of musical experience: they can discover how much their ability to discern one musical "element" in a piece of music—to identify the number of instruments playing or to describe the texture—may depend on their recognition of other elements, which in turn may depend on the familiarity of the musical style altogether. The repertories that we may for one reason or another consider important to introduce students to—whether they are Western classical or non-Western repertories—may also turn out to be valuable within such a course precisely because students can measure their experience of more familiar music against them. A music course that begins by honoring the cultural diversity of its students naturally turns into a course about the nature of music as a human activity.

In some respects it is unreasonable to expect much help from a textbook if students are to be asked to study their own experience of music. A textbook can hardly keep up with the latest music that students will want to think and talk and write about, nor can it guide the teacher through all the differences in musical experience within a particular class. But it can help a teacher introduce music from different ages and different parts of the world. It can also help give students what the CMS report calls "an awareness of the pluralistic nature of most musical traditions" (p. 16), that is, an awareness of how musical cultures stay alive by altering the familiar and domesticating the unfamiliar. A good example of how this function can be served is David Willoughby's The World of Music (Dubuque: Wm. C. Brown, 1990)—not coincidentally, almost the only recent appreciation textbook that gives substantial treatment of more than one musical tradition. Finally, a textbook could provide a framework for many projects and explorations, leaving it to teachers and students to supply the particulars of experience.

The CMS report does not speak directly about what role the study of the Western classical tradition should play in music curricula, but its call for a "more comprehensive perspective" clearly requires a new rationale for the study of that tradition, not just an expansion of curricula to include other traditions. The need for a new rationale is especially acute in introductory courses, since those courses provide many college students with their one experience in the study of music and since the call for a "more comprehensive perspective" increases the pressures on courses that are already hard pressed to "cover" the Western classical tradition in a single semester.

I believe there is still good reason for giving the Western classical tradition prominence in an introductory music course, but I haven't yet found a textbook that gives students a credible rationale for studying that tradition or that presents the tradition in a way consistent with such a rationale. For example, the latest edition of Joseph Machlis' The Enjoyment of Music (6th edition, written with Kristine Forney; New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), the long-standing favorite among music-appreciation textbooks, still has at its heart the biographies of the great composers, despite shifts in emphasis over the course of many revisions. But it isn't the lives of Beethoven, Schubert, and Chopin that give Western classical music a special claim to the attention of American college students; the lives of Bernice Johnson Reagon, Victor Jara, and the members of the Plastic People of the Universe are just as exemplary, just as fascinating.

Likewise, Western classical music cannot claim any inherent power or worth that other music lacks, as the students in any introductory music course would be the first to assert. When Prof. Helen Myers of Trinity College (Connecticut) asked her introductory music class recently to go without music for twenty-four hours and write about the experience, she met with fierce resistance from the students. One hour, they said, was about all they could imagine. Just ask those students what music it is that they can't live without for one day.

What gives the Western classical tradition its special claim as an object of college study, I believe, is its relation to history. While it is a living tradition for performers and listeners, it is a tradition kept alive—to a degree unusual among long-lived traditions—by investigations and interpretations and, increasingly, performances that treat each part of the repertory as the product of a particular historical moment. For students in introductory music courses, the virtue of studying the Western classical tradition is not that it is their musical heritage and should therefore become their music, but on the contrary, that it is remote from them. An introductory music course gives them the opportunity to discover, through a combination of historical study and listening, how different the human imagination can be from one age to another. Even the study of the instruments, notation, forms, and terms of Western classical music provides students an opportunity to learn how much has changed from the origins of these phenomena to their modern adaptations not just in contemporary music, but in popular and non-Western music as well.

But to my way of thinking, most of the available textbooks avoid the history that they appear to teach. Machlis' cozy biographies of the masters offer the most extreme case: his object is to dissolve the distance between us and the classics, not to examine it. In this discourse, as in the standard quick sweep through the centuries, the goal of building audiences—of giving students easy ways to keep one composer or work or style period straight in relation to others—clearly has the upper hand over the goal of teaching music as a part of history and history as a part of any music. But it is the historical goal, not the audience-building goal, that connects an introductory music course to other liberal arts courses and therefore gives it a genuine place in collegiate general studies.

Those of us who teach introductory music courses can free ourselves of the audience-building goal, trusting that exciting performances of great music will exert their own power over students. We can also free ourselves of the obligation to cover the whole span of Western music in one semester and of textbooks that reduce history to pretty pictures and simple contrasts; instead, we can introduce the discipline of music history in course units that deal seriously with limited subjects. Above all, we can free ourselves and our students of the dismal little questions and answers that fill the teacher's guides to many music appreciation textbooks. Instead we can pose questions that we ourselves as performers, theorists, composers, and musicologists find intriguing about music, and show our students the materials and processes of thought that we use to come to grips with these questions.

Most of the available textbooks, insofar as they extend beyond the Western classical repertory, organize the study of different traditions as separate units. And if each tradition studied in a course is to serve a different pedagogical function, that organization makes sense. But the goal of providing a "more comprehensive perspective" in an introductory music course might be more directly served by comparing music of different traditions through much or all of the course. One way to do that is to extend the study of the elements of music so that it constitutes the whole course; this is the organization used by David Reck in Music of the Whole Earth (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1977). The cross-cultural study of musical genres would be another possibility and would have the advantage that musical genres, because of their strong associations with social functions, are especially good for making clear the place of music in general studies. A model for this approach can be found in an introductory textbook that has long been celebrated for the originality of its approach to musical perception: Jeanne Bamberger and Howard Brofsky's The Art of Listening (5th edition, with Martin Brody and Roland Vazquez; New York: Harper & Row, 1988). The new historical portion of this book is organized, for the most part, around musical genres (love song, sacred music, the waltz), with examples of each drawn from centuries apart. Further examples could be added from other musical traditions.

Of course, there are many more ideas and experiments being used by teachers in their courses than can ever be embodied in textbooks. Some ideas require no book at all; others call for books written for other purposes. I have had students buy a music dictionary instead of a textbook, and another teacher I know has assigned readings from a collection of music-historical documents. One advantage of such alternatives is that they do not tend, as textbooks do, to assume the role of teacher in a course, leaving the teacher as either apologist or competitor.

All the same, there is a great need for freshly conceived textbooks in this field. New textbooks can suggest responses to new pressures, such as the pressure for a "more comprehensive perspective," even to teachers who do not assign a textbook. And given how large enrollments tend to be in introductory music courses, there are very few teachers who have the choice not to assign one. I appeal to teachers, the only people who can write textbooks, to propose their new ideas for introductory music textbooks to publishers. And because most good ideas will never make it into textbook form, because market forces tend to produce uniformity more than diversity, I also urge teachers with new ideas for introductory music courses to find other ways—talks at professional meetings, articles in journals—to publish their ideas for the general benefit.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 23/10/2018

James Parakilas

James Parakilas, a music scholar with a doctorate from Cornell University, teaches courses on music history and culture, music theory, and performance. He plays the piano, often in chamber groups with students and colleagues, and coaches student chamber groups. His scholarly publications include the books Ballads Without Words: Chopin and the Tradition of the Instrumental Ballade (Amadeus Press, 1992), Piano Roles: 300 Years of Life with the Piano (Yale University Press, 2000; paperback, 2002), and the textbook The Story of Opera (forthcoming from W. W. Norton). In 2010-2011, under a Phillips Faculty Research Fellowship, he studied recent research in psychology, neuroscience and other fields that is prompting new understandings of the nature of music.

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