Music Appreciation Revisited: Responses to Mann and Kivy

I read with great interest Brian Mann's recent essay on music appreciation: "A Response to Kivy: Music and `Music Appreciation' in the Undergraduate Liberal Arts Tradition (College Music Symposium, vol. 39, 1999). To my mind, Mann's recommendations for how music appreciation teachers can be true to their "charge to teach non-musicians about music in as compelling a fashion as [they] can" are well conceived and convincing. But perhaps I'm biased. This past Fall semester (1999), I developed, independently from Mann's work, a music appreciation course that was compatible with several points from his essay.

To begin, I found Mann's call for change in the traditional Music Appreciation curriculum right on the money. He argues that complete coverage of the linear history of an ever-expanding corpus of musical styles and traditions "is not just a chimera, but an unworthy goal." As Mann puts it, many current texts "masquerade as substantial surveys of music history."

In preparing for my course, I noticed that the available textbooks tend to subordinate other musical traditions to the Western art music canon, both in terms of the percentage of time spent per topic and in the chronological arrangement of chapters (which intimate that "popular music" is a phenomenon solely of the 20th century and beyond). Instead of trying in vain to take on the impossible task of "teaching it all," I decided to accept defeat willingly and revise my approach.

Leaving the idea of linear and canonical history behind, I offered a course comprising six separate mini-courses whose topics were taken from both the history of Western art music and other traditions:

Unit 1 Beethoven and his world: representing Europe's "dual revolution" in music, ca. 1790-1830
Unit 2 Opera and cultural transformation: from entertainment to art, ca. 1790-1915
Unit 3 The many faces of modernism: Western art music from 1890-1915
Unit 4 Modernism, race, and the popular arts: the early history of bebop, ca. 1940-60
Unit 5 Topics in film music and narrative representation
Unit 6 Gender and the pop song: women singer-songwriters since 1970

Such a course admits to the importance of diversity in the music curriculum, but it equally acknowledges the futility of trying to fit everything in. More importantly, it pays heed to the ideological undercurrent of our curricular choices. As one of the primary general education courses in music, Music Appreciation is responsible for sending a public message as to what the institutionally sanctioned definition of music is. In other words, what gets taught in music appreciation courses is likely to be interpreted as what the department believes ought to get taught. Teaching a variety of subjects from mixed repertories shows to the community that we acknowledge all musics as valid subjects for teaching. This can be reinforced further by periodically changing any or all of the six units. A course like this relies on its content not as an end in itself but as a vehicle for generating ideas and fostering critical thinking outside the bounds of the course itself.

Even more important than this essential curricular issue, however, is Mann's suggestion that we should teach "not only the `work itself'. . . but [also] aspects of its reception history." By acknowledging the dynamic relationship between musical interpretation and ideology, we lead students to an understanding of how exactly music intersects with the world: It matters to people.

One of my favorite lecture-presentations comes at the end of the Beethoven unit. After five class sessions of hearing, reading about, and interpreting Beethoven's music for themselves, students get an overview of his reception history entitled "Beethoven as myth, symbol, and aggressor: a quick survey of Beethoven criticism from E.T.A. Hoffman to Susan McClary." Here, they witness just how relevant to people's lives the issue of musical reception can become. I don't think any of these students will ever think of Beethoven's music in the same way.

Mann suggests that if students gain "a sense of the changing meanings that works acquire over time," they will eventually have "a healthy sense of the contingency of their own immediate responses." This raises the issue of taste, and brings me to a philosophical motivation that is central to what I do as both a music educator and scholar.

One influential way of thinking in current cultural studies posits that our identities are "socially constructed" and that our cultural choices not only advertise who we want to be but actually construct who we are. Because I do not necessarily subscribe to this ideology, I use my course as an opportunity to scrutinize this position carefully. When teaching popular music, for instance, I explain the "social construction of identity" argument to students, and then I ask them to entertain an alternative: that, although our cultural choices certainly serve as a representation of "who we are," there is more to the matter of identity than its material and even ideological accoutrements. Learning to explain your tastes leads you closer to the condition of knowing not only who you are but of understanding a little bit more about why you are who you are. In other words, by virtue of challenging students to explain why they like what they like, I am inviting them to move closer to a state of self-realization.

Let me explain with an anecdote: A few years ago, I was helping a friend paint his living room. He asked what kind of music I wanted to hear, and I suggested that he put on something he liked that I hadn't heard before. He chose a CD by the British female rock artist P.J. Harvey. After a few tracks, I decided to take up the music as a topic of conversation. To begin, I casually asked, "Why do you like this?" My friend enthusiastically replied, "Because she rocks!" But when I pressed him for more, it became clear that was all he was going to say. In the end, we left it at that, just listening, as if we had tacitly agreed that music is distinctly not for talking about.

When I was asked to teach Music Appreciation, I recalled the incident with my friend, who happens to be college-educated, and imagined that my students would be just like himintelligent and articulate non-musicians, devoted to certain kinds of music, yet unwilling to discuss it as music. I spent some serious time wondering what lies behind this. One viable explanation is that my friend was intimidated by the idea of talking about music with someone about to finish a Ph.D. in musicology. Certainly my experience with other people as well has borne this out: as much as they may love "their music," people in general tend to feel that their own responses to it cannot be compared to those of a trained musician. But the belief that those trained in music are the only ones capable of talking about it in a meaningful way is a fallacy. Regardless of training, we all share the common starting point: taste. And taste is not analogous to expertise.

Given all of this, I decided to make it a priority in my course to lead students toward a more confident and detailed articulation of their tastes. And while the experience of teaching the course with this model left me with many ideas for improvement, I believe that it enabled students to take their first small steps on the long road of feeling confident about articulating their tastes. It also gave them an opportunity to come to know themselves better. Regardless of what they came out of the class knowing in terms of content (in other words, regardless of what the course "covered"), they were exposed to the idea that the study of music can teach us significant things about ourselves and our world.


Anthony T. Rauche, University of Hartford

Mark Mazullo has wonderful ideas and an energy about teaching music to his students, ". . . inviting them to move closer to a state of self-realization . . . toward a more confident and detailed articulation of their tastes." His response to Mann's Symposium article is full of creative ways to engage students in the study of music, and I think he hits upon a fundamentally important underlying observation that a music appreciation or introductory music course ". . . relies on its content not as an end in itself but as a vehicle for generating ideas and fostering critical thinking outside the bounds of the course itself." In such a music course, personal taste is explored and valued along with the cultural context of a world of musics. Details begin to make sense, a useable vocabulary emerges, and we begin to cultivate the listener. Discussion about music is understood as meaningful and valuable from a personal perspective as well as from the larger cultural perspective. In reading Mazullo's closing words, I am reminded of the conductor Robert Shaw's observation: "The arts are not simply skills: Their concern is the intellectual, ethical, and spiritual maturity of human life. . . the arts have become the custodians of those values which most worthily define humanity . . . ."

This emphasis on the human value of the arts-and music in particular-is echoed by Charles Fowler in Strong Arts, Strong Schools (Oxford University Press, 1996). Perhaps we have to redefine the mission of our approach to music teaching on all levels of education from elementary through college, and present new challenges to ourselves as educators and learners. Isn't music itself always challenging us, provoking our interest, and, either through casual listening or an intensive detailed study, asserting its value in our lives-more than we can put into words and eluding our very best descriptive resources?

We take this opportunity to use this issue of the CMS Newsletter to focus on Music in General Studies (MGS). With the help of MGS Advisory Committee members Michael Masterson and Anita Hanawalt, we present our reactions to Mark Mazullo's article. Then, in the November Newsletter, we consider some of the texts we have been using in our classes, along with recent materials which challenge us to be better educators and musicians. We hope you find the discussion here to be stimulating and meaningful for the kind of teaching and learning you do. It really does matter!


Anita Hanawalt, University of La Verne

I applaud Mark Mazullo's work on changing the traditional music appreciation curriculum. Coming to the realization that it is impossible to "cover" all of music history for all musics of the world and devising an alternative comprising six separate, interchangeable mini-courses is a vital step in a more inclusive musical direction. Acknowledging that all musics are worthy of inclusion for study does indeed send a more culturally pluralistic message to the academy and the community.

While Mazullo's approach looks more inclusive on paper, it is unclear as to whether women composers, improvisers, and performers will receive equal consideration in each mini-course. While women singer-songwriters since 1970 are included in the initial group of six mini-courses, women are not specifically mentioned in the other five offerings. I hope this means that considerations of gender will be included as a matter of course, but it has often been the case that when women are not specifically mentioned, their contributions are intentionally excluded from consideration. For music studies to be truly inclusive, great care must be taken to include considerations of gender in all mini-courses. As my colleague, Richard Harper (The New School University) has pointed out:

In recent years, jazz and related musics have become accepted pedagogy in numerous schools and colleges attracting both a multiethnic as well as a multinational student body. The faculty teaching, however, remain predominantly male. In addition, while most of these programs readily acknowledge the contributions of women, the areas where women have traditionally been dominant, such as singing, are often underdeveloped or not well integrated with the rest of the curriculum.

When attempting to change the music appreciation curriculum, the greatest problem I see is that more culturally diverse curricula tend to exclude women, and more gender inclusive curricula tend to exclude culturally pluralistic musics. Our challenge as music educators is the integration of culturally pluralistic musics with greater gender inclusivity. This integration is essential to helping students reach "an understanding of how exactly music intersects with the world." Music does indeed matter greatly to people, of all global locations and genders. Learning to articulate why it matters so much will indeed teach students and faculty "significant things about ourselves and our world."


Michael L. Masterson, Northwest College (Wyoming)

Mark Mazullo's essay in this Newsletter and Brian Mann's Symposium essay provide welcome insights, viewpoints, and approaches to teaching music appreciation to today's students. I wish these kinds of viewpoints had been better articulated decades ago, because we have wasted so much time and energy educating many generations of college students in musical topics and information that they immediately discarded. Many of my highly educated colleagues in other disciplines have commented over the years how little they remember from their own music appreciation classes, but "it was good for them" (perhaps similar to the effect of medicine). I don't think that's the impact we as college music professors want to have on our students, or our American culture for that matter.

Professor Mazullo has it right when he states: "what gets taught in music appreciation is likely to be interpreted as what the department [and college culture in general] believes ought to be taught." If we only teach the "history of Western Art music" in the music appreciation class, we should describe it that explicitly in the course title, much as "History of Jazz" courses do in music departments or "Western Civilization" courses do in history departments. Music matters to Americans, and "their music" helps define who they are as a person. If the students discover that sometime in an Introduction to Music class their music will be listened to or discussed, then we have a student less likely to dismiss the class as unimportant or irrelevant to their educational needs and one more likely to give other, less familiar music a chance. In an American college or university, we should, as Mazullo asserts, "acknowledge all musics as valid subjects for teaching."

Another important idea in Mazullo's essay about teaching music appreciation includes one he got from Mann. Forget about teaching a comprehensive history of music. Most undergraduates will take only one music course. We need to give them something focused on finding meaning in music of many kinds, because that's what they will encounter in the next six decades of their lives. And what better citizens they will be if they can listen with some level of understanding to the music of the many cultures and subcultures they will encounter in our increasingly connected world. Helping students learn to listen to a variety of musics in class gives us a chance to impact individual lives, of course, but also a chance to impact our culture's impressions of music as a whole. Wouldn't it be nice if the Today Show, Entertainment Tonight, awards shows, local news, and other media servers, understood music's implications beyond the surface entertainment value currently found. We as music educators at the college level can help build more thoughtful and intelligent approaches to our culture's musical experiences.

With his mini-course plan for his Music Appreciation class, Mazullo handles well the notions of musical meaning, history, critical theory, and the ever-changing meanings for audiences as times transform and music is recontextualized. His teaching method focuses on music and how, as he states: "It matters to people." Students understand music's importance in their own lives and want to know how other people feel or have felt about similar human matters. The study of history and music becomes more important if it focuses on people and their responses. A professor can ask such questions as: What does this music tell us about the people in Beethoven's time? This helps students to think beyond contemporary culture's focus on "my music"-their "I" perspective, and thus are encouraged to think about other points-of-view-even a "we" perspective.

A people viewpoint also connects to Mann's critique of Kivy's assertion that music has "no content to reveal, no message to decode." As Mann reminds us, that kind of absolutist approach to music, so prevalent at the time of my undergraduate education, goes against the grain of current scholarship that reconnects art music to cultures and individuals in so many ways. For example, in Susan McClary's recent publication, Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form, published by the University of California Press, she handles the issues of absolutism and "pure music" and explains the social construction of such values.

That Kivy or anyone could say that Beethoven's "Eroica" is merely a "magnificent, abstract structure of sound; one big beautiful noise, signifying nothing" makes no sense to me and certainly goes against our students' intuitive thoughts about music. They enjoy learning about the many functions of music in life, but have a hard time understanding the concept of music/art that exists for its own sake. We Americans are utilitarians at heart it seems, and our music education is better if it connects to such values. "Music is Life" is a metaphor that makes sense, like "Art for People's Sake" rather than the old absolutist "Art for Art's Sake."

Professor Mazullo's anecdote about his friend's inability to articulate words about music he loves summarizes the tongue-tied characteristic of our American culture when it comes to discussing music. In May 1994, my article describing my nontraditional ways of teaching music appreciation was published in the Music Educator's Journal. I entitled it, "Moving Beyond 'It's Got A Good Beat'," to point out that musically inarticulate American characteristic. Dick Clark's clich? phrase from American Bandstand tells us that we love rhythm and musical connections to the body, but we have no vocabulary to get beyond the surface. It's our job as music teachers to help our students and the culture develop musical understandings and a vocabulary that enable the articulation of layers of musical meanings. These meanings should connect musical sounds, the metaphoric expression and feelings stimulated by the sounds, and cultural contexts of the sounds, including function, history, attitudes, beliefs, and other metaphoric ideas. For example, the opening trumpet unison in Aaron Copland's, "Fanfare for the Common Man," explains what it means for groups of people to work together as one, better than most political documents. The meaning of E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) becomes quite clear. We just need to recognize that cultural point as a possible meaning to decode. Mazullo's and Mann's ideas allow us to do that. We need to engage our students in a musical search for meaning. Historical and other more standard approaches will follow from that first connection with our students' healthy musical curiosity and interests.

Read 1892 times

Last modified on Tuesday, 07/05/2013

Mark Mazullo

Mark Mazullo is Professor and Chair of the Music Department at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, where he has been teaching piano and courses on music history since 1999. He is the author of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues: contexts, style, performance (Yale University Press, 2010), as well as many essays on diverse musical subjects that have appeared in such publications as The Yale Review, The Musical Quarterly, Popular Music, Journal of the American Musicological Society, and American Music. As a pianist who appears frequently in solo, chamber, and concerto settings, he has performed concertos by Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev with the Dubuque (Iowa) Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Philharmonic, the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis, and the St. Paul Civic Symphony. Other recent projects have included a complete performance of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano in collaboration with Macalester College’s dance program, and an all-Beethoven recital and master-class at the University of North Dakota School of Music. Mazullo received his Bachelor of Music degree at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and his Master of Music degree at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. He received a Ph.D. in musicology at the University of Minnesota. The recipient of Macalester College’s 2009 Excellence in Teaching Award, Mazullo is known for his broad range of courses, including seminars on Beethoven and Shostakovich and a first-year course called Music and Freedom. He is also a popular pre-concert lecturer for both the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra.

Login to post comments
Go to top