As any music appreciation or music history teacher knows, there is an overwhelming amount of textbooks on the market. Most of these are meant to be used with recordings that are either packaged with the text or sold separately. These recorded anthologies of three or four CDs are often extensive, encompassing jazz, classical, popular and non-Western music. Indeed, they are not only extensive, they are also expensive. All the more, they are inflexible.

One solution to cost and inflexibility is to create an online listening list. The advantages are clear: cost-free listening and the ability to change musical selections from semester to semester. Students are no longer required to buy collections of CDs, and they can never complain that they bought an anthology but were only required to listen to a portion of that anthology. Furthermore, the teacher can change the listening list at will, following current trends or changing the list to fit the particular tastes of a class. Ideally, an online listening list can be linked to a course website. Even if the course is not distance-learned, teachers can utilize these distance-learning elements in the classroom.

One major obstacle to creating an online listening list is copyright. It is simply illegal to place copyrighted material on a website. For instance, it would be illegal and unethical to upload your favorite recorded performance of Chopin without consulting the performer and/or publisher. Some publishers are beginning to offer legitimate online listening. The disadvantage here is that your students will usually need a credit card to pay for music downloads. If students know that they have to pay a la carte, will they ever download at all? Or will they wait for their friends to download and thus delay their listening of essential course material? Furthermore, the list may not be as flexible as expected, and the teacher will be at the mercy of publishers.

While not perfect, a bold solution to creating an online listening list may be found at mp3.com. The online music provider offers free music in all genres. By creating a "station," users can build and manage listening lists that are immediately accessible to students. Even individual musical selections can be linked to course websites, thus making the list even more approachable to students who may find it difficult to match course lectures to assigned listening.

mp3.com is free to its users; the only cost is putting up with "banner"-style advertising. In addition, users may be confronted with "pop-up" windows, which, while annoying, do not interfere with listening. Because of mp3.com's extensive catalogue, the teacher can put together a listening list that includes every type of music. The list never has to be static, and the teacher has complete control over the list's content and order. In my case, I've assembled a list that includes non-Western music, all periods of Western classical music (including a selection from Terry Riley's very own mp3.com page), jazz and, perhaps most importantly for my students, music written or performed by our own faculty. Some of our faculty members are even earning royalties when students access their mp3s!

The greatest challenge to creating an mp3.com station is in coming up with a decent list. While there are plenty of quality symphonic, chamber music and solo recordings, there are perhaps just as many electronic midi files. These midi files presumably serve some purpose to their creators, but they are neither interesting to listen to nor representative of the instruments for which the music was written. The teacher's job will be to filter out these types of recordings. Also, if one expects the students to download recordings to their own CDs or mp3 players (instead of just listening online), the teacher will have to make sure that the recordings on the list are "downloadable" and not just available as online "streaming".

Some may not like the natural sound of many of the recordings. Because mp3.com performers often do not record professionally, listeners may observe ambient noise or even performance errors. Frankly, I'm quite fond of these human elements in the recordings, and I suggest that this gives our students a better idea of the realityand accessibilityof musicians. On one of my own live recordings, someone is coughing in the audience; a student asked me if that was a dog barking!

As I've found with course websites, user error can pose the biggest problem to an online listening list. First, students must understandbefore enrolling in the coursethat they will need access to a computer able to download and play mp3s. Second, they must ultimately be held responsible for their access to the online materials. A teacher shouldn't have to function as a computer technician. In spite of the obstacles, the advantages are clear: inexpensive course materials, instant access to recordings and a flexible listening list. All of these may be realized in either the classroom or the virtual classroom with the ultimate goal of exposure to the widest breadth of composers and performers.

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Last modified on Thursday, 07/03/2013

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