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So You Think You Can Be a Composer: Pedagogical Strategies for Active Learning in Music History Courses

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Imagine two different scenarios. In the first one, “Jane,” a non-music major in college, must take a music history course for her general education requirement. She has no musical background whatsoever, and from the first day of class, she finds herself listening to a professor drone on endlessly about dead composers; none of this information seems particularly interesting to her, and she does poorly in the class. Even her friend, “Joe,” a music-major, finds it difficult to focus on the lecture and dozes off regularly. Now imagine the second scenario. The circumstances are the same, except instead of having to memorize facts deemed useless and boring, Jane and Joe regularly participate in active learning, in part through the use of role playing. Which class will allow them to retain more information? The answer is obvious.

While active learning has been a much-hyped buzz word in education for awhile now, many professors have difficulty putting this approach into practice in the classroom.1 The reasons are many: fear of change, lack of time, lack of departmental support. However, this change need not be intimidating nor extremely time consuming. A professor should slowly integrate active learning into the curriculum a little bit at a time, so one will not be overwhelmed. In these pages, I will share a few examples of active learning exercises I have developed as a college professor.

I emphasize active learning as a means to make learning enjoyable. Students who are having fun will be more likely to retain the information better. Furthermore, I try to relate to the students on an individual level. If the student cannot appreciate the information, he or she will not be able to apply it to new situations. Finally, since students learn in a variety of styles, I present material in a variety of styles. Thusly, the students will be able to find one method that makes sense to them. In this age of sound bites and shortened attention spans, we must relate the necessary information in an effective fashion to maintain interest.

Role Playing and Program Music

In the classroom, I sought ways to incorporate these concepts into my lesson plans. I wrestled with this dilemma especially during a semester dedicated to music of the Romantic era. While many students in this class, comprised predominately of music majors, knew of composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn, I wanted to find a means to make the composers’ personal views more relevant.

Suddenly, I remembered a television show that aired in the late 1970s when I was in middle school. It was Steve Allen’s “Meeting of the Minds.”2 The premise of the show, at least as I recalled it, was that various historical figures, regardless of chronology, met to debate aspects of life and philosophy in a round-table forum. For example, I remember an episode in which Napoleon and Cleopatra discussed world events. At the time, I lacked extensive knowledge of these people, but I found the show to be entertaining and informative. I rationalized that if such a format could capture the attention of a middle school student, then the concept should definitely work for college students.

Because the class was devoted to the music of the Romantic period, I decided that an appropriate topic for the forum was program music. Since this genre was a highly divisive issue in the nineteenth century, I asked the students to take on the persona of a composer and to present that person’s views in a debate on program music. To keep things fair, I had the students draw the composers’ names out of a hat. The first time I tried this exercise, my intent was to have the students go around the classroom in an orderly manner and calmly present their composer’s view. I even offered extra credit to those students who dressed in costume, thinking that a student who was attired in this manner was more likely to think and present as that composer.

When the class presentation time came, however, the events did not play out exactly as I had planned. Some students, especially those portraying Schumann, Brahms, and Wagner, became so involved with their respective characters, that a shouting match ensued. The students deviated somewhat from the assigned topic, with “Schumann” accusing “Brahms” of stealing his wife, and “Wagner” accusing “Hanslick” of lacking in musical ability! Despite the initial digression, most of the students accurately presented their composer’s beliefs. I was obviously excited to see that the students had not only prepared well, but had, indeed, allowed themselves to inhabit the persona of the composers. Years after students had completed their music history courses, many of them returned to tell me of the impact that this assignment had on them, and that they would never forget “their” composer’s view of program music. I felt pleased that I had found a great outlet for active learning.

Because of the success of this activity, I continued it for several years, but as time progressed, I realized that the students were not as engaged as in previous semesters. Despite my exhortations to “become the character,” some students, particularly the more shy ones, did not present their composer’s views with the proper convictions. At this point, I did not want to relinquish the assignment, but I was not happy about the students’ level of participation.

I decided it was time to elevate my exercise to the next level. No longer would students randomly be assigned a composer. Now, they work in groups of approximately three people, which I feel is the ideal number for maximum efficiency. They must choose a composer from a given list, then select from five activities to present to the class: a newscast, talk show, debate, original opera or musical, or a video. They may also elect one of the first four and then videotape the activity. I offer them a little bit of class time to organize their plans, but they must complete most of the work outside of class. They receive three grades: one for their preparation, for which they submit a summary of their work as a group; one for the presentation itself, including factual veracity, creativity, and unity of the group; and a group/self-assessment, in which they grade themselves and each other on their contributions.3 Usually, the students are quite candid about their own participation and that of their group members.

My students have expressed much enthusiasm for this assignment and the results support this assertion. The presentations are generally more creative than before, well-prepared, well-presented, and factually correct. For example, a recent group staged “A Lost Episode of Sesame Street,” in which a puppet went back in time to meet Wagner, who explained his views on composition. The consequence of this activity is that the students’ knowledge of program music and the composers who wrote such works seems secure.

Occasionally, some students have personality conflicts with each other or have trouble finding a mutually agreeable meeting time. I inform them that, at some point in life, regardless of occupation, people must work together in groups of various sorts. Therefore, I encourage the students to work through these problems to reach their common goal. We discuss ways to succeed and barriers to success. Most of the time, the students are able to overcome their difficulties.

Further Applications

Thrilled by my initial success with the program music activity, I mused about other potential uses for active learning. While teaching a course on twentieth-century music, I applied this same idea to composers’ treatment of tonal vs. atonal/serial music. Students were assigned a composer, and were asked to come to class as that person, presenting his/her views. Once again, I awarded extra credit for those who arrived in costume. The first time I attempted this particular exercise, I had some of the same students who fought while portraying Brahms and Schumann. These students nearly got into a physical altercation while either defending or deriding tonality. However, once again, the students seemed to enjoy not only the acting experience, but they truly learned something about the composers in a way which became very personal for them. I also experimented with this technique for Baroque music with much success; in this instance, the composer was not asked to take sides in a debate, but simply discuss his musical style. However, the reader should be cautioned about applying role playing games for too many classes with the same students, as their experience and enthusiasm may become slightly diluted.

Active learning may take other forms. For example, I once made a test on the early Baroque period, in which I wanted to include an essay question on the conventions of early opera, such as types of song, the role of the orchestra and chorus, scenery, costumes, and so on. An essay question is an ideal forum for such a broad question, but I feared that many students, especially the non-music majors, would not offer as complete an answer as the question dictated. Therefore, I wrote the following:

Imagine that the year is 1630 and you are a young Italian nobleman from Genoa named Giovanni di Crescendo. You travel to Venice to visit your aunt and uncle, who take you to see your first opera. Write a letter to your parents, describing in great detail everything that you saw and heard, including the types of music, costumes, and scenery.

 My intention was to encourage students to discuss their knowledge of opera, but in a more interesting manner, in the form of a letter. I even offered extra credit to anyone who could write in Italian. In large measure, this essay question was met with enthusiasm by the students, that is, as much as an essay question can engender enthusiasm. Students later informed me that they appreciated the creative aspect of the question. However, I did have one unintended consequence of this exercise. I forgot that many of my students have never written a true letter, living in their social media world of short-hand communication, including Facebook, texting, and e-mail. As a result, their letter was much briefer than I had hoped, although not as short as the 140 character “tweet,” and in some cases, lacked the details for which I had hoped. In addition, many students seemed unfamiliar with certain conventions of letter writing, including the salutation. I was amused to observe that some people concluded the letter with their complete name, as if their parents might be confused as to which “Giovanni” wrote them a letter. Despite these generational setbacks, I still maintain that this kind of question is a useful tool for gauging the students’ knowledge, and making a potentially tedious exercise more fun and meaningful for them. It allowed the students to personalize their learning. In addition, the use of humor on a test alleviated some student stress and produced better results.

Non-majors may also benefit from active learning, especially in various types of music appreciation courses, even though they may lack a basic music background. Non-majors often have an easier time understanding new material when they are able to personalize it. Any of the previously mentioned exercises could be attempted with such classes, although obvious alterations must be made. In addition, students could play games for purposes of review, such as “Jeopardy,” “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” or even “Win, Lose, or Draw.” Some people may initially balk at the notion of playing games in college, but it has been my experience that even the most reluctant students will eventually partake in the activity, and enjoy the spirit of the game. In this way, they reinforce their knowledge while having a good time.

These examples detail only a few of the means to engage students and personalize their learning. We, as educators, need to realize that the learning styles which worked for us in the late twentieth century will not necessarily work for our students. Moreover, since each student is unique, particularly with regard to learning, we must be flexible and offer multiple approaches to reach them. Bear in mind that not every activity will work for every group of students, but initial failures should not be grounds to abandon hope. Regardless of the manner chosen, the objective to make learning a fun and meaningful activity should be at the forefront of our lesson plans, not just a few times during the semester, but on a regular basis. After all, everyone likes to have fun, and if students learn something in the process, so much the better.


1A few examples of research into active learning (sometimes called “experiential learning”) include Jay Caulfield and Treesa Woods, “Experiential Learning:  Exploring its Long-term Impact on Socially Responsible Behavior,” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 13, no. 2:  31-48; Chet Meyers and T.B. Jones, Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993); Melvin L. Silberman, Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject (Boston:  Allyn and Bacon, 1996).  A brief perusal of this body of literature suggests that, while the field of music education offers multiple approaches to active learning, particularly in elementary and secondary grades, information on college learning lags behind these other educational levels.

2According to the Internet Movie Database, the “Meeting of the Minds” aired on the PBS network from 1977-1981, with Jayne Meadows, Steve Allen’s wife, playing most of the female roles. See (Accessed April 29, 2011).

3The idea to assign multiple grades for a group activity came from my colleague, Michael Abernathy, at a faculty workshop on effective groups, presented at Indiana University Southeast.


Caulfield, Jay and Treesa Woods. “Experiential Learning: Exploring its Long-term Impact on Socially Responsible Behavior.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 13, no. 2: 31-48.

“Meeting of the Minds.”

Meyers, Chet and T.B. Jones. Promoting Active Learning: Strategies for the College Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Silberman, Melvin L. Active Learning: 101 Strategies to Teach Any Subject. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1996.

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Last modified on Thursday, 07/03/2019

Ann Glazer Niren

Dr. Ann Glazer Niren teaches the four music history and literature courses at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, Indiana. In addition, she has taught rudiments of music, piano, and humanities, and serves as an accompanist for student juries and recitals. She is the recipient of two awards at IUS for her pedagogical skills. She established the Music History Award for excellence in student research and writing. For over two decades, she presided as music director at Temple Shalom in Louisville, Kentucky.

Dr. Niren has degrees in composition from Indiana University and in theory from Northwestern University. She completed her Ph.D. in musicology at the University of Kentucky in 2013, with a dissertation entitled "The Relationship Between Solomon Braslavsky, Congregation Mishkan Tefila, and Leonard Bernstein." While at the University of Kentucky, she was a finalist in their inaugural "Three-Minute Thesis Competition" in which participants must distill their research into non-technical language in a very brief presentation. Niren is the recipient of the Women’s Club Centennial Fellowship at UK, which enabled her to do dissertation field research. In addition to Bernstein and Jewish music, her research includes articles on Marian McPartland and minimalism.

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