Take Note: An Introduction to Music Through Active Listening by Robin Wallace
Turning away from the “standard” music appreciation textbook, Robin Wallace writes a book that has a noteworthy idea as its backbone: helping students develop their listening skills. In doing so, he takes an important first step toward changing how one thinks about teaching music appreciation courses.
Wallace is Professor of Musicology at Baylor University and is an authority on Beethoven and the critical reception of his works. For this textbook, Wallace takes a different approach than the common simplified version of music history normally found in music appreciation textbooks. Wallace seeks to teach active listening skills to students by covering a recurring repertoire through the various elements of music while covering a variety of styles and the time periods.
Published by Oxford University Press, Take Note is divided into 12 chapters that range from 20-30 pages each. Chapter 1 is an introduction to listening and to the elements of music, and the remainder of the book divides into three sections: “Listening Through History” (chapters 2-4), “Listening Through Musical Elements” (chapters 5-9), and “Bringing It All Together” (chapters 10-12). In terms of teaching, this format can potentially allow for having a test at the end of each large section, and since the final three chapters are summative, the final exam can easily be a comprehensive way to evaluate the skills that students learned during the term.
Like most recent music appreciation textbooks, Take Note can be purchased with an online package, in this case OUP’s “Dashboard.” In this online component, students will find all of the listening examples along with some clear listening guides. When listening with the “Listen Closely View,” students will find animated representations of the music in the style of Stephen Malinowski1. These, however, are only available for select examples. The textbook also comes with a 12-month subscription to Oxford Music Online for those students who would like to explore the composers and music further.
After the first four chapters (Introduction and “Listening Through History”), Wallace begins his exploration of the recurring repertoire by analyzing the works through the elements of music. Each chapter in this section examines the music through a different element: form, timbre, rhythm and meter, melody, harmony, and texture. For the most part, the works in this recurring repertoire do return in each chapter, although, in the case of some multi-movement works, the movements chosen vary from chapter to chapter.
The recurring repertoire that Wallace chose is one of the book’s most appealing aspects as it includes some of the most significant composers of the Western canon as well as works that are not necessarily “textbook” works. The result is that students who are not music majors taking an appreciation course will likely study works that their music major classmates will not be performing, like the Bach Mass in B Minor, and yet, they should be able to listen critically to a work from the Baroque era based on analysis through the elements of music. The range of styles explored in every chapter is also noteworthy. For instance, before the end of the first chapter, students have already listened to Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance in E minor op. 72, no. 10, Mozart’s Symphony no. 40, Bach’s Concerto in D minor for harpsichord and strings, BWV 1052, and Crumb’s Black Angels. Talk about variety!
Other than some of the works already mentioned, the recurring repertoire includes pieces such as Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette, selections from Schubert’s Winterreise, Verdi’s Otello, Debussy’s Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp, Ives’s Violin Sonata No. 4, Dallapiccola’s Canti di prigionia, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, among others. While the significance of these works is unquestionable, diverting from standards like Symphonie fantastique or Rite of Spring allows for a different focus as it is tempting to forego teaching the elements of music with these works and, instead, stress the stories around them, from the program of the Berlioz to the riotous first performance of the Stravinsky. With this recurring repertoire, one can focus on the elements of music as they come along while also allowing the students to discover the works through the various chapters.
Three chapters are particularly enjoyable and deserve a closer look: “Music and Text,” “Music and Drama,” and “Instrumental Music and Meaning,”(chapters 10, 11, and 12) which are all placed under the umbrella of “Bringing It All Together,” the third part of the book.
In “Music and Text,” Wallace uses a motet by Machaut, selections from Schubert’s Winterreise, and Dallapiccola’s Canti di prigionia as the vehicles to address the chapter’s subject. He is at his best with the Schubert and Dallapiccolla. If anything, the latter is dealt with in an impressive manner such that a non-major would be able to grasp the meaning of this music without getting bogged down in the technical apparatus of Dallapiccola’s musical language.
The chapter on “Music and Drama” uses two terrific examples, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Verdi’s Otello, and Wallace’s discussion is insightful. Here, the author uses excerpts from the operas to remind us that both are based on pre-existing literary works, and systematically analyzes what we know from the operas’ characters based on what the authors (Shakespeare or Beaumarchais) provide, then with the librettist’s input (Da Ponte and Boito), and finally through the composers’ eyes. Wallace analyzes an aria and an ensemble from each opera highlighting the variety of emotions that opera brings to its listeners.
In the final chapter, Wallace discusses several aspects of musical meaning in instrumental music. Here, the examples are Mozart’s “Gran Partita” Serenade (Romance), Chopin’s Nocturne in A-flat major, op. 32, no. 2, and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance in E minor op. 72, no. 10. Through these works, he discusses the topic of musical meaning as it relates to ternary form suggesting that there is a sense of narrative inherent within the musical structure. The highlight of the chapter, however, is his delightful movement-by-movement and section-by-section tour of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony where, on his home turf, Wallace brings the textbook to a terrific end.
There are many positive and innovative aspects in this book; however, as I read through it, I kept asking myself, “if I were teaching with this textbook now, how much would I have to elaborate for my students to really follow this sequence?” For so long, music appreciation courses have been taught as a simplified version of a music history class, or a “light” music history, and this book purposely diverts from this concept while offering the premise of teaching critical listening skills. However, there are some drawbacks to this process, particularly since it functionally teaches the students how to listen to music of the Western canon and not much else. So, while Take Note suggests a new approach to teaching, in the end, students end up learning a great deal about Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, etc., and very little about how to listen to other genres, including popular music. For instance, there are multiple short sections in the textbook where popular music is referred to in passing. In the chapter that focuses on melody (chapter 8), Wallace has a section that points out the importance of repetition in music to create a musical memory, and he makes reference to the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”2 But that’s it. In discussing this aspect of melodic writing, and especially as he discusses the use of repetition in the motives through Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 and Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5, there could be some analysis of how this kind of repetition can make the chorus of a popular song so catchy that it becomes an earworm. For instance, the chorus in “Paparazzi” by Lady Gaga uses the same elements of repetition (repeating a musical idea three times) that Mozart uses in his symphony to convey to the listener the important melodic ideas. I am not suggesting that every chapter devoted to a musical element should have a popular music connection, but since not teaching the music history chronology is a point of difference in the book, it would certainly help the students connect with the material by engaging with music with which they are likely familiar.
Another missed connection was in the chapter “Music and Text” when Dallapiccola’s Canti di prigionia appears in the context of protest music and the influence of the political situation in Italy during the composer’s life.3 Earlier in this chapter, Wallace discussed Machaut’s Lasse! comment oublieray/Se j’aim mon loyal/ Pour quoy me bat mes maris? as a work where all the texts are connected, but not to be understood at once.4 This is where I think using a polytextual motet—perhaps by DeVitry—would make a terrific connection to Dallapiccola’s work as some of these motets include protest texts. By the same token, using these layers of several texts loaded with protests from the Middle Ages would have made an interesting connection to listening to the layers in hip hop and the seemingly unrelated musical styles found in the mash-up. Like the motets of the Middle Ages, these two genres have borrowed material and, in the case of the mash-up, have a bass line that connects the music together. This would allow for students to see the connection between protest music from vastly different eras and the importance of layers and text. However, after the discussion on Dallapiccola’s work, Wallace does include a brief section on music of the 1960s, specifically the various versions of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” but compared to the discussion and analysis of the works in the recurring repertoire, it seems to be an afterthought.
One of the aspects of this book where I found myself wondering how well it would work in my current class was the fact that it jumps back and forth too frequently, and that is simply the nature of how the book is structured. For instance, Wallace discusses the elements of music in Chapter 1, but this topic is not brought up again until Chapter 5 when he begins the analysis of recurring repertoire through the elements. In a semester-long course, it will be weeks between the introduction of the elements of music and their application to the recurring repertoire. Once the discussion on the recurring repertoire does begin, most of the works are discussed (or return) in the following chapters. This will make the reader jump back and forth, and wonder, “Was that comment on work X in Chapter 7 or 8? Or was that in the music history section?” This back-and-forth becomes cumbersome at times.
Finally, while thinking of this textbook for a general education course, one must consider certain aspects where music appreciation finds itself in a bind: how many of the broader student learning outcomes can one address in such a course? While working on critical listening skills would certainly be a welcome student-learning outcome, more and more university committees are looking for multicultural components, particularly the inclusion of non-Western cultures and issues of gender and diversity. As mentioned before, there is a great deal of teaching how to listen to music through the compositions of the great masters of the Western canon. However, there is only one piece by a woman composer (Vandervelde’s Genesis II), and only one short section at the end of the book that deals with the topic by mentioning composers such as Hildegarde of Bingen, Hensel, Tower, and Zwilich.5 The same holds true for non-Western music, of which there are three examples (Raga Bhankar, Jumping Dance Drums, and Gender wayang, Sukawati) and most of these works only make one appearance in the recurring repertoire. With the variety and inclusiveness of student-learning outcomes tied to general education courses, this textbook could be a hard fit.
While the overall concept presented by Wallace of developing listening skills certainly makes us think about our teaching, he may have gone too far from teaching the chronology. Although teaching the elements is effective, we all seem to revert to teaching the history because it is something that we love as music historians. However, this textbook might lead us into exploring something different: how about a book where we discuss the development of the elements of music?
1 American composer, Stephen Malinowski has created a series of You Tube videos where musical works are represented through animations. Through them, viewers who do not read music can get a clear sense of the layers in a composition as it is performed. Please refer to www.stephenmalinowski.com
2 While there are other references to popular music in the textbook, none of these are part of the recurring repertoire or are developed further. Wallace, Take Note, 224.
3 Wallace, Take Note, 284.
4 Wallace, Take Note, 276.
5 This is the page prior to the last chapter review of the book. Wallace, Take Note, 357.