I have frequently been called upon to teach the intro to fine arts course at Shimer College. It is a challenging course because it falls outside the “read books and talk about them” model that professors and students alike are most comfortable with. Talking about art and music in an intelligent and collaborative way requires a different set of skills than talking about texts, a problem that is compounded by the fact that many people believe those skills are an occult discipline that is unattainable by most — especially in the context of music, with its complex theoretical apparatus. In the worst case, you get some students making up narratives to go with a classical piece, other students (those with some musical performance training) trying unsuccessfully to explain basically what the sheet music probably looks like, and a critical mass sitting in sullen silence because they don’t know what they’re supposed to say.
My approach has been to sidestep the technical terminology to the extent possible and focus instead on giving them obvious things to listen for. Dissonance vs. consonance is an easy one in that anyone with normal hearing can identify either with confidence after the distinction is pointed out. Then we can discuss how dissonance often goes with creating tension, while consonance is more of a release or resolution. This gets them talking about movie soundtracks, showing that in a way they already know how these things work. That initial burst of confidence, the feeling of knowing what they’re talking about, is absolutely crucial. In my experience, nothing else in music can serve that role so elegantly — even the distinction between major and minor keys is a little too sophisticated when the class includes people with no musical training. I often follow up by playing through Bach’s first prelude, then playing the arpeggios as chords so that they can more easily hear the build up of tension and release.
Another successful exercise involves basically listening to a short classical piece over and over again and analyzing it in simple ways. I like to use Glenn Gould’s recording of the Aria from The Goldberg Variations (Spotify link), because it’s simple, it’s only three minutes long, and it’s kind of fun for the students to notice Gould’s weird vocalizations in the background.
I start off by asking them whether they think the piece can be divided into parts. This piece has the virtue of being divisible into four parts of roughly equal length (occuring approximately every 45 seconds). We listen to it a couple times through so that they can get familiar with it, and then the third time I invite them to stop me if we reach a turning point. The first transition is less clear than the second and third, so normally there will be some debate in this area. This gets the students used to the idea of expressing opinions and giving reasons when discussing music. Normally the second transition (at around 1:30) is very clear, as is the shift into the finale (around 2:15), and that gives them a point of reference to specify the transition between the first and second segments. Along the way, we listen to each proposed segment on its own to verify that it sounds like a coherent unit. Eventually, a consensus emerges that there are four parts of about equal length.
At this point, I invite them to listen to it again and write down a few words about the dominant emotional feel of each of the four parts. We go around the table and write down their takes on each part, and — lo and behold! — their answers are broadly similar. There are outliers, naturally, but the existence of such a clear consensus among people who were working independently leads them to try to account for disagreements by pointing toward something the conflicting answers had in common. And so now we’ve graduated to being able to discuss the emotional content of a musical piece in a collaborative way and giving reasons.
Even better, I’ve given them things to listen for and take notes on, meaning that I can now send them home to listen on their own. Normally I like to assign them to listen to the piano and orchestrated versions of Pictures at an Exhibition, then pick out at least one section to analyze more closely — with a special eye toward what difference the orchestration makes relative to the plain piano. Pictures has the benefit of providing a visual point of reference as well, giving the students a little more concrete content to grab onto.
The final pillar of my music intro sequence is to do exercises with rhythm. Instead of introducing them to the vagaries of time signatures, I explain that rhythm in music is normally made up of groupings of either 2 or 3 beats. I tap them out, then call random combinations and ask them to do it. Unsurprisingly, they are able to do it easily. Then I go through Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and let each section run until they’ve come to a consensus on whether the basic rhythmic pattern is 2 groups of 2 (4/4 time), 2 groups of 3 (6/8 time) or whatever. If we have time at the end, I throw them a curve ball with Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”
In my experience, that’s enough to give them a foundation to start talking about music in an intelligent, collaborative, but non-technical way. I’ve given them some basic things to listen for, revealed some of the classical music “bag of tricks,” and most importantly, gotten them used to the idea that they can discuss music and give reasons. And when I get them a few years later in the upper-level humanities class, I find that they can still do it. Mission accomplished. Rarely do we see so straightforwardly that we’ve actually taught something.