Essays that analyze music
Essays that analyze music are very much like other kinds of essays, except that they contain specific, technical information about the work or works that you are writing about. Normally, you should do the analysis first before you write the essay. It is a good idea to begin by creating any musical examples that you will include with the essay. Then write an outline and decide on your main analytical points before you begin to write. Clear writing about music depends on the clarity of the ideas you have and want to express.
As a first step, be sure that you know the piece. Play it if possible, or else listen to one or more recordings until you can look at the score and hear the piece in your “inner” ear. Then begin to analyze the piece: the analytical method(s) you use will depend on the work’s period, style, form, and performance genre, and will also depend on the assignment that the professor has given. Depending on the assignment, your analysis may involve some research (see Working with sources).
When analyzing any material, you will use the understanding you have gained in the course you are taking, and other courses as well. Bear in mind that an analysis involves making choices, since more than one interpretation may be possible. Try to go beyond your initial impressions to understand the work as fully as you can. Consider whether there are special or unusual features that are significant for the piece: such insights are often very fruitful in analysis.
Once you have created any musical examples you want to include and organize your thoughts into outline form, begin to write. Use appropriate technical terms that will highlight and clarify the points you are making (see Terminology in Music). When quoting or referring to sources, be sure to use appropriate citations (see Citation Styles).
Once you have finished the essay, bear in mind that what you have created is a first draft. Reading it out loud will help you to see how clearly and correctly you have expressed your ideas, and highlight any changes that you need to make. Revision is a necessary part of the writing process: see Drafts, editing, and revision for suggestions about how to revise your work.
Hacking the Listening Guides: Bloom’s Taxonomy and Aural Learning
Kevin R. Burke, Franklin College
Textbook listening guides present much breadth, but do not always encourage adequate depth for mastery at the undergraduate level. Western music history guides cover many composers, genres, and periods; world music guides include many countries and cultures; and form and analysis guides cover phrase and harmonic motion paradigms.
Bloom’s taxonomy of learning objectives depicts six levels of learning that lead to mastery, representing a cognitive domain that spans from factual knowledge to high orders of the intellectual process. Albeit revised and appropriated, Bloom’s taxonomy has significantly shaped modern curriculum design: a progression of learning outcomes from a foundational to mastery level. Although most standards for undergraduate education attempt at least four levels of cognitive development, the aural learning component of many music courses, especially those for non-majors, often does not move beyond fundamental knowledge. Music exams that require students to identify required listening examples by ear and reproduce the salient features presented in textbook guides only assess this basic level.
Music teachers can exercise higher levels of aural learning by supplementing textbook listening guides with targeted activities in and out of class. Streaming audio services like Music Online (Alexander Street Press), Spotify, and the NAXOS Music Library, among others, permit the instructor to build alternate guides for each level of learning.
The foundation of Bloom’s taxonomy centers on recall of facts, methods and conventions, and principles. Knowledge playlists, therefore, include selections covered in textbook listening guides or discussed in class. The purpose of these examples for students is to confirm basic recognition of specific selections and audible parameters that define those examples. To succeed in achieving audible knowledge, students will identify a piece they have already studied and be able to confirm hearing important parameters identified in the listening guides or lecture notes.
A sample listening guide for a chapter on music in China from an undergraduate World Music Class might include the following examples as a playlist:
- A solo piece for Guqin
- A piece for Jiangnan Sizhu (“silk and bamboo” ensemble)
- An excerpt of Jingju (Beijing Opera)
- An excerpt of Revolutionary Opera
- An example of contemporary popular music
While this sampling provides students with substantial introduction to important genres of music in China, learning to identify and distinguish these examples requires only foundational knowledge. Although there may be some similar aural components that are representative of a broader Chinese musical style, students are not prompted to understand the variations and diversity that could occur within each genre when reproducing given content on tests and exams.
The next level of Bloom’s taxonomy moves beyond recall and requires students to have the ability to transfer and utilize core knowledge. Comprehension playlists include selections outside of the textbook listening guides and pieces discussed in class that are of the same type. These examples should resemble the model received by students in the knowledge playlist as closely as possible. Whereas students at the knowledge level can identify a memorized piece by ear and reproduce its salient traits by rote, the comprehension level requires students to confirm that a new example is of the same type and possesses similar characteristics. Comprehension playlists should include only examples that closely match the learned paradigm for the student (i.e. the textbook example).
2. A piece for Jiangnan Sizhu (“silk and bamboo” ensemble)
- Melody: Pentatonic with Circular Contour and Ornamental Expression
- Texture: Heterophonic
- Rhythm: Duple Meter; Slow to Fast Tempo
- Form: Cyclical Variation with clapper (Ban) initiation
- Aerophones: Transverse flute (Dizi)/mouth organ (Sheng)
- Chordophones (plucked): zither (Yangqin); lute (Pipa/Sanxian/Ruan)
- Chordophones (bowed): (Erhu)
- Membranophone-Idiophone: drum and clapper (Gu Ban)
Unlike the Knowledge playlist, the comprehension playlist focuses on just one genre type and encourages students to recognize and identify the main aural parameters in multiple new pieces. Here is a new playlist that includes four canonic examples of Jiangnan Sizhu that very closely match the given paradigm:
- “Yun Qing” (“Cloud Celebration”)
- “Xing Jie” (“Strolling on the Street”)
- “Xun Feng Qu” (“Song of a Warm Southerly Breeze”)
- “Mei Hua San Long” (Three Sections)
Application playlists challenge students to make judgements and choices based on learned criteria in new situations. Unlike comprehension playlists, which include examples of shared traits, application playlists offer examples of the same or similar type that share some, but not all of the characteristics of the paradigm. Whereas students with comprehension learning can identify pieces by type and traits, students with application learning must weigh the pros and cons of applying a specific label to new examples. The items on these playlists do not fit the learned paradigm completely, but prompt students to make an informed decision.
The following application playlist includes four pieces similar to the given paradigm, but none that match it completely—one or more characteristic traits are missing or different.
- “Yue Luo”: Qin and erhu solo intros and absence of aerophone(s) and fast concluding section
- “Xixiang Ci”: No ban solo into and absence of percussion and fast concluding section
- “Yuda Bajiao”: Absence of percussion and use of homophonic and polyphonic textures
- “Pinghu Quiyue”: Erhu solo intro (instead of ban) and concluding ritardando
Students will consider each audible trait indicative of the paradigm and weigh the pros and cons of applying labels to examples that deviate. This process requires critical thinking and exercises judgement.
Analysis playlists represent a high order of learning for undergraduate music majors, requiring students to evaluate the relationship of parts to the whole. While the instructor is responsible for developing comprehension and application playlists to supplement the memorized knowledge of textbook listening guides, students must move into a higher order of thinking by creating a new listening guide.
An analysis playlist is compiled by the student. Whereas the comprehension and application playlists focus on one main genre or type, the analysis playlist returns to the larger unit in order to create a variation of the guides in the textbook.
Advanced classes need not stop here. The learning experience may continue to the Evaluation and Creating—or highest—levels of learning. Encourage students to author listening guides to accompany the lists and reflect on the merits of the new guide with the one provided in the textbook. An open discussion with students on the purpose, value, and shortcomings of textbook listening guides in light of the exercise will illustrate the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. The following resource at Edudemic offers suggestions of digital tools to engage students in the evaluation and creating stages, namely the use of advanced storytelling and the evaluation and polling of peers.
In order to create a constructive environment for learning and mastery, instructors should secure adequate resources. Most streaming music collections online will require either student or institution subscriptions. Spotify, for example, requires a premium account to create playlists—public playlists, though, are free to listeners—and the ability to create playlists on NAXOS requires an instructor account. Youtube, however, is freely accessible to all but will require more explicit oversight and guidance from instructors.
Although the examples I provide come from a world music class for undergraduates, Bloom’s model also applies to listening in Western music history and form and analysis classes for undergraduates. As outlined for the Jiangnan Sizhu, conventions of Western classical music making and composition have also led to the development and instructional use of model forms, styles, and genres. Guiding students through Bloom’s levels across the curriculum will develop and reinforce the essential learning outcomes. While the time restraints of the semester system and ever-expanding curricula make it nearly impossible to guide students through parallel listening guides for each piece in the textbook, applying Bloom’s taxonomy to several examples will hone advanced listening skills, demonstrate where further mastery is possible, and encourage students to apply what they learn to real-life scenarios.
Identifying important stylistic features and distinguishing traits among new repertoire will introduce students to how the world continues to make and derive meaning from different types of music. Discussing with students the Music Genome Project connected with Pandora Radio will introduce them to practical applications of high order aural thinking. Invite students to draw on their experiences performing music, their ideas about culture and tradition, and their growing knowledge of musical systems, structure, and history in order to explore how shared and divergent traits interconnect. These discussions will reinforce the core learning outcomes of higher education, beyond repertoire and suited to meaningful and productive lives in music.
This work is copyright 2013 Kevin R. Burke and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.