Teaching The Art Of Active Listening Through Art Music

Teaching the Art of Active Listening Through Art Music

Mr. Rob

No matter what role music plays in your life, you cannot deny its complexity, particularly in relation to its taxonomy. When we talk about art music, we are bound to run into discussion about why we refer to it as such. Isn’t all music supposed to be aligned with what we know as the fine arts? Ostensibly, art music includes the wonderful canon of classical music dating all the way back to the medieval period, and it is supposed to stand apart from popular or folkloric music, but this is subject to debate because there was a time when the work of Richard Strauss was popular dance music. There are musicologists who argue that Brian Eno is a modern composer who should be mentioned within the art music category, but others will be opposed to this inclusion because the composer himself titled one of his minimalist masterpieces “Music for Airports.” Mr. Eno himself probably would not care too much about whether his work is considered art music or not.

Art music should be defined for its complexity and elevated aesthetics. The beautiful “Fur Elise” bagatelle composed by Ludwig van Beethoven was supposed to be a simple piano teaching exercise that he would have objected to be bundled along with the art music canon, but we would argue against this because the aesthetic value of this gorgeous piece makes it sound very artistic. “Fur Elise” is not only enjoyable but also interesting to the point that it makes us listen very actively. We will be mentioning art music again in a few paragraphs below, but we should agree that it may encompass more than just classical music. We do not intend to settle debates, but we should agree that some musical pieces are more conducive towards active listening exercises than others.

The kind of music that should be played when teaching active listening should include easily discernible elements such as:

  • Articulation
  • Meter
  • Time signature
  • Timbre
  • Changes
  • Dynamics

Music producers can identify dozens of elements in just about every piece of music they listen to, but this does not mean that they only listen to art music; what it means is that they are expert active listeners, and this has a lot to do with the nature of their jobs. British electronic dance music artist Norman Cook, who goes by “Fatboy Slim,” is often described as possessing the “best ears” in the EDM spectrum; when he listens to musical pieces, he completely breaks them down into all their elements so that he can pick and choose snippets to convert into completely different and ultra-catchy songs.

What Active Listening Really Is

The late American composer Aaron Copland explained that music could be listened to in three manners, which we will describe below, but we will add another one at the end so that we can better understand the concept of active listening as it applies to music.

  • Sensuous listening is mostly mindless. An example would be playing background music while ironing clothes.
  • Expressive listening involves the acknowledgement that music evokes emotions. Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven is a song that recognizes painful loss while bringing comfort.
  • Sheer musical listening is highly technical, and it is often practiced by musicians who wish to analyze a musical piece from the vantage point of the composer.
  • Active listening is didactic to the point of being academic; it encompasses the three Copland concepts listed above.

Similar to music producers and recording engineers, audiophiles also practice a lot of active listening for the purpose of reproducing music with a perception of very high fidelity. From what we have discussed thus far, active listening is required whenever we want to do something with music, but that something must go beyond singing along and dancing for entertainment. If we want to play a few melodies from Richard Wagner’s opera Twilight of the Gods on piano, we would need to apply active listening so that we can figure out the key and bar equivalents; in other words, we must exercise auditory observations.

Active Listening of Music in Classroom Settings

It makes perfect sense to encourage active listening in music lessons. In the case of early learning programs such as Prodigies Music, active listening is tacitly encouraged within every lesson because the goal is to foment the understanding of music theory. As previously mentioned, art music is not a hard requirement; a music teacher can use Mary Had a Little Lamb or even Baby Shark and still be able to apply active listening.

The key to active listening is the same as with active learning. Students have to be engaged and think critically about the matter at hand, which in this case involves musical pieces. Copland’s sheer musical listening comes to mind, but we have to remember that he was referring to technical aspects that musicians should listen for and comprehend for the sake of performance and composition. Active listening has a greater purpose because it is intellectual, and it does not have to limit itself to music education. An American History teacher going through a curriculum that focuses on the Vietnam War and the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, for example. can incorporate Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth into the lesson plans in order to augment learning. While in this example the teacher would emphasize the lyrics and the intent of the songwriter during turbulent times, some technical aspects of the song such as the catchy melody crafted with the bass and guitar chords can also be highlighted. The idea is to create a dialogic effect that students can get into, and if they start asking questions and getting answers that satiate their curiosity, the goal of active listening would have been surpassed.

There needs to be a series of rewards associated with active listening. When it comes to teaching, we would want a bounty of rewards, and it is up to teachers to increase the appeal and value of the loot. Staying with the example of What It’s Worth, a smart teacher will let students know why rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy not only sampled the hook of the song for the soundtrack of the film “He Got Game” in 1998 but also decided to incorporate Stephen Stills’ vocal delivery. Chuck D is a hip-hop legend who happens to be a fan of music inspired by social protest from all eras, and it would be important to reward students with this information.

Techniques Teachers Can Use With Active Listening

We will stay with the Public Enemy song He Got Game for this example, and our classroom is filled with American high school students. A good introduction would be to ask students if they are familiar with the song, film, or artists. When playing the song for the first time, the teacher should practice model listening, which would include slight reactions such as grooving, smiling, keeping the beat, and nodding during certain sections. You want to let students know that you like the song, and they should be encouraged to like it. If the students are into hip-hop, some may think that Public Enemy is old and “whack,” but they may change their mind after the lesson.

The next part of the lesson could be dedicated to technical aspects of the song, which may include the sampling. To make things interesting, students can try to determine the key, which happens to be E major, and they can try to measure the tempo, which is 97 beats per minute. By now the teacher is repeating certain sections of the song before getting into the salient points; one of them could be when Chuck D raps about the upcoming “two triple oh,” which refers to the societal anxiety felt before the year 2000, when people around the world wondered what the 21st century would bring. When you have thoughtful lyrics such as those written by Public Enemy, there is a need to break up the verses in sections so that students can figure out the allusions, and this is when the teacher must issue listening directives so that students know what they should be listening for.