Communicating the message

Our thirteenth post in our (re)learning to teach music series. The posts over this week and next week focus on the tasks in Gary Spruce’s chapter ‘Culture, society and musical learning’. This is week three of the collaborative blogging of the tasks in Learning to teach music in the secondary school. 

What are your thoughts on these three areas:

  • the criteria by which you evaluate the quality of a piece of music
  • how you feel music communicates its message
  • the way in which music is best experienced

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

Trying to answer these three questions has really challenged my thinking and my ability to put my thoughts into words. I think these are great questions.

Question 1: Every piece of music ever written means something and has value in someone’s eyes. Therefore, who are we to judge whether a piece of music has a certain level of quality or not. The lens through which a piece of music is heard, viewed, and judged is very much shaped through ‘our’ experiences and understandings of music, not ‘theirs’. Therefore, rather than judge or evaluate the quality of a piece of music, I think about what it is that’s contained in the music that leads to the eliciting of my personal response to it. Whether I like it, or not, is immaterial. There is value in everything, so rather than judge, I encourage my pupils to do the same – to question, understand, and learn from why the piece of music elicits the responses that it does. After all, what they think of a piece will vary greatly to what someone else thinks, and that’s fine. That’s how understanding, valuing, and appreciation are fostered. It’s the why that fascinates me and will hopefully fascinate them.

Question 2: Music communicates its message in many ways. In a similar vein to above, the message communicated by music, how it is received, interpreted, and valued, is very different from person to person depending on their experiences and understandings of music. For me, music communicates its message through feelings and emotions – music communicates its message when I listen to it. For others, music communicates to them when they feel it, play it, or physically create it. What I take from this is that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ model for either the evaluation or consumption of music. In addition, the message that music communicates can be vastly different depending on the time of day, the events that take place during the day, and the associated feelings and emotions. For example, I’m listening to the same piece of music over and over again as I write this blog. The message it is communicating is a very different one to the message it will communicate when I listen to it later tonight. As I said, music communicates its message in many ways.

Question 3: Music can (and should) be experienced in many different ways. I’m sure you can see the personal theme that is clearly forming here. The way music is experienced, how it is received, interpreted, and valued, is very different from person to person depending on their experiences and understanding of it. I love sitting and listening to music at home, while my wife loves nothing more than going to a live performance. Having said that, I love nothing more than performing in front of hundreds of people, while my wife would rather perform in front of an intimate crowd. These different ways of experiencing music are best for us at the times and places in which we choose to employ them. Today’s blog has revealed an opinion of openness and individuality. Just as each of our pupils is uniquely individual, so is the way in which they will evaluate music, understand music, and experience music. To return to my opening statement – Every piece of music ever written means something and has value in someone’s eyes. I believe it’s the role of every teacher to help their pupils find their own meaning and value in the music they create, listen to, and perform. The paths we choose to take could be as numerous as the pupils we teach.

Amy Burrows @Amy_Burrows

Socially students generally listen to popular music which is generally repetitive and simple. That is the joy of pop music – it’s catchy, memorable, and although it is an incredibly valuable genre it’s also got so much more potential to be developed by the generation we are teaching.

Development is one way I evaluate the quality of a piece of music. This might be because I’ve sat and read the mark schemes of GCSE and A Level composition too much, but also because I like music that challenges my ear enough to make it interesting. I want to map its journey rather than remember the lyrics and a catchy bassline but remember how each part has changed throughout a piece or song. Another is unpredictability. I think I judge the quality of a piece of music by how original it sounds. How it moves somewhere different that I didn’t predict and didn’t think of. In regards to how I feel music communicates its message I’m drawn to a lecture I had in my third year at university. This was a module on ‘Music, Power and Politics’. Catchy, eye grabbing, bold title. But, some of what was said has stuck with me many years on. We discussed how German music was used by Hitler as an emotional and cultural tool, banning all other music to be performed and encouraging all to sing and create music to bring them together. He also ordered German classical music to be played as soldiers were killing hundreds of prisoners in concentration camps to remind them what they were doing for their country.

With this I feel music has at least two messages. The first is the one that the composer gives it through the performance directions, the sound world they create and the one that others use it for within the cultural and social situation within it is played. Last year at the PTI enrichment weekend I attended an excellent lecture by Professor Marina Frolova-Walker on the mysteries of Shostakovich 5 and the unknown message that was behind the piece. Was it a composition to express love and devotion or the nationalist sound? However, over 80 years later it has been performed to a worldwide audience who come to their own conclusion of its message from their musical perspectives, what ever they are.

As I come to the last question, I feel that music can be experienced in endless ways but I feel that the best way music can be appreciated when experienced is live. I took 60 KS3 pupils to watch our local symphony orchestra just a couple of months ago. I always adore the reaction they get when they hear an orchestra live. You don’t just hear it, you feel it. Music needs to be felt to have that emotional and physical connection with it. It should also be played to be appreciated on another level which is why music curriculums should be valued by all. Every lesson I ‘play’ or students ‘perform’ something to me, hearing and feeling it live. That’s the best way to appreciate music, experience the sound an interpret its message.

Mike Morgan @MikeMMusicEd

I consider all three can be looked at together with each area affecting the other The criteria by which you evaluate the quality of a piece of music: At educational level, I feel music can be evaluated on its interpretation of its use of the musical elements. This is not to say that the more it uses, the better the piece, but the context in which the music is being expressed will play a key role in the evaluation of its quality. 

How you feel music communicates its message: The purpose of the music will in turn have an effect on the way in which the musical elements are being used. To get meaning from a piece of music does not suggest that it has to have flourishes and complicated parts in each musical element. Some of the most effective pieces of music can be very simple in its use of musical elements. Yet their success is based on the context of what they are communicating. There is definitely a link between what the music intentions and how we can perceive it to have achieved its goal. This would have a distinction on if the music is of quality.

The way in which music is best experienced: And with the two previous areas in mind, how a piece of music is experienced also has an effect in its ability to communicate an idea. A piece of film music is very much more effective with visuals, no matter how complicated and technical the music could be considered. A rock song would also be argued that it is experienced much better in a live setting with an audience as opposed to the recorded track. I feel when we assess the quality of the work, while we can make judgement on the use of the compositional devices and development of musical elements in a musical way, the success of how it communicates its message is vitally important and enhanced by the experience of which the music is set. This may take away from one category of music being held in more esteem to another? If we look at the deeper context for its success.

David House @House_dg

So many issues contained within this – not least the use of “quality”. [Time to read Hanslick, Adorno, Langer, Scruton and other philosophers.] However, over years of running ensembles within school it has become very obvious that students [and staff] who enjoy their musical involvement but would not consider themselves having any expertise or discernment in musical taste, are able to form judgements based on their own experience in singing and playing. There is an instinctive feel for the best music in whatever style or genre. Personally I will often consider two things – one being the interest that the different parts of the music hold for me: is the melody memorable, what harmonic twists are there, how has the texture varied, are there links to other pieces etc. There is then a broader aspect considering the background over time. If some music [and by extension literature, art, film] has built up a dedicated group of listeners/readers/viewers over an extended period of time, then there is probably good reason for this. Music with this type of ‘following’ is worthy of exploration. How you feel music communicates its message.

Again, so much to unpack here – the ability of music to communicate at all, the implication of it being a language [there is a good chapter about this in the Very Short Introduction to the Psychology of Music by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis] and even with all that explained that there is a message to be conveyed. Whatever music conveys it does so through the ‘elements’ included in it – melodic phrases, intervals, rhythms, harmonies, textural variety, tempo and so on. The magic of music is that these ‘elements’, which by their nature are limited, can be reconstituted by different musicians into vastly different pieces which have contrasting effects.

The way in which music is best experienced. Live. However, I am not prepared just to give this a singular answer. In my experience I have equally valid and powerful experiences of music from the perspectives of solo performance [in concert and in private], formal ensemble performances [instrumental and choral], informal ensembles [hymn singing in church, singing anthems at a rugby match] conducting [not actually producing sound myself], coaching [a chamber group where again I’m not performing], and listening [to recorded sound and live].

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

I think that when we try and evaluate the ‘quality’ of a piece of music, having a set and suitable criteria is a must. If I am asking students to do this, then I might for instance look at the purpose, the music’s intended audience or if it is KS4/5 the exam board criteria to see how a piece of music might score against it. I try and avoid any hierarchical assumptions when I am planning lessons and the music that will be listened in them, in that I try, especially for KS3 to get at least 2 or 3 different pieces in that link to the genre or form we are studying.

The semiotics of music is something that many authors and academics have tried to categorise many times. I remember being very annoyed by Deryck Cooke’s ‘The Language of Music’ at University. In this book, Cooke tries to give all sorts of musical gestures, different musical meaning. Perfect 4th become synonymous with hunting etc. I think that music communicates its message on many levels but it does need to be heard. I have never seen anyone cry through looking at a copy of Mahler’s 9th symphony but I have seen this when it has been heard. Composers such as Mahler are very good at using music to manipulate the emotions but nearly all music should bring some sort of emotional response. It may not be a pleasant one, but there should be a response nevertheless. The communication of music happens best in a live situation with an audience. It is like all art forms, where a collective viewing/listening enhances the experience most of the time (with the exception o hearing aid whistles and mobile phones). I think that the energy of a live audience, and the experience of listening to music with others, heightens the emotional impact and the music’s message. Listening on your own is great but listening with others is even better.

Sean Dingley @DGSMusicDept

In its simplest form, I evaluate the quality of a piece of music by its ability to keep me interested. Personally, I am often most interested in beautiful melodies and juicy harmony. I know that I am slightly less interested in rhythm! I know that this is different to other people, including my students and so I try to avoid letting my bias influence their musical opinions.

Music communicates its message through sound and through cultural association. It’s always vital for me as a teacher to remember that people will have different associations with sounds. These associations are learned rather than innate.

Music is always best experienced in the context for which it was written as this best conveys the composer’s intentions and message!

Lewis Edney @LewisEdney

The criteria by which you evaluate the quality of a piece of music

This is a difficult concept as on many levels the fundamental quality should be whether you enjoy listening to it. However we all will have pieces of music that didn’t give you this enjoyment the first time round, for me this piece is Elgar’s 2nd Symphony. I will always remember the first time I played it and I thought it was crass and Nationalistic for the sake of being so. But over time listening and playing it many times, me maturing (probably) and gaining some understanding of the love, grief and inspiration that is included in the work from the composer, I have grown to love it (not quite as much as Brahms 2; for those who saw my 10 symphonies from 10 composers list).

For me, I think the criteria changes for every piece you listen to and probably is different for each individual as well.

But a few thoughts nonetheless: Have I felt a connection with the music? Has it taken me on a journey? Do I understand why the composer wrote what they did? Did I enjoy listening to it and do I want to hear this piece again?

Then of course there is the criteria we use when considering exam compositions, but I might leave that in the hope someone else covers it!

How you feel music communicates its message

A bit like the criteria I think this is probably different for each person and important to consider whether the music was written to convey a message. The messages in a performance of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra are probably more pertinent and obvious than those in Sinatra singing ‘Fly me to the Moon’ with the Basie Band but both are likely to be unbelievable experiences for the listening.

For me, the communication of messages are probably directly linked to what my criteria is to evaluate a piece. I think it is incredibly important that we understand what the intent is before we begin to listen to a piece, it might be there isn’t an underlying story connected to a piece of music. But it there is, we owe it to the composer to know about it before we embark on listening to and offering any opinion on it.

The way in which music is best experienced.

I cannot get past listening to any music live being the best experience. Each term I take my students to the Festival Hall to see one of the London orchestras and I see the amazement and awe in their faces as they watch and listen. These are pupils that are regularly performing and listening to music but, in my opinion, you cannot beat hearing a symphony orchestra live.

I regularly hear the same from pupils (and staff) about going to see bands and solo artists live, that listening to their music for days afterwards is never the same. Music is an experience, no matter what you are listening to and you are listening to it, but I do believe the best way is live.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

It’s very tricky to unpick the criteria by which I evaluate the quality of a piece of music. I’m quite obsessed with narrative, and a ‘good’ piece of music has a good structure (it has some design, however that manifests) and I quite like for there to be some kind of shape, but I’m not fussy of what that shape looks like. A second quality measure for me is more than one pitch, and more than one rhythmic value. Beyond that I don’t think I have any more. 

For music to communicate a message you have to believe it has one; the autonomy issue looms. But I do think, as a composer, we can write music to communicate an idea. The idea might be a theme, emotion, mood etc. A protest, conflict, resolution. It does communicate its message through sound. Though we can hear scores (I think I can but could be misleading myself), I do think it is the point at which we hear the music when a message is shared. People communicate through music, and I wonder where the musical message and the performer’s messages collide. 

Now we have recordings (over 100 years of recorded history), live streams, YouTube, live performances (the latter not possible at the moment of course) and radio broadcasts (and some) I wonder if there is a best way to experience music. Young people spend a great deal of time listening on headphones and experience a personal musical world – is this the best experience for them? When I listen on headphones it can be a very personal, intense experience. Listening live is much more compelling though, and the most memorable performances for me captured an intense physical experience (hearing Chopin Nocturnes played in the Royal Albert Hall, or seeing Berio’s Sequenza for viola played live at Royal Festival Hall). I’ve experimented with listening activities in class where students listen with headphones; they can engage on their terms and not feel pressured to listen collectively. I want to experiment more with this approach. Now we’re working remotely pupils are listening alone and on their terms again, so I wonder if this period of remote learning might reveal ways of enhancing how we experience music as a listening activity in lessons. 

1 Comment

  1. It is really interesting reading the thoughtful and rich responses to the activities in my chapter. As you move into the latter part I’d really value hearing music teachers’ views about the ‘argument’ of the chapter i.e. the text between the activities. I wrote it in 2007ish and revised it in 2015/6. Rereading it now I don’t think I’d frame the praxial and reification arguments in quite the same way- it feels a bit binary. But would be immensely interested in your thoughts. Thank you for giving my writing such close attention. Gary

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