First Day Activities, Teach@CUNY

First-Day Activities: Putting Music into Words

By David Olan

When I began teaching music appreciation as graduate student I received no guidance on what I was supposed to do or on what materials might be useful or productive. The school where I was teaching also tended to look down on textbooks so there was no help in that direction. Most of my professors in college had walked in, started to talk, and it was our job to figure out what they were saying, why they were saying it and how it might relate to the assignments we were given. Some of teachers were quite charismatic, but I didn’t think I could bring that approach off. I also didn’t know what “appreciation” entailed or how it would be evaluated.

What I settled on was a goal of introducing students to parsing and interpreting sounds and helping them find a language to express their experience of different ways they heard those sounds. My goal was to sharpen their perceptual abilities, and perhaps, their “appreciation” of the range of what music could be. So, on the first day of class I would play three short pieces for the class: A Renaissance motet, a classical minuet and a 20th-century piece with clanging, rhythmically irregular percussion and sirens. As I played a recording of each piece I asked the students to write a few sentences about each one that would describe what they heard. We then discussed their comments, which led to teasing out important concepts for the rest of the semester: rhythm, melody, texture, timbre, form and, perhaps most interestingly, what is and isn’t music?

Dr. David Olan is the Associate Provost and Dean for Academic Affairs at the Graduate Center and a Professor of Music.

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