A New Paradigm for Music Appreciation: Introducing THE CURIOUS LISTENER 

Larry Hamberlin is professor emeritus of music at Middlebury College, where he taught courses in music appreciation, Western classical music, American music, jazz, and popular music. His books include Tin Pan Opera and, with Richard Crawford,  An Introduction to America’s Music

Larry Hamberlin
Image Credit: Francine Hamberlin

Nearly everyone intuits that music is more than just pretty sounds. Most students in a music appreciation course come to the first meeting already certain that music conveys something significant about being human, and that listening to it can be a deeply moving experience. In other words, they already appreciate music. 

What, then, should the music appreciation course teach? Among other possibilities, it can help students explore how musicians shape sound to create aesthetic experiences. It can probe the various ways listeners seek out those experiences and put them to use, both personal and social. In so doing, the course can guide students toward a deeper understanding of how music reflects the human condition, around the world and across the centuries. 

How to go about structuring such a course is a problem with more than one solution, and individual instructors will come at that problem from different directions. 

Years ago, as a novice instructor of music appreciation, I started out the way most people did (and still do), by teaching a historical survey focused on Western art music. For many of my students, however, that focus on chronological style development did little to address the kinds of questions that brought them to the classroom, such as: How does music communicate? How does listening to it arouse such strong feelings in me? And why is it such an important part of how I relate to the people around me? Responding to those questions sent me on a years-long process of adapting my course, first by supplementing the historical survey, and ultimately by abandoning it altogether in favor of an entirely different way of introducing students to the experience of listening to music. 

My first step was to increase the amount of time we spent on the basic elements of music, something that had always felt rushed when crammed into the first week or two of the semester. That first unit expanded to become a focus not just on elements but on the whole relationship between music “out there” and music “in here”; between the acoustic characteristics of musical sounds and the inner psychological world they inspire. In the past, I would be happy if a student could say, “That melody has an ascending contour,” but now I might hear a student say, “Those rising leaps sound like an action movie hero.” Or, “Those irregular rhythms make me feel jittery and anxious.” Or (when comparing Brahms’s Third Symphony and Santana’s “Love of My Life”), “That melody sounds melancholy when the French horn plays it, but the same melody on electric guitar sounds sultry and sensuous.” 

Taking that first step suggested the next logical step. Now that students were developing some basic listening skills and vocabulary and focusing on short musical excerpts and their psychological effects, I gradually began to set more challenging listening assignments. Simply put, I began to teach shorter, easier pieces first, then work up to longer and harder ones. In that way, I encouraged students to develop critical thinking and listening skills by building up those skills sequentially, much as a math or language course would do. My students could start at the beginning and, in one semester, become sophisticated listeners capable of interacting with a wide variety of music by exercising their powers of deep, attentive focus on musical sound and awareness of their own aesthetic response. Driving that skill acquisition was the students’ innate curiosity about music and its psychological and societal power. 

My forthcoming music appreciation textbook, The Curious Listener, is founded on this idea that listening to music can be taught the same way other skills—such as playing an instrument or mastering a sport—are taught: by beginning with the basics and progressing from simplicity to complexity. And just as proficiency on an instrument requires not only technical expertise but also interpretive maturity, such listening involves not only keen attention to musical sound but also a sophisticated engagement with musical meaning and an awareness of music’s historical and social contexts. Within this broad framework are many ways that instructors bring their personal perspectives and values to their teaching, and The Curious Listener aims to be a flexible tool that instructors can use in the way that best suits them individually. 

The musical selections in The Curious Listener have been chosen to develop specific skills and are organized to build sequentially, from discerning basic musical processes in isolation to understanding more complex music in its social and historical settings. Throughout the text, at all levels of proficiency, those selections are drawn from a variety of styles and genres. For example, classical works are used alongside folk and pop songs to illustrate basic concepts, and some of the most challenging listening examples are drawn from jazz and non-Western traditions as well as the Western art music repertoire. 

The book’s choice and sequencing of musical selections reflect a pedagogy that values developing skills over “covering the material.” At the same time, the book’s organization is sufficiently flexible to allow instructors to introduce their own repertoire choices as supplements or substitutes, and to skip or reorder chapters or sections of chapters to meet their own pedagogical purposes. 

With its wide range of musical styles and genres, organized to proceed from the simple and familiar to the unfamiliar and complex, The Curious Listener leads students to a richer appreciation of musical meaning through a deeper understanding of musical sound. 

If you’d like to learn more about The Curious Listener, please visit https://seagull.wwnorton.com/curiouslistener

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