what does music mean (???)

beats me

Classes start on Monday!

I can’t really complain; most of you (who have classes) are back in classes already, as Maryland has an obscenely long/great winter break. Plus I was off in bookland for the fall, so really, no complaints here. I’m excited to teach again!

As previously mentioned, I’m teaching music appreciation + a public musicology seminar. I’ve written a bit about both on this here newsletter, and I thought I would talk a little bit more Big Picture about the appreciation course.

Specifically, about the cockamamie (perhaps the first time I’ve ever typed that word—it feels good) four-part scheme I’ve created to help students without musical backgrounds better understand all music ever. Here are, for the purposes of MUSC 130, four different kinds of musical meaning:

Let’s back up a little bit, so I can explain what I’m trying to do here.

In the past, I’ve taught MUSC 130, aka Survey of Music Literature, aka “music appreciation” aka “teaching non-majors and music minors about music at the introductory level, you can kind of do whatever you want but in the past it’s mostly been using a textbook to emphasize listening skills in classical music and sometimes other genres” in a fairly rote manner. It would involve:

  • A historical survey of classical music, moving chronologically from the medieval era to the present day, with a strong emphasis on post-1800 music

  • Using Mark Evan Bonds’s Listen to This textbook (which is good; I used it as a grad student when I was a teaching assistant for Bonds himself in a music appreciation-style course)

  • Emphasizing immersive listening and listening skills, typically by gradually mastering a bunch of terms about music (timbre, harmony, meter, etc), with the goal that the students could listen to classical repertoire more in-depth, and also get more out of the music that they listened in daily life

  • Emphasizing a lot of social, cultural, historical, political context for the repertoire we were looking at — this changed a lot depending on the music being studied, but I would say the class was probably 40% “listening skills” focused and 60% “historical context” focused (learning about courts! print culture! Beethoven as Genius Myth! discrimination against women composers! etc)

  • Assignments geared towards testing that knowledge, both somewhat rigidly (exams with listening/term ID) and somewhat creatively (concert report-style essays, making your own playlist/concert and writing notes for it, etc)

All of this is fairly standard fare for how music appreciation is taught, and it’s a bit on the old-school side, sometimes in ways that aren’t good. The chronological approach is considered staid for a lot of important reasons, textbooks are an expensive racket, exams focused on IDing and defining things make students memorize rather than actually learn, etc. But the course worked pretty well for the students who took it, I enjoyed teaching it, everyone seemed to learn the right amount for a 100-level class, and every semester I kept saying to myself Well sure this is maybe a bit tired as a concept to me, but next semester I’m going to blow the whole thing up and start from scratch!


After too many delays, that semester has finally arrived. I had a bunch of ideas for how I wanted to reimagine 130. A lot of them were shaped by what UMD otherwise offered in terms of undergrad non-major courses: we have a great intro to rock class, and a few great world music/ethnomusicology classes, and so I feel fairly comfortable (not super comfortable!) teaching an intro class that focuses mostly on classical music. But I didn’t want a chronological survey, and I wanted a healthy balance between listening skills and social/historical contexts, and I wanted the students to feel confident in having their own interpretations of what we listened to. I also wanted to do a big unit on experimental music, because it would be cool to get the students engaged in really heady music and ideas for several weeks rather than the one-off day or two I’d given it in the past; I wanted them to create their own music, which I wrote about a few weeks back. I also wanted to continue to connect with the opera presented each semester by our awesome Maryland Opera Studio — in the past, the students would spend two class sessions with visitors from the opera studio and be required to attend/write about the opera. But I wanted to get even more immersed in the opera, so when they go to see it it really feels like they have a really strong grasp on what’s going on.

And I attended some great workshops at our Teaching and Learning Transformation Center, and thought a lot about learning objectives, and what kinds of questions I wanted to ask and have the students be able to answer by the end of the semester. And so I came up with A Big Question for the class: What does music mean?

And so, to answer it, the semester breaks down into three big units — on Symphony, Opera, and Experimental Music — each of which also has a question that places a different kind of emphasis on a different way of thinking about/listening to music:

Unit 1: How do composers create meaning, without words, in symphonies?

Unit 2: How does a team of collaborators create meaning––drawing on music, words, and other art forms––in operas?

Unit 3: How do composers––including us!––create meaning, by expanding the parameters of music, in experimental music?

These units are self-contained, but the skills that the students build through each of them will ideally carry on to the next one — once you’re good at talking about wordless music, let’s add words and images and other stuff; once you’ve built up all of these fundamentals on traditional music, let’s see what happens when we try to apply them to some really weird music. There are also some overarching ideas around the relationship between scores and live performances, composers and performers, that will build through the semester.

And then, because I already got started on this whole ask questions thing, each of my class sessions has a question attached to it, too. Here’s what the symphony unit looks like now; I’m sure it will change a bit. We’re focusing on two symphonies, by Beethoven and Florence Price. (The opera unit will focus on various components of opera, and then UMD’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen; the experimental music unit will focus on all kinds of different stuff)

Which brings us to that schematic from earlier. When I started thinking about a semester focused on musical meaning (hermeneutics? probably), I started to think about the types of meaning I’d want the students to think about, be able to talk about, and be able to parse out. I wanted them to know a lot of ways to talk about how music sounds, and thus the analytical meaning category was a default one. We’ll learn some terms, although fewer than I’ve done in the past; I don’t want the class to become a big vocabulary memorization thing. (No more traditional exams, either; each unit will have a capstone project.)

One of the trickiest things I’ve found is getting students to be able to talk about both “how the music sounds” and “how the music makes me feel” without leaning too far into one or the other. In a learning environment, it’s often too easy, as you try to get students to use a list of technical terms to better understand what they’re hearing, to close off their opportunity to talk about how the music makes them feel. And so interpretive meaning was a category I knew I wanted to include: so they had a place to come up with their own interpretations of what they heard, and also to understand that they are part of a larger historical lineage of interpreting music (you have thoughts on what Beethoven’s Fifth means to you? So did Wagner! etc). “Interpretive meaning” will also be a useful category for describing, say, what kinds of decisions an opera director makes in staging an opera.

I also thought a lot about what I like to lecture about, what I think makes for interesting discussion, and what I think is important for students to learn. And so two more categories of musical meaning came into existence. We’ll talk a lot about what music meant to those who originally heard it, and thus social meaning; we’ll talk a decent amount about who created the music and why they did so, and thus biographical meaning. It’s pretty basic stuff, I admit.

There are many *better* scholarly terms we could use for these categories, and I don’t really want the students to come out of the semester saying things like “Oh, let me tell you about the analytical meaning of Old Town Road!” But I’m hoping this works as a simple, easy-to-use overarching scaffolding that can be built upon for the three big units. We’ll see how it goes! Very likely this newsletter will be a weekly or biweekly report back from my classes this semester. Also, if you think this is all a terrible idea, let me know! It might be too late, though.


Other spring news you can use — I’m giving a bunch of talks in various places! They’re almost all on the same topic, multicultural arts policy & the culture wars & new music, drawing on the NYSCA grant application files I’ve written about previously. Two of the talks are even keynotes! I haven’t given a keynote before, I guess I’ll wear a tie.

Here’s a rundown:

On a brief, final and somber note, Linda Shaver-Gleason has been assassinated by cancer. If you’re reading this newsletter, I’m sure you know her; if you don’t, please read the entirety of the archives of her blog. I interviewed Linda a couple weeks back; she articulated her philosophy of writing about music very poignantly, and I was very honored we got to speak. Please also read Joshua Kosman’s tribute, Zoë Madonna’s obit, and donate to the GoFundMe for her family.