Writing about music is NOT dancing about architecture, ok? OK!???

One of the big challenges of teaching young students about music is that they listen to music differently. That is, they don't listen to it. They surround themselves with it, and let it into their minds, but they don't necessarily LISTEN.

Just like in the 1920s, 1950s, and part of the 1970s, we're in a singles market, and being a music junkie doesn't appear to be in fashion. People buy songs, not to albums, and from what I hear, they use it as a soundtrack... background music to pump them up or chill them out. Album sales have been ridiculously low for the last ten years or so, but based on the sales of iPods and concert attendance, music pundits tell us that music is as popular is ever. It seems that no one is buying albums anymore, though, and with the easy shuffle functions on MP3 players, it's easy to infer that very few are LISTENING to whole albums anymore, either.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, I teach a class on the History of American Popular Music at Bridgewater State University. It's been hard to figure out a way to engage students and make the class more than just a fact party. Every semester I try something new. Essays, papers, films, discussions... all so-so.

This semester, I tried something new (in addition to stuffing their minds with facts, like sleepy, empty Thanksgiving turkeys). I assigned listening journals. I have students listen to an album a week. The goal is that they really listen: sit down, don't do anything else, and pay attention. Then, write about it. A few of them have been able to sit down and focus, but based on what their journals say, many simply have their players on in the background while they're getting ready to go out. Then, they write a hasty overview and try to make it look like they listened. (They don't fool me. I did that, too. Like, last year.)

For the writing part, they have a list of questions to consider, about the order of tracks, the flow, the overall "theme" or "vibe," and any other observations they can make. Mostly, they're writing, "It got me pumped up to go out," "I really liked it," and the all-time favorite, "It's very soothing." Believe me, all of these students have thoughts. They are not vacant. They have ideas. They think. They can talk for hours about the things that interest them. Just not to me.

The journals are supposed to be the practical complement to the fact-regurgitation lectures. The challenge of the journals, however, is that in order for them to get the most out of it, we need to follow up with discussion. A survey history course is about stuffing minds with facts, as fodder for ideas. That's the goal... the teacher gives facts, and hopes the student can use them for his or her own ideas. But it's not working that way. They're still writing facts about the album, and if they have thoughts about what they're hearing, not all of them are writing about it. Only a few are actually writing down the ideas that the music brought to them. Why? I'm not sure. Either they don't know that they're allowed to, or they also need to also be taught to process and to actually formulate ideas--to know how to learn. Like my old alma mater, Hampshire College's motto: "Non Satis Scire"--to know is not enough.

It's said that writing about music is difficult. People credit Elvis Costello as having said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." It's a very popular quote among music writers, but I think it's total bullsh$t. Writing about music is NOT like dancing about architecture. (God, I've seen that type of dancer and I wanted to strangle myself and then run out of the building screaming.) Writing about music is simply writing about music. You just write what you think. The challenge of writing about music is not the writing. The hard part of writing about music is in the THINKING.

This morning, I'm going to try to teach students how to think about music. Hm. I'll let you know how that turns out.


Kerry Dexter said…
oh, yes, it certainly is about the thinking, and ways to get that into words that communicate something about the music, and start or continue a conversation about it -- with, I sometimes have to remind myself, folk who often do not think about how music is interwoven with life. not that they should, necessarily, but still.