Developing Musical Understanding

Michael Fink

I wish to address the issue of a varied set of course offerings targeted to the interests and background of the General Student. Varied, because General Students are not really "general" or collective, but varied in their experiences with music, their personal tastes, their musical interests and apathies, and in their attitudes toward music as we academics perceive it. Typically college students are within the prime age group of record and tape buyers. Therefore, there is already a strong attraction to music among many. And do we in academia capitalize on our good fortune by offering a varied means of further enhancing and extending this attraction? Do we give the student a choice between "hands on" involvement and passive understanding? No single answer applies to every campus, but all too often General Students are offered no choices; the only path open is to take THE Course in Music Appreciation. I realize that such a limitation is sometimes necessary because of budget restrictions. According to, the recent NASM/CMS survey titled "Music in General Studies" (1983), this is the greatest problem facing General Studies programs. However, we must all ask ourselves if limited course offerings for General Students are not also the result of a reticence to seek new topics and methods beyond the stereotyped Appreciation class as a means of really reaching the General Student.


The 1981 Wingspread Conference identified some of the problems (White, 1981). The NASM/CMS survey follows this by indicating that although opportunities for students to take music courses exist, a relatively low percentage of, General Students (around 25%) actually enroll in them. Why is this? One reason could be that our approaches are not attractive to the student. Perhaps there is an underlying attitude on the part of both student and music faculty that there are really two kinds of music, "ours" and "theirs." I should like to pause here long enough to propose a philosophical objective concerning this problem, and then use the remainder of this paper to elaborate on it. Here it is:

Our first job is to hook into students' own world, to understand their interests and perceptions of music, and then to build and enhance musical understanding on that base. The interface of General Students' musical perceptions with those of academics begins by building Bridges of Understanding.

One way to engage student interest is through familiar concepts, those they encounter elsewhere in their programs of study, and those they see and hear in their everyday lives. Here is a hypothetical scenario based loosely on my own experiences:

An accounting major takes a course titled "Music in Contemporary Life." Among other things the student learns about the recording industry and what goes into producing and marketing his favorite rock records. The student's interest has been engaged initially because the course content relates to his own life and to the content of the basic marketing course he took last semester. He is comfortable in the course because it concentrates on conceptual learning, which is his orientation. By the mid-term examination the student is involved in this course on a personal level. One unit of the course covers Concert Life from the viewpoints of artists, conductors, players, and managers. The student has some theoretical knowledge of management and can grasp many of the problems facing conductors, artists, and orchestra players. The assignment for this unit is to attend a concert and to answer some questions about the experience. The student enjoys the concert immensely, partially because of the understanding and preparation he has brought with him, and partially because he really likes many things about this newly-discovered style of music. A Bridge of Understanding has been built. Upon completing Music in Contemporary Life, the student decides to voluntarily enroll in another music elective. This time it is Music Appreciation, and the student enters the course with at least two Bridges of Understanding: a clear perception of what a concert is all about and what concert life means to our society.


For other General Students, hooking into their world means allowing them to actively MAKE music. Unlike the previous case, the path to musical involvement here is not through conceptual understanding but through "hands-on" understanding, that is, through performance. The NASM/CMS survey reveals that our institutions do offer a surprising variety of performance experiences for such students, apparently without sacrificing any service to their music majors. Performing ensembles and private instruction seem to be the prime media. Frequently, students come to college with high school or extra-curricular musical experiences, but choose to major in subjects outside music. Choirs, bands, orchestras, and small ensembles allow General Students to continue their musical interests. At the same time the music department is served by increased enrollments and by identifying General Students who could be advised into other music courses.

Classes in performance are another possibility, although private instruction appears to be more prevalent. (NASM/CMS, 1983) The enrollment of General Students in a performance class can, in some cases, ensure that the class is available for music majors who need it in their program of study. Performance classes or private study are natural steps following alongside ensemble involvement. Guitar classes fill nearly everywhere, because of the ubiquity and popularity of the instrument. Another instrument in heavy demand is the piano. However, coursework to follow up instruction is often not available. Music departments could explore the possibility of small ensembles involving qualified non-major guitarists or pianists.


The General Student who performs sometimes has a latent or conscious interest in learning how music works and the rules for its notation. Using this interest as a base, the most direct method to "build and enhance musical understanding" is through a course in Basic Theory, or Music Fundamentals. According to the NASM/CMS survey perhaps 67% of our departments offer at least one section of Basic Theory. Theory for the General Student can be one of the most creative, open-ended subjects offered to such students, because the course syllabus does not have to follow a strict sequence of instruction, as it generally does in theory classes for the Music Major. Typically, a course in theory fundamentals teaches skills in decoding and encoding music. The decoding aspect may develop some basic music reading skills, possibly even sight-reading on an instrument or sight-singing. It could also cover fundamental harmony concepts.

The encoding aspect can be the most exciting for students, since it develops what might be called "ears-on" musical understanding. It is also exactly the type of instruction that many performance-oriented General Students are looking for. I have in mind the student who frequently has ideas for songs or other compositions,but lacks the knowledge and skills necessary to write down his ideas. Perhaps equipping—or beginning to equip—the creative-minded student should be one instructional objective of a Basic Theory course. The class can progress from notation exercises to simple forms of dictation, increasing in length and complexity as the abilities of the class allow. Ultimately, original composition may be encouraged, and for some students a song (or lead-sheet) may be a suitable final project.

Although Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI) is becoming widespread in Theory courses for Music Majors, minimal attention seems to have been devoted to applying CAI to Basic Theory for the General Student. Yet, because of the tremendous popularity of microcomputers, and their current thrust in higher education, a CAI component could be one of the most attractive Bridges of Understanding. One study has shown that tutorial programs in music reading were an effective learning aid for General Students, even for topics not covered in the classroom. (Minetree and Hodges, 1982)


I have saved for last the area of General Studies courses most commonly offered in colleges today: repertoire-oriented courses. The most popular manifestation is the Course in Music Appreciation or one of its aliases—a general survey of the repertoire known as Western Art Music.

One might question whether learning a single, monolithic musical repertoire, such as Western Art Music, is even viable anymore, given the proliferation of music cultures known to us in this country and in the world today. The question is a good one to ponder, but let us assume that there is demonstrable value in becoming acquainted with musical repertoire, and even greater value in becoming acquainted with more than one repertoire. Repertoire courses listed in the NASM/CMS survey collectively as "Music History Courses" could actually be divided into two categories:

  1. in-depth studies of sub-repertoires within the scope of Western Art Music (Opera, Symphonic Literature, Chamber.Music, Concerto); and
  2. other repertoires (Jazz, American Music, Musical Theatre, Popular Music, Folk Music, Rock Music)


All of these plus Music Appreciation are concerned with repertoires of music which might be termed "general/global." However, the most general/global of these, as perceived by the General Student, are certain of the Vernacular repertoires of American music. I am speaking principally of Jazz and Rock. By now, most college music faculties agree that Jazz is legitimate music, possibly even a type of art music. It has a definable repertoire extending back to before the turn of the century—an eternity by today' s standards. Although Jazz, like other repertoires, is still evolving, the established repertoire of the past and present make it a practical subject to organize and teach—even by instructors who are not themselves Jazz musicians. Rock'n'Roll, or simply "Rock," is even more familiar to many General Students, yet paradoxically, it has been legitimized into a regular course on only a few campuses. A study on "Popular Music in the College Classroom" (Von Schilling, 1981)shows course titles for what 78 participating colleges and universities considered to be their "popular music" courses. Figure 1 summarizes the different subject groups.

As in the NASM/CMS survey, Jazz courses lead the pack by far. Possibly material on Rock is included in some of the Popular Music courses which rank in second place in the table. I would hope so, since Rock, in its 30-odd years, has developed a definable repertoire with clearcut periods, styles, schools, and "classic" songs. If the first phase of my philosophical objective is accepted—that "our first job is to hook into students' own world, to understand their interests and perceptions of music"—then it follows that the study of vernacular music such as Rock is a natural starting point. If either Rock or Jazz are considered too narrow for a full course syllabus, it is possible to combine them into one Jazz-Rock course. Indeed, there are several convenient similarities and junctures between the two repertoires. There are also junctures with Western Art Music, such as "fusion. music," which can be used as Bridges of Understanding.


Figure 1.

Popular Music Courses


Course Frequency
Jazz (History, Development, Literature) 37
• Jazz & Rock (4)
• Jazz & Pop (3)
American Popular Music/Song/Church Music 23
Black/Afro-American Music (Incl. Blues/Soul/R&B) 15
American Music 10
Music in (American) Society/Culture/Media 8
Rock 5
Country Music 4
American Musical Theatre 3
Latin American Music 1
Elvis 1

Another means of integrating Rock repertoire is through a general/global course in American Music. Such courses rank high in the NASM/CMS survey. Here, an historical approach is usually taken, and a number of national repertoires, including Jazz and Rock, can be surveyed.


Under whatever title we find it, the general/global subject of Music Appreciation is a chapter unto itself. If all were well with "the Course," and it were yielding the desired results, we would hardly be holding this conference. One thing I strongly question is the way material in this course is traditionally organized and presented. Why do we hold sacrosanct the historical survey format (either by itself or with the obligatory unit on the "elements" of music)? Why do we insist on conducting what Robert Trotter has called a "chronicled/stylistic rat-racing through the ages" (Kohn et, al., 1981), when concert goers and other music listeners rarely experience music in that way? Would not some modular, integrated, or less abstract approach be more effective? For instance, instead of teaching units on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, why not just one unit called "Early Music," related not only to the music in the textbook's recorded anthology but also to Early Music concerts and commercial, recordings available to the student? Another suggestion I could make relates to the second phase of my philosophical objective. That is; "to build and enhance musical understanding on that base.", Building and enhancing musical understanding on the basis of the student's own interests and perceptions of music requires that bridges of semantic and conceptual understanding be built between instructor and student. The best bridges I know are the type of courses in vernacular music I have previously outlined. However, the Music Appreciation course also offers vast opportunities for strengthening those bridges and building new ones. Here is one example which compares a commonly studied "classic" work by J.S. Bach with a "classic" song recording from the Rock repertoire. The teaching objective of this Bridge of Understanding would be to relate the function of basso continuo in the music of J.S. Bach to the function of the rhythm instruments of a Rock band.


Figure 2.

A Bridge of Understanding





J.S. Bach J. Lennon, P. McCartney
  (The Beatles)



Musical Works


Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 A Day in the Life





Basso Continuo Rhythm Instruments





Harpsichord Guitars
Violoncello & Violone Bass Guitar





Harmonic/Rhythmic Harmonic/Rhythmic
Bass Line Bass Line


In curricular design for the General Student the body of general/global courses would no doubt take first priority. However, in order to truly "hook into the students' own world," cultural considerations outside the Euro-American mainstream must be considered. In many of our urban colleges and universities, as well as others, there is a sizable body of what are termed "minority" students, although in the context of the college community that group is often no longer a minority. The best known group is Black students, but in certain, locales the dominant "minority" might be Hispanic, Oriental, or even Scandinavian. At such institutions the music of the prevailing minority or minorities is usually already in the air. An interest in learning about this music in a structured, informed way can easily be stimulated among students, even those who are not members of the dominant minority group.

Segments or units in one of the more general courses could easily be devoted to the music of some specific culture or sub-culture. For instance, Black musicians have always permeated the world of Jazz. Likewise, the music of Black Americans could be studied in a course on American Music.

Courses in World Music are conspicuously absent from responses to the NASM/CMS survey. Yet such courses would provide opportunities for the General Student to focus on the music of a few or many cultures and sub-cultures, both within this country and world-wide. College programs in Black Studies or Women's Studies may allow for one or more music courses, and such interdisciplinary involvement could prove advantageous to a music department. Culture specific courses might also be offered independently by the music department. For example, I have taught a course entitled, "Music of the Americas," in which one-third of the material was devoted to the music of Mexico, one-third to that of representative South and Central American countries, and one-third to top in music of the United States.


We tend to construct music courses for the General Student as extensions of the various areas of the college curriculum: historical musicology, performance, theory, and—where they exist—ethnomusicology and music industry.


Figure 3.

Present and Potential Areas of Music in General Studies



  • Performing Ensembles
  • Performance Classes
  • Private Instruction


  • Basic Theory (Fundamentals)
  • Notation/Composition

Historical Musicology:

  • Appreciation (of Western Art Music)
  • Sub-Repertoires (Chamber, Concerto, etc.)
  • Jazz
  • American Music
  • Rock


  • World Music (Western/Non-Western)
  • Black Music Studies
  • Other Individual Music Cultures

Music Industry and Sociology:

  • Music in Contemporary Life
  • Music in (American) Society

These areas are our springboards for a varied set of course offerings for the General Student. Every one of these areas is rich with potential Bridges of Understanding between the music instructor and the General Student. Every one of these is a possible "base" on which we can "build and enhance musical understanding." Each of these areas could be the means "to hook more deeply into the students' own world." We need to work toward purposely obscuring the lines of division between "our music" and "their music." This is obviously no easy chore. However, good progress can continuously be made if faculty and administrators can maintain as constant an inquiry about students' perceptions as they hope the students would do concerning their perceptions. The successful General Studies Music Program, as I see it, is a summit, where student interests and abilities meet and join with the knowledge, talents, and resources which faculty and administrators provide in a willing and generous atmosphere.


  1. Kohn, K., Trotter, R.M., Lundquist, B.R., Steinhauer, R., & Nettl, B. On establishing a music culture. College Music Symposium, 1982, 2l(1), 156-161.
  2. Minetree, R., & Hodges, D. Teaching music fundamentals to non-music majors via the computer. Research Reports: Texas Music Educators Association Clinic-Convention, 1982, XII.1-XXI.7.
  3. Music in general studies: a survey qf national practice in higher education. Reston, Va. and Boulder, Co.: National Association of Schools of Music, & College Music Society (NASM/CMS), 1983.
  4. Von Schilling, J., "Popular Music in the College Classroom." Popular Culture Association Newsletter, 1981, 10(l), 14-19.
  5. White, C. A Wingspread conference on music in general studies. Boulder, Co.: College Music Society, 1981.