It is perfectly acceptable to base some lessons around listening. But I believe that we need to have what I like to call Deliberate Listening. This is the kind of listening where we focus, where we choose to do it for a specific reason. It is the kind of listening that students can undertake in & out of the classroom. When we listen deliberately to music we go into the process wanting to learn something.
When approaching listening, there are a number of things that you can Deliberately listen out for:
- Stylistic Features
- Chord Progressions
- Historical Features – Baroque, Classical, Romantic etc.
- Instrumental techniques
The list could go on and cover the whole range of musical features that we might want to spot in a piece of music. The important thing is the Deliberate Listening – work out what you are going to listen out for. In an exam situation you may be asked to pick out a certain feature – deliberately listening for the answer to a question.
Musical Music Lessons
Fundamentally a Musical Music Lesson is one that contains music. I think I might get the award for stating the obvious, but there we are. The thing is, a Musical Music Lesson can focus on listening if we approach it correctly. We don’t always need to have stunning PowerPoints, incredible composition tasks and music technology hanging from every wall. Music lessons can focus on listening and making this Deliberate Listening will certainly help. Whether at home, or in a classroom, students can benefit a great deal from listening to music. The discussion that continue after the listening are also crucial, but the listening is at the centre of all of this.
This bit is simple:
Choose a piece. Play it to class. Discuss.
“Call that a plan Manwaring, are you mad”!
No I am not mad (although some mat disagree). But you do need to choose the right piece.
Let me set the scene. Students enter the room to a piece of music playing. You then proceed to start a discussion. Ideally it is a piece you know, and you will know some background & context for the piece. Students begin to absorb the music, think it through and digest what they are hearing.
What comes next is the bit you might need to think about a little more in order to ensure that the lesson works well. I am going to share with you some ideas for bringing this listening lesson to life. I am also going to share how this will work both in and out of the classroom.
As a music teacher I see it as essential that I listen to as much music as I can. I don’t always have lots of time, but I do make sure I open my ears to as much as possible. I love Opera, Rock ‘n’ Roll and Musical Theatre. I love listening to Film Scores, Piano Concertos and Jazz. I will listen to anything really, but I have a few things I love. Listening to music is something I see as a privilege, and if I get time on my own I will always turn to great music.
I want this for my students, a passion for music. I want them to want to listen to music, but there are some barriers to this that I will discuss later. My own personal listening is the best form of lesson prep that I undertake and it makes me a better teacher & musician.
Before embarking on this kind of listening lesson you need to prepare. Choose a piece, preferably one you enjoy listening to, and do some listening & research. Find out lots about the piece, the composer/song-writer and the history at the time. You want to walk into that lesson knowing as much as possible. I don’t always worry about looking at a score, but sometimes I will have a look on imslp.org.
I believe that our own passion for music and our own listening journey will inspire and encourage the students.
Questioning is possibly the greatest tool that we have. Posing, framing and directing questions is something we do in every lesson. Questioning in a listening lesson is a crucial component and there are a few things I love to do.
- What was the first thing that came to mind as you heard the music. Allow them space to explain this, however random it may seem at first.
- How did the music make you feel?
- What did you hear that gives the most context?
- Is this a genre that you know or is it something completely new?
- If this music were a painting, what would it look like?
- Are there any instruments, techniques or features that jump out to you?
Questions are crucial as they aid with thinking. But do make sure you allow space for them to answer. Also, make this a safe space where students feel they can express what they feel. I have had whole lessons where I have just asked questions. One answer can easily need to the next question and I like the Pose-Pause-Pounce-Bounce
Pose Pause Pounce Bounce
I hope that you have heard of this questioning technique before, but if not then please do research it some more. I am not entirely sure who “came up with it” but it is a great method:
- Pose the question – once the listening is complete, give an opening question.
- Pause – allow time and space for students to think through an answer.
- Pounce – Pounce on one student (not literally) for an answer.
- Bounce – Now bounce this question over to another student who can then build on the previous answer.
I love doing this and it works really well:
- What instrument can you hear playing the melody?
- Pause, and make sure you really do pause.
- Jonny – what instrument can you hear playing the melody? I think it is a brass instrument Sir…?
- Okay, Amy, what type of brass instrument is it? Um, is it a trombone?
- Aidan, do you agree with Amy and why? I do agree because you can hear a Glissando…
- Isobel, what is a Glissando…
You get the idea, but if you do it right it is rewarding…and quite exhausting.
Scrap Heap Questions
I love this method of questioning and it is really fun. You give students a piece of scrap paper and they write down a question or something they can hear in the music. Then they screw the paper into a ball and throw it across the room. They then go and pick up a piece of paper and you pick a student to read our what is on the paper. This gets then moving, thinking and responding.
As well as asking small questions, we need to ask Big or Open Ended questions. These can really get students thinking, especially as you move up the school and reach A-Level Music. Here are some thoughts on questions you might ask:
- What makes this piece of music Russian?
- What feature of this music, if taken away, would fundamentally change the overall sound?
- Why did the composer not write this piece for a brass group instead of a string orchestra?
- If this piece of music was written in the Baroque period what would be different?
You get the idea and I am sure you will come up with great questions. These are questions that you might have to think about before the lesson. You may even like to have an over-riding question for the whole lesson, a sort of objective I guess. I have started to think about the questions that I want students to be able to answer by the end of a lesson as I find that really helpful.
I believe that we need to have more lessons where students listen to music. I also think this can spill over into rehearsals where we put the instruments down and listen to what we are trying to play. the more students the listen, the more they learn. Effective questioning will aid them on this journey, and as teachers we need to pose the right questions. What we really want is for our students to go away and enjoy listening because they are choosing to undertake Deliberate Listening. We want them to choose to listen to Baroque, Musical Theatre of Film because that links with their studies. One barrier in the modern world is whether or not they have access to a streaming service, or a quiet place to listen. But most students have the most amazing technology and headphones available to them that listening should be easy.
The greatest joy in my life is listening to great music! And as Simon Toyne (Executive Director of Music for DRET & President of MTA) said to me the other week:
“When we go to the theatre and see a performance, we don’t miss out because we aren’t on the stage performing. We gain something from being there to hear the music making”
Sometimes we can’t always get students playing music, working on computers or getting instruments out. But we can always get them listening. And great joy can come from a listening lesson! But more than this, students can learn a huge amount from simply embracing new music, even if they don’t get a chance to play.
Now of course we want students to play instruments and composer music. But sometimes that isn’t possible and listening is a great tool in these scenarios. If students are stuck at home or you are room changed to another classroom, listening becomes the best tool for learning.
And I will finish by quoting one of my favourite quotes by David Thoreau:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.David Thoreau, Walden (1854)
I wish to Listen to Music Deliberately, to find out all I can so that I don’t discover that there is a piece of music that I have missed out on enjoying. I don’t want my students to miss out on great music!
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