Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy

Table of Contents

Using Twitter in the Music History Classroom

Alexander R. Ludwig, Boston College

#DebussyVoiles I enjoyed the mysterious feeling created in this piece. I like the variation in dynamic and how there’s alot [sic] of emotion added

the piano has a mystical sound to it. the descending sequence of notes at the beginning with [sic] also returns at the end #DebussyVoiles


Three years ago, I decided to use Twitter in place of the traditional listening journal often assigned in music history courses, and required students to “tweet” about each listening example in the syllabus. I framed this assignment as a musical aide-memoire and encouraged students to restrict their tweets to audible phenomena. One benefit of many that I have found since incorporating Twitter into my music history classroom is that students help to guide pedagogical choices. For example, I immediately noticed a pattern in my students’ tweets as I prepared for my lecture on Debussy’s Voiles. Most students expressed an aspect of Debussy’s piano prelude that was mysterious or exotic. With this information in hand, I adjusted my lecture to target these concerns (see also Colletti, Schubert, and Shaffer/Hughes in this volume).

In the following essay, I will describe not only why Twitter is a better alternative to the listening journal, but also how it creates a more dynamic, interactive and engaged student-teacher relationship.

A class Twitter feed has many advantages over other types of listening journals. For example, a physical listening journal must be collected and assessed periodically, while a forum such as Blackboard or another LMS is neither open nor easy to use. On the other hand, a student’s Twitter stream is always available: one can monitor development, correct a misunderstanding or highlight a salient point. By meeting my students on their turf, I can transfer some of the dynamic classroom energy into educational purposes outside of the classroom.

The interactive nature of Twitter allows me to model good tweeting behavior or intercede in a discussion if necessary. Throughout the semester, I use different types of prompts so that my students are continually varying the format of their tweeted responses. For example, this is one response to my prompt asking for three adjectives describing Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig”:

@OliviaSackMusic stern, masculine, dramatic #SchubertErlkonig

Other times, I might task one or multiple students to moderate the Twitter stream by asking questions. Here is a “conversation” between two students regarding the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony:

@joy__g Does the repeated motif help distinguish the different parts of the song or did it make it more confusing to follow the piece? #Beeth5mvt1

@MattFarnum @joy__g The repeated motif helped to reinforce the Symphony’s sonata structure, bringing clarity to the piece. #Beeth5mvt1

These different tactics not only ensure a variety of answers and reactions, but also lay the foundation for a deeper engagement with the music.

The most difficult aspect of any music history class, for the non-major and major alike, is actively listening to musical examples. The process of listening, however, does not end with this one act: once students communicate their thoughts, they construct and codify meaning; as other students read their colleagues’ tweets, this process is amplified. Having students tweet on a daily — or nearly daily — basis models an ideal cognitive action.

As students tweet, they attempt to concretize their thoughts regarding musical phenomena. Choosing exactly the right words is difficult: this process is an important aspect of what is now termed “active learning,” first described by Chickering and Gamson in Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. Constructing and applying knowledge is the first step beyond passively receiving information; and communicating that knowledge to others, as every teacher knows, helps us to define our own opinions.

###How-To Guide

Increasingly, the use of Twitter has been met with fewer raised eyebrows as students — and other academics — become more comfortable with social media. (If you are unfamiliar with Twitter, please consult Ryan Cordell’s introduction at the Profhacker blog hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education.) Creating a class hashtag (i.e., #MUS101) is the simplest way to ensure maximum participation amongst your students. All tweets that include this hashtag will appear in the public stream. Active Twitter users can retain their original account without fear of invading the class stream with non-educational tweets as long as they do not include the class hashtag.

A “protected” account is a more closed, and yet more versatile, option. It requires that you approve a “follower request” submitted by your students, after which they need to “follow” every other student in the course. Richer interactions occur when as many students as possible follow each other. This option eliminates the need for a class hashtag as detailed above. This does not mean, however, that you should forsake the hashtag altogether: you can now assign a hashtag for every assigned listening track (i.e., #HandelMessiah, #GlassKneeplay) because all the tweets of your class will appear in your stream — assuming, of course, that everyone is “following” everyone else. Searches by hashtag reveal group reactions to a particular piece; searches by student assess their individual contributions. In this scenario, I require pre-existing users of Twitter to create a new account specifically for class: the initial hassle of doing so decreases the likelihood of these students cross-posting from their personal account.

###Affective Responses

In my experience, the initial attempts at tweeting will consist of first impressions and surface reactions. But convincing your students to move beyond simple constructions is paramount: the difference between “I like this” and “I like this because … ” indicates whether a student has properly engaged with a listening example. While the ultimate goal is a well thought-out response that includes both technical and emotional aspects of the music, one need not worry if your students initially focus on emotional connections with the musical material (the technical content of the course will gradually increase throughout the semester).

Such emotional connections might seem unscholarly, but in his article, Inverting Bloom’s Taxonomy: The Role of Affective Responses in Teaching and Learning, Robert C. Lagueux argues “When we can marry this emotional response to intellectual reflection, we provide a scaffold on which to hang the cognitive ‘content’ of a course” (131). Lagueux asserts that the cognitive process begins with the affective responses of students. He continues, “As students gradually become more discerning in their ability to describe why they like or do not like the music they are learning about, their affective evaluations will likewise become more nuanced and embracing” (141).

Let us return to some of my students’ tweets. In the epigraph, both students mention the mysterious or mystical nature of the prelude, but neither one explicitly connects these affective qualities with the technical details they also identify (i.e., “variation in dynamic,” “descending sequence”). Nevertheless, these statements unlock the material for each student and aid in the identification of this work on a listening quiz. More importantly, these statements illustrate the progression from affective responses to higher cognitive goals. The second student listed above (@CarolineKohler1) took a further step: she was drawn to the repetition of the opening descending sequence, and now understands larger structural aspects of the work. Similarly, some students can be quite technical:

@elleburrBC obvious cadences at :23, 1:10, and :47, as all voices break together #MachautLady

While others can be poetic:

@MShiBCMusic Sad and empty, tragic; if wilting made a sound, it would be this #WagnerPrelude

No matter which approach they took, all three students clearly engaged with the listening example and illustrated a deep understanding of its nature.


Using Twitter in this way has fostered a more dynamic and engaged environment both online and in person. Furthermore, studies have shown that affective responses, much like the ones my students detail on Twitter, are responsible for greater cognitive gains in the classroom (see Lagueux, Appendix A). Although the examples in this essay are drawn from a recent class of non-majors taking an Introduction to Music course, this technique works equally well in upper-level seminars and other specialized courses. I have detailed many of the beneficial aspects of using Twitter in my music history classroom without including perhaps the most important one. Today’s students are riveted to their devices, whether those devices are smart phones, tablets or laptops, and more often than not, they are using those devices to access Twitter. The easy use of Twitter on all of these devices means that my students are more likely to complete the assignment and perhaps even enjoy it, too.

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This work is copyright 2013 Alexander R. Ludwig and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.