Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 5

Table of Contents

Electronic Music History through Guided Discovery: An Active Learning Approach to Engage the Millennial Student

Jason Fick, Oregon State University

Recent research shows that the lecture-dominated tactics successful prior to the rise of personal computing devices and social media are now less effective at engaging the millennial generation (Carlson 2005; Novotney 2010; Eckleberry-Hunt and Tucciarone 2011; Nevid 2011). Teachers are presented with the challenge of selecting appropriate methods to motivate and appeal to current students. With that problem in mind, I use a guided discovery approach to teach the history of electronic music that allows students greater control over the learning and teaching of the literature, techniques, styles, and cultural significances. Students engage with these topics through active discussion, inquiry, reflection, and self discovery. These methods lead to an increased interest in the class sessions, heightened critical listening skills, and improved self efficacy.

As forms of electronic dance music (EDM), electronic rock and pop, and electronic art music gain prominence in modern culture, studying and understanding the social function, technological resources, and style characteristics of the various genres of music involving technology become more important for students and scholars. My course, Electronic Music History, comprehensively covers both popular and art music forms, leading electric instruments, recording technologies, and a wide variety of compositional approaches. The purpose of this class is to provide students the opportunity to study significant developments in the history of electronic music, improve critical listening skills, and explore the cultural impact of electronic music within various societies. This course draws interest from a diverse student population and often contains learners from different majors and demographics. Currently, the class is cross-listed as a fine arts core for non-music majors and an elective for music technology students.

Guided discovery is rooted in discovery learning, a student-driven approach that encourages learners to use exploration, inquiry, and problem solving to process new knowledge, while incorporating their previous experiences (Bicknell-Holmes and Hoffman 2000). Pure discovery learning is typically void of structure; therefore, I prefer a modified form of guided discovery in which the instructor presents problems and encourages students to use active reflection and analysis to learn content. In teaching electronic music history, I want students to appreciate the greater value of the techniques used to make music, how these techniques contribute to the larger sense of style, and ultimately, their role in the formation of cultural identity. My graduated, three-staged process is rooted in these objectives by beginning with examining an electronic processing technique, then relating that technique to a specific style, and finally, exploring how that style improves their understanding of a particular culture. I approach each of these objectives through guided discovery because it provides the platform to allow students to make meaningful connections through open and active exploration, and this process leads to a more engaged classroom. Each stage builds on the previous one, ultimately resulting in the students’ ability to contextualize the significance of the materials that form a style, and then relate it to the respective cultures in which they predominate. The following essay will explore examples of guided discovery used to introduce students to the techniques, styles, and cultures of electronic music.

Audio processing techniques are crucial components of electronic music; therefore, it is important that students first comprehend the function of these techniques before approaching style. The audio process of filtering serves as an introductory example of my work using guided discovery tactics. The lesson begins with two audio examples; the first is unprocessed (audio example 1), while the second has been modified with an audio effect (audio example 2). I ask the students to compare the sound attributes of frequency, amplitude, and timbre for each of the two examples and to describe the differences in an open discussion. During this discussion, I foster a variety of answers without judgment and encourage as many participants as possible in an effort to create a student-driven learning experience. Their initial responses often identify the modified example as “softer” or “muffled.” In order to inspire critical reflection, I ask students to provide feedback on the responses from their peers, following the method developed Jennifer Faust and Donald Paulson, in which they confirm, deny, rephrase, clarify, or offer additional explanation of answers given. This process leads to more detailed responses, such as “the second example emphasizes lower pitches,” or “the volume of the high frequency content is minimized.” The more students participate, especially in providing peer feedback, the greater control they have in shaping the experience through their own exploration. Student-centered activities such as this are supported by numerous studies as a practice to increase motivation (Bandura and Schunk 1981; Schunk 1991; Oldfather 1993; Guthrie and Wigfield 2000; Pedersen and Williams 2003; McCombs and Miller 2007; Gorham and Millette 2009).

Once students have offered substantial responses to the filtering effect, I ask them to create a general definition collectively as a class. I encourage them to work together to determine an accurate description that is then tested with further audio examples that include different source materials and filter types. The class typically defines a filter correctly as “an audio effect that minimizes amplitude in certain frequency ranges.” Finally, as a follow-up to this discussion, I play an excerpt from Wendy Carlos’s Switched on Bach that prominently features filtering. The example allows the students to conceptualize the experience and reflect on the effectiveness of the technique in a larger context. This exercise precedes my discussion of musical style because I want them to first understand a given technique before considering its role in defining a style. After listening to the example, I pose questions that encourage them to contemplate the creative possibilities of the filter, such as “how does filtering effect timbre, development, and emotional content” and “how does filtering act as a musical motive.” Through this reflection and discussion process the students practice and learn critical and creative thinking skills.

The explorative approach to learning processing techniques described is effective in increasing the interaction between the students and instructor, as well as among the students themselves. This method could be applied in traditional music history courses for teaching compositional techniques such as the fugue, imitation, variation technique, and phase shifting. Seeking knowledge through discussion, reflection, and problem solving provides opportunities for students to have success engaging with the core material, which leads to an increased interest in the lesson and a greater understanding of the content. In particular, I have seen a direct correlation between the use of these approaches and improved confidence in the students’ ability to apply new knowledge.

The comprehension of several processing techniques is necessary before approaching most electronic music substyles. For example, consider musique concrète, a form of electronic music originating in France in the late 1940s that used recorded samples as its source material. Students must learn the sonic potential of a tape machine, as well as audio processes, such as pitch shift, loop, and reverse in order to make connections between these elements and the style as a whole. With these objectives in mind, I apply the previously learned processing techniques to a study of musical style. I typically introduce a characteristic piece with a few accompanying questions. Using Pierre Schaeffer’s Étude Aux Chemins de Fer as an example of musique concrète, I ask students to consider “what processing techniques are used,” “how processing techniques contribute to the greater essence of the piece,” “what sound sources are featured,” and “what are the roles of melody, rhythm, harmony, and form.” They write their immediate responses to these questions, and afterward I ask the students to share their observations. This exercise allows students to reinforce their own understanding of the musical characteristics through active reflection, discussion, and analysis of their peers’ comments. When students experience success recognizing musical attributes in a group setting, they are more likely to retain that ability, which, in turn, contributes to an increased interest in the course content and their desire to perform.

As a follow-up activity, I have students make a list on the board or at their desks in which they reduce the musical example down to a few relevant style features they discussed as a class. In order to codify the aural identification of these features, students will then compare these salient characteristics with a second listening example. This experiment allows them to identify several elements of a given style and recognize differences, which is further reinforced on their own through homework assignments. I find this approach to style identification beneficial because it engages the students in discussion while further developing their listening and critical analytical skills in a guided manner through peer and instructor commentary.

Listening journals are an effective tool to continue this learning process outside of the classroom. While journal submission is not uncommon in music courses, it is most successful when I craft questions that direct students to reflect on specific aspects of the music. For example, rather than asking students to simply describe the piece, a more effective learning outcome would have them consider how looping contributes to the function of form in Étude Aux Chemins de Fer or how filtering impacts developmental procedures in Switched on Bach. Crafting questions in this manner leads students to make meaningful discoveries and further strengthens their critical thinking skills independently outside of class.

The most enriching experiences in the course occur when students make connections between a particular technique and style on the one hand, and the cultural significance of music on the other. This process stimulates a deeper understanding of the music and the culture to which it belongs, and encourages students to reflect on their own experiences within their social group(s). To achieve this outcome, I typically organize a session around small discussion groups on electronic music culture at the conclusion of each unit. In preparation for this exercise, students read materials on a controversial or a culturally significant topic related to a particular subgenre of electronic music. In class they are placed in a group with three of their peers and asked to consider fundamental points from the reading assignment. The objective of this exercise is to expose students to various viewpoints from their peers, which leads them to consider their own cultural experience in relation to those of the article and the other students. For example, when discussing the influences of electronic music on hip hop, the students consider a series of questions related to racially-charged language and the treatment of women and members of the LGBTQ community in the music. This topic usually results in an engaged classroom because each student is eager to offer insight. The sharing process leads others to an enriched perspective based on the different viewpoints expressed and an informed outlook on how style contributes to these attitudes and/or concepts.

In a separate session related to electronic dance music, the students prepare Kembrew McLeod’s article, “Genres, Subgenres, Sub-subgenres, and More: Musical and Social Differentiation Within Electronic/Dance Music Communities,” in which the author examines the process of naming genres in connection to the formation of group identity in particular social communities and music scenes. I encourage students to make associations between the musical elements that define each substyle of EDM on the one hand, and the cultural, gender, and racial significances of the people that listen to it on the other. Topics of discussion include, “ethnicity in genre naming,” “genre naming as a merchandising strategy,” and “the naming of genres in reaction to consumer culture.” Through this article, students explore the discrimination of social groups, demographic-specific marketing strategies, and musical elements that resonate with particular communities. The relationships between minorities and middle class whites in United States and Great Britain, and the role of recording industry in influencing subgenres of electronic music are central to each question. Students are eager to participate in the cross-cultural discussion because it provides an opportunity to share their worldviews in relation to their peers and those described in the article. They connect this cultural meaning and engaging discussion to the works, which adds a deeper dimension to their understanding of the styles and techniques; conversely, having this deeper understanding gives the students the depth of knowledge required to engage in such a discussion. This has made for a dynamic classroom activity in which every student contributes to the learning and the teaching of new content.

Guided discovery serves as the appropriate tool to stimulate communication and self exploration, while simultaneously minimizing the hierarchy between the instructor as the primary bearer of knowledge and the student as the primary receiver of knowledge. I believe the breakdown of these barriers appeals to the current student population because they are given the opportunity to take more control in defining the class experience through their participation as an active member of the classroom learning community. The examples of guided discovery discussed provide a solution to the disconnect with a traditional lecture format that millennial students experience. While I find value in students learning through lecture, altering the methods of instruction can create a more varied classroom learning environment. As a result of these approaches, my students exhibit an overall increase in participation, confidence, and performance.

This work is copyright ⓒ2017 Jason Fick and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.