Rebecca Jemian, University of Louisville
Contextual listening is a frequent component of undergraduate theory classes, giving students a chance to demonstrate their understanding of theory topics by identifying various features in a particular piece of music. Typically, the professor controls this exercise, choosing both the repertoire and the questions that are asked.
Contextual listening exercises often focus primarily on the topics studied at that point of the course, perhaps reviewing earlier material. For instance, in the first few weeks of a freshman course, students may listen for meter type and mode; later in the term they listen for phrase length, cadence types and motives. Subsequent courses might address form, chromatic harmony (such as secondary dominants or mixture), harmonic rhythm, melodic construction, text-music relations or hypermeter. All of these topics are worthy candidates for aural perception, and a studied approach of developing expertise with them is time-tested and successful. Some textbooks (such as those by Root, Santa, and Murphy/Phillips/Marvin/Clendinning) include contextual listening exercises in their pedagogical approach. At least one app (Contextual Listening from G Major Music Theory) and some software programs (such as Musition) also present this activity.
This article offers a model for a weekly contextual listening exercise in which students are invited to share their own repertoire. In this model, students consider the concepts studied in class within the context of the repertoire that they select and ask questions about other features that they find intriguing.
Research supports giving students more control over aspects of their learning. According to Ken Bain, students engage more deeply with their learning when they find relevance to their own interests. By opening up contextual listening exercises to student-chosen repertoire and by opening up the questions that are asked, students experience a more relevant listening experience that can be readily transferred to other pieces. In a case study involving a middle-school student’s attitudes toward practicing her instrument, Renwick and McPherson (2002) observed that “…when students are interested in an activity…, they are more likely to engage in higher-level functioning, find it easier to concentrate, persevere, and enjoy their learning” (173).
In order to give students more control over their learning, the professor may have to build a culture of what Heloisa Feichas terms “informal learning.” An educator who cultivates informal learning in their classrooms becomes:
part of the community of learners[,] …attentive, open, not anxious for quick and expected results, ready to let go of any previous plan; able to notice multiple possibilities within the class, since a class is made of multiple and heterogeneous people; able to make connections from situations that happen at the moment, constantly adapting by experimentation, a real facilitator who allows the students to process their knowledge. (55)
The framework that I have developed for contextual listening activities offers students a choice in repertoire while preserving a set of core questions. Over the course of the semester, I schedule ten 25-minute contextual listening sessions, and I introduce the activity by leading the class through a 2-3 minute piece or excerpt. The repertoire suggestions are made by groups of students, individual students, and me. Students are randomly divided into four groups, and each group selects two pieces drawn from their choice of genres (such as classical, pop, jazz, musical theater, country, bluegrass, world, etc.). From these eight pieces, the entire class selects one piece from each of the four groups. Individuals also nominate pieces; the class chooses two from this group and I choose one, as well as the remaining two pieces. I also determine the order in which the pieces are discussed; one possible schedule is shown below. The group choices begin midway through the course. This allows time for the class to move forward with topics of the semester, get a sense of contextual listening exercises, and develop as a community of learners.
|Session||Repertoire selected by||Questions created by|
|Session 2||Individual/class choice||Professor|
|Session 3||Individual/class choice||Professor|
|Session 4||Group A||Group A|
|Session 5||Group B||Group B|
|Session 7||Group C||Group C|
|Session 8||Group D||Group D|
|Session 9||Individual/professor choice||Professor|
Three main questions drive this student-centered approach to contextual listening:
The first question sends the message that music study can be motivated by emotional connections to a piece. The second question focuses on musical features. Some professors may include a list of suggested features or ask students to recall the topics being studied at that point. For most of the ten listening sessions, I develop a series of questions about engaging musical features. However, each group develops the central set of questions for the piece they chose, drawing those questions from current course topics and their own interests. The last question leads students back to the piece and asks them to open a space for further inquiry. These three questions begin and end with a consideration of the piece. The placement of the middle question means that thinking about musical processes takes place centrally while the piece is fresh in mind. These three main questions initiate deeper study, leading to answers that are sometimes finite (perhaps realizing that a given piece only uses diatonic chords) and sometimes unanswerable (only being able to speculate why a composer used a certain texture or figuration).
The contextual listening procedure is that students listen to the piece at least twice before coming to class and write short responses to the first question. Class time is spent on typical contextual listening questions. Students then have up to two days after class to consider the third question and write a short response.
These three main questions can be answered variously. The short responses to the outer questions can motivate inclusive class discussion because of their subjectivity. For a different outcome, students could work these three questions into effective prose writing. The opening question leads students to convey personal opinions about music through the written word and to translate feelings—often expressed colloquially—into more objective wording. Answering the middle question draws on multiple modes of expression; while prose may be most appropriate to describe musical features, notation may be more conducive to explaining observations that center on pitch and rhythm. The final question may lead students in many different directions. Some answers may be directed specifically to features of the piece and could be answered in finite, subjective ways, while other answers may be more speculative and lead into realms of aesthetics and style.
To illustrate how this would work in practice, these three main questions are applied to The Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” (“I Belong With You”) from 2012. Most typically-aged college students will know this song and, based on the song’s popularity, will have positive associations with it. This song is an effective way to start the entire semester’s contextual listening.
Answers to the first question—What intrigues or excites you about the piece?—may include social or situational connections to the piece (e.g., “my friends and I listened to that all summer long”), liking the singer’s voice, considering the relationship of the nonsense syllables “ho” and “hey” to the song, or the insertion of new lines and music into the final chorus. Some students may reference aspects of the video, wanting to consider that as part of the object of analysis.
The second question—What musical features do you find engaging?—can be expanded and adapted to different topics and levels of study for “Ho Hey.” Even with fundamentals topics like meter and mode identification, “Ho Hey” provides opportunities for discussion that can deepen the understanding of those concepts. For example, the meter of “Ho Hey” is simple quadruple. Differences between duple and quadruple are often the source of much debate. In this case, quadruple is well supported by the downbeat iterations of the title words and by the embellishing tones on the anacrusis that lead to a tonic chord at the beginning of each measure. In terms of mode, the song is in a major key, although the instrumentals of the introduction don’t immediately reveal the tonic pitch. Instead, the scale emerges over the course of the verse so that listeners infer tonic. (In Aural Skills Acquisition, Gary Karpinski observes that “inference of the tonic is at once magical to behold and diabolical to understand. (44)”) A discussion of both meter and mode in the context of “Ho Hey” leads to a richer understanding of how scale collections emerge and how multiple factors such as harmonic rhythm and repeating patterns contribute to the interacting levels of pulse from which meter arises.
The form of the song is also ripe for study. Students can start by mapping out its verse-chorus structure or changes in texture. This diagram can be used as a basis for studying melodic relationships of verse and chorus, and identifying key motives. The diagram itself can be further developed with details of instrumentation (including group singing) and the elaborated texture effected in part by the energized rhythm in the second chorus (with offbeat mandolin chords).
Many other features of “Ho Hey” can be explored fruitfully. The harmony is completely diatonic, and most of the verse sits on a tonic chord; here’s an opportunity to consider harmonic rhythm. My interest in the relationship between lyrics and music is piqued by the reference to blood in the second verse within the context of family (0:37). This provocative image of blood returns in the phrases inserted between the two final choruses (1:52). A short passage of new music is set with the words, “And love, we need it now, let’s hope for some, ‘cause oh, we’re bleeding out.” The new music, occurring as the song is ending, focuses the listener’s attention on the words, helping the listener link the “blood” of family connections from the first verse to the potential of “bleeding out,” or perishing, without love; this interpolated section of new music serves as a final plea before the restatement of the repeated chorus that the narrator and the beloved belong together.
For a more advanced theory course, “Ho Hey” could serve as a model for introducing hypermeter. The regularity of four measure groupings is clear from the beginning, and it is disturbed in various and easily recognizable ways during the song. For instance, in the first two verses, hypermeter is truncated as it supports the extra lines “I’ve been sleeping in my bed” and “but I can write a song.”
Regardless of where students stop considering musical features of the piece (e.g., fundamentals topics, text-music relationships or something else entirely), the last question is always pertinent—What more do you want to learn about this piece? Musing on what else could be contemplated and studied reinforces that learning is a spiral; current knowledge and understanding launches further research. The answers to this question might require students to go deeper into aspects of the song (possibly moving from music fundamentals to harmony, form, texture or instrumentation), to research other songs by The Lumineers, or to compare “Ho Hey” with other songs. The goal is to stoke curiosity.
This model for contextual listening invites students to take an active role as they first consider their reactions to a piece, then pursue technical aspects of analysis, and finally step back to reconsider other features yet unaddressed. This technique has dual results: sound remains at the forefront of musical study and students play an active role in learning. Repeating this operation of relating to a piece personally before analyzing it, and then following it up with further consideration is a way of building an active analytic process. By developing their own contextual listening examples, students experience the relevance of music theory. Students learn and practice a process of analysis that can be applied to many repertoires.
This work is copyright ©2017 Rebecca Jemian and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.