Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 5

Table of Contents

Reconnecting with History: Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in the Music History Classroom

Maria Anne Purciello, The University of Delaware

Like many music majors, my undergraduate experience with music history was largely composed of a required two-semester survey and select electives. While these courses did an admirable job of introducing a broad sampling of Western Art Music spanning the period between c. 800 and the 1960s, I remember coming away from it quietly wondering what I would ever do with knowledge on specialized topics like plainchant, the cyclic mass, and Dadaism. Fast forward nearly twenty years and I now find myself on the other side of the classroom, teaching an introductory course plus a traditional three-semester music history survey to undergraduate performance and music education majors, many of whom (much less quietly) wonder: why do we need to know this? What does it have to do in preparing me for my future in music? How is this relevant?

Questions such as these, though admittedly frustrating to hear, provide a window into student thinking. Moreover, they are indicative of two big issues facing music history today: 1) students’ misperception that history is no more than a collection of dates, facts, people, and places that can be easily googled and thus, do not require much in the way of formal study, and 2) the questioning of history’s relevance in today’s dynamic world. While, the Information Age has made data and historical sources much more accessible than ever before, it has also led to student disengagement with the idea of asking big questions that require the synthesis of multiple sources, world views, and approaches in order to develop a plausible answer. This is especially concerning for music history as the activity of posing complex questions and searching for answers through the creation of rich, carefully researched, historical narratives lies at the very heart of the discipline.

So why the disconnect between student perceptions of music history and its reality? One answer may lie in the fact that the way that we teach music history today is largely at odds with the way that we “do” history. The music history curriculum, perhaps more so than that of its sister disciplines, has changed little over the past four decades. Its overarching description of past musical worlds—though expanded to be more inclusive in recent years—still relies heavily on the presentation of music drawn from the western canon that is relayed to students through lecture, guided listening, and textbook readings in a multi-semester survey (Seaton, 2012; Baumer, 2015). Such an approach conceals history’s actuality; the continual re-telling of the story of western art music in a largely teacher-centered classroom wrongly implies to our twenty-first-century students that there is only one history to learn and that it is unchanging.

But what if we were to teach music history the way that we do it? What if we were to place the idea of historiography at the front and center of at least some of our undergraduate music history classes? In this essay, I suggest ways of incorporating Problem-Based Learning into the traditional music history sequence as a means of refocusing student attention on the narrative-making aspects of music history rather than on its facts and figures. The essay begins by considering historical narrative as a problem in and of itself, before exploring how Problem-Based Learning can be employed to help students hone the skill sets necessary for success within the music history classroom while introducing them to important matters of historiography.

Part I: Exploring Narratives of History with Problem-Based Learning

In the early 1980s, music historians Carl Dahlhaus and Leo Treitler surveyed a historical landscape that was in the midst of radical change and addressed the momentous question of whether history was on the decline, if not the path to self-destruction. At the center of the issue lay the notion of narrative and, more specifically, the postmodern distrust of the type of grand narratives of music history that had, just thirty years earlier, defined the discipline. The postmodern belief that the realities of history could not be viewed objectively brought with it an understanding that the interactions of the different dimensions of the past must be examined using a variety of philosophical approaches, socially constructed contexts, and deep analyses in addition to technical problem-solving. As these approaches introduced a more nuanced understanding of specific aspects of the past, the notion of “history” itself began to broaden out into a surfeit of data, facts, and contexts that seemed to bring about confusion and chaos rather than cohesion. The more we learned about history, the greater our realization was that a single over-arching narrative could never suffice.

Today, historiography is dependent upon the creation of multiple and overlapping narratives that provide a glimpse into the past, while showing “how major aspects of the present world were shaped—acquired their character—in the process of their emergence” (Bailyn, 1982). For music history, such interpretations have provided a rich and complex understanding of how music reflects the people of diverse places and times, their ways of life, social and political institutions, economic structures, cultural systems, and aesthetic worldviews. However, the profusion of historical accounts necessary to achieve this understanding has also complicated the telling of history to such an extent that, in the undergraduate classroom, it has become quite easy to lose the narrative thread in the interest of coverage.

In light of these challenges, music historians are often inclined to reduce the number and type of narratives that we tell within the history classroom in order to make history more accessible to our students. Limited in time and aware of the risk of information overload, we teach a relatively safe subject-based account that mediates between aesthetics and history as it surveys great works, important composers, and stylistic and theoretical change. Its highly selective and purposefully interpretive focus is jointly placed on the “work” concept, biography, and style history, and yet it is still too much. Increasingly, music history is among the earliest college-level courses that ask students to do more than merely reproduce, understand, or apply skill sets. The intermingling of historical fact, cultural and intellectual philosophy, and style change, with the development of tonal theory, formal analysis, and tracing of genres over time that takes place in even the most simplified retelling of history is overwhelming. In order to fully grasp the narrative, students are required to analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and create – all elements of higher order thinking in Bloom’s Taxonomy, and advanced stages of cognitive development that, according to Perry’s scheme of ethical and intellectual development, are only just beginning to develop during a student’s college years. When viewed through the lens of cognitive development, student inquiries into why they need to learn about certain historical topics begin to make more sense. Underlying their question is the desire to somehow narrow the scope of music history in order to make it more manageable and thus get a better grasp of history itself.

It is perhaps no wonder then that music history is often at the center of conversations about pedagogy, curricular change, and reform. Recent studies of music history pedagogy, initiated in part by collections of essays on teaching music history (Natvig, 2002; Briscoe, 2010; Davis, 2012) and the success of the Journal of Music History Pedagogy and Musica Docta, have introduced techniques that embrace creativity and engagement through writing (Haefeli, 2016), ways of incorporating composition and improvisation into undergraduate classes (Grymes and Allemeir, 2014), and placing a greater emphasis on skills (Crain, 2014; Roust, 2016) as a means of helping students better engage with history. At the same time, roundtable discussions about the nature of the survey class and the very survival of the music history sequence have thoughtfully explored the relative merits of the sequence, offered possibilities and mechanisms for change within it, and considered alternative approaches such as those currently in place at Vanderbilt, Wesleyan, and Harvard.

The recent publication of the College Music Society’s “Manifesto” has further complicated the situation with its identification of three core deficiencies in music curricula (i.e. the subordination of the creation of new work to the interpretive performance of older work, ethnocentrism, and the fragmentation of subjects and skills), all of which are, paradoxically, necessary for sustaining a simplified, comprehensible narrative for our undergraduates.

So how, then, are we to help our students reconnect with history? Is it possible to rethink the music history survey in a manner that allows us to continue teaching its traditional narrative while moving towards resolving some of the complaints that have recently been levelled at it? Within my classes, Problem-Based Learning (PBL) has provided a practical and effective solution to this question. As “an instructional (and curricular) learner-centered approach that empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a defined problem” (Savery, 2006), Problem-Based Learning requires students to work collaboratively in teams to seek solutions to multi-layered, real-life problems. In so doing, it compels students to consider issues more broadly, and acknowledge, perhaps for the first time, that a variety of approaches, viewpoints, and interpretations can be applied to most problems. As students move through the PBL process, the instructor works as a facilitator and guide, supporting their investigation of complicated issues and, when necessary, helping them to further probe their ideas through thoughtful questioning (Duch, Groh, and Allen, 2001; Boud and Feletti, 1997; Delisle, 1997).

When applied to music history, Problem-Based Learning helps students to begin to understand history as an assortment of problems that need to be creatively solved rather than facts to be memorized. It requires them to apply critical thinking and problem solving skills in order to “do” history, thereby overturning any preconceived notions of a static history that students may have formerly held. What is more, when applied strategically, PBL provides students with the opportunity to briefly experience the process of historiography in much the same way that musicologists do, thereby enriching their understanding of the overarching import and relevance of music history in today’s world.

Part II: Practical Applications of PBL in the Music History Classroom

Though the importance placed upon narrative in history virtually precludes the conversion of a complete music history course to PBL, a hybrid model of Problem-Based Learning in which traditional classroom pedagogies are primarily employed, with three or four PBL assignments interspersed throughout the course of a semester can be easily adopted. Such a model allows the instructor to present much of a survey’s historical content through lecture or large-group discussion, and reserves PBL activities for the type of “linchpin” material that students are expected to retain over time and/or activities that are important for students to know how to do because of the insight they give into how knowledge is generated, verified, and used. In such a scenario, Problem-Based Learning problems become single- or multi-day in-class workshops during which students work with their peers to explore historical ideas and concepts while gaining insight into the way that professionals within their discipline work.

Wiggins and McTighe’s curriculum planning model of Backward Design provides an especially helpful method for determining where and when to implement PBL problems within the curriculum, and can be easily adapted into a set of guidelines for writing PBL problems. Using this approach, I have found Problem-Based Learning to be particularly effective when the pedagogical objective is for students to step away from the details in order to gain an overarching viewpoint, to refine analytical tools that they will need in subsequent music history classes (e.g. style analysis or close listening skills), to experience the historical process of technical problem solving, or to relate issues of historiography to real-world problems facing modern day historians, musicians, and people working in the music industry. The four sample problems that follow were designed to address one or more of these outcomes.

What is Music?

The week-long problem “What is Music?” is designed for beginning students in the music history sequence who have actively participated in music making and for whom music is a regular part of their daily lives. The problem itself is simple: students are presented with the question “What is Music?” and asked to develop four propositions about music that hold true for all music, regardless of time, place, culture, or function. As the problem unfolds, assorted prompts gently challenge students’ existing perceptions by requiring them to think more broadly and inclusively about the nature of music. Some of these prompts require students to reflect on the genres of music that they regularly listen to, while others introduce world music recordings (e.g. khoomei, kecak, Ghana postal worker improvisations, etc.). Student teams are also presented with an excerpted passage from a letter written by Heinrich Heine in which the poet considers the nature of music, and then asked to reflect on their own personal experiences when conducting their soundscapes assignments earlier in the semester. As the teams work through each of these prompts, they are given a series of questions to discuss, many of which encourage thinking about how diverse contexts affect the way that music is created, heard, and understood. By the problem’s end, students should be able to identify music as a sound, a concept, and a behavior, and to speak meaningfully about the many social and cultural functions that it fulfills.

I often use this as an introductory problem to music history as it provides a framework for many of the processes and ideas that I want my students to continue to employ and consider throughout the remainder of the history sequence. For example, its incremental introduction to the process of Problem-Based Learning provides the necessary first step in teaching students both how to learn and how to conduct research. As students progress through the problem’s stages with their teammates, the activity of questioning, researching, and synthesizing ideas in search of a plausible solution to the problem at hand compels them to begin to grapple with the notions of multiplicity and relativity. Finally, the act of composing four propositions requires students to critically consider the data that they were introduced to within the problem and test it against other data in the same way that they will later be asked to critically examine historical evidence against other, sometimes contradictory, evidence in order to piece together a historical account.

Considering Musical Style

Considering Musical Style” is an analysis-based problem that helps to solidify student comprehension of the elements of musical style. Through the activity of grouping unlabeled recordings according to their shared stylistic features, students work together to analyze movements of significant canonic works by ear, using technical vocabulary to not only explain what they are hearing, but also to construct a rationale for why certain pieces can and should be grouped together based upon their musical characteristics. This problem reinforces skill sets that students learn in their theory and aural skills classes and demonstrates their applicability to music history, while helping to more fully prepare students for music history listening tests. When working with students who are further along in the sequence, the problem can be expanded in such a way as to permit the students to then go back and listen to the pieces that they had previously grouped together due to their similarities, and instead make a case for why they are different, thereby highlighting the two goals of style (i.e., determining which features of a composition are shared by other works of its type or period, and establishing what is special or unique about an individual work).

The Notre Dame Singer

Unlike the previous two problems, “The Notre Dame Singer” gives students insight into the type of technical problem solving that is regularly performed by music historians. The problem itself asks students to assist a young musician at the Notre Dame Cathedral who is tasked with composing the organum that he must sing for the Easter Sunday Mass. Through the process of critical analysis and the comparison of Leonin’s organum for “Viderunt Omnes” with the original plainchant gradual from which it was derived, students work together to discover the compositional logic that was generally followed when composing twelfth-century organum. Students are then asked to apply these rules in the composition of their own organum and to submit a team composition as the final project artifact. This final step in the process ensures comprehension and encourages creativity, while necessitating that students transcribe the original plainchant that they are working with into modern notation. Thus students are introduced to the processes of historical investigation, transcription, and creative reconstruction that are regularly employed by musicologists.

Resurrecting the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra

While each of the preceding problems are either relevant to modern-day concerns or recreate plausible scenarios drawn from history, “Resurrecting the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra” presents a problem that was pulled directly from the news headlines a few years ago. In this problem, students begin by viewing a short news clip announcing the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra’s bankruptcy. Teams are then presented with a scenario in which they have the opportunity to help a newly re-organized New Mexico Orchestra creatively expand its audience base by 1) planning a concert around a set repertoire (which has been provided to them) that elicits the interest of members of a specific assigned demographic, and 2) creating a short publicity video for the concert that can be shared via social media. The project is complicated by the fact that the video must creatively include historical background for each of the pieces that appear on the concert program in such a way that it will not only catch and hold the attention of members of their target audience, but also begin the process of informing them about their upcoming musical experience.

Of all of the problems described here, the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra problem is by far the most demanding as it requires students to address the increasingly important modern-day problem of declining audiences for professional performances. This is an issue that most music students are already well-aware of, and one for which there have been relatively few real-world success stories. As the students work through the stipulations presented by the orchestra’s fictitious board of directors, they are essentially embarking on a three-pronged mini research project in which they need to learn more about their assigned target demographic, the compositions that appear on the concert program, and the region in which the New Mexico Symphony is located. Once they have compiled this data, students then use it to construct a short video narrative that is as accessible, informative, and interesting as it is usable. (It is important to note here that the primary variable between team assignments is their target audience. All of the teams have the same assigned concert program and region, ensuring that there will be commonalities among the data that they discover when conducting their research. The purposeful variation in target group is the factor that establishes the grounds for the construction of quite different narratives.) The problem culminates with the sharing of team videos, and a class discussion of how historians draw upon limited historical data to construct multiple and, at times, slightly overlapping narratives that differ primarily in context.

Closing Thoughts

The examples presented within this article suggest strategies to creatively rethink the ways in which students engage with course content in order to change how they perceive music history. Without exception, my classes are part of a traditional music history curriculum that primarily exists as an ethnocentric survey of western art music privileging the interpretation of older works over new. However, over the past five years, I have found that the introduction of Problem-Based Learning exercises into my courses has helped to turn those elements of the sequence identified by some as weaknesses or deficiencies into “learning issues” for my students. For example, by introducing the “What is Music?” problem towards the beginning of the sequence, I begin a multi-semester process of encouraging my students to challenge the notion of a single over-arching historical storyline. The problem’s emphasis on the fact that there is no easy universal way of categorizing the types of sounds, genres, functions, and definitions that globally qualify as “music” brings into sharp relief the idea that the western music my students are studying is only one of countless possibilities. At the same time, “What is Music?” also introduces students to the idea of a figurative musical toolbox containing tools and approaches that can be applied to music across most genres, cultures, and time periods. Subsequent problems like “Considering Musical Style” and “The Notre Dame Singer” are presented throughout the remainder of the sequence with the intention of helping students to hone the skills and tools within their personal musical toolboxes, while familiarizing them with important works drawn from the canon. Whenever possible, I like to include short problems that require students to use these same tools for works that fall outside of the western art tradition. Finally, the introduction of a capstone problem like “Resurrecting the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra” towards the end of the sequence helps students to pull together everything that they have learned across four semesters—to see the forest through the trees, so to speak. The act of having students use limited data to construct a historical description that resonates with a specific audience reminds them that there are many historical narratives at play at any given time and that the meaning-making process is entirely in the hands of history’s teller.

On a personal note, I would add that since adding Problem-Based Learning to my classes, I have found an increased student engagement with course content both during the PBL workshops and in my more traditionally formatted class meetings. More and more frequently, I have found students actively seeking connections between the topics we cover in class, their other coursework, and even current events. Moreover, over the past five years, I have found that students’ long-term retention of concepts covered in PBL problems has improved as they begin to demonstrate more personal control over the subject matter. By and far the most rewarding part of incorporating Problem-Based Learning into my classes, however, is the fact that I much less frequently hear students ask, “why do we need to know this?” Through Problem-Based Learning, students have begun to discover the answer to that timeless question for themselves.

This work is copyright ©2017 Maria Anne Purciello and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.