Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 6

Table of Contents

Using Gallery Walks for Engagement in the Music History Classroom

Reba Wissner

Walking into an art gallery is often a transformative experience. One can lose themselves among a sea of paintings, portraits, and images that remove the viewer from one’s world and transport them into the world of the image. But what if we took that same experience and brought it into the music history classroom, carrying students from their own digital, endlessly connected world into one that can bring them into the world of a composer, genre, or period, allowing them first-hand access into the world in which they are studying through primary sources? This can be accomplished through the classroom gallery walk.

The gallery walk is an engaged teaching method whereby primary source documents, images, scores, manuscripts, and quotations are placed around the classroom as if in a gallery. Each of these items is related to something in the lesson and is accompanied by a question. It is the students’ responsibility to find these connections and answer the questions that are provided on a handout about the document in front of them. The students will walk around the classroom and examine each item, noting reactions, patterns, and connections, rotating between each station with no more than one group at a time per station. After the gallery walk has concluded and the students have visited all of the stations, they return to their seats, derive information as a group from their notes, answer all of the questions, and present their findings to the class. This teaching activity not only encourages discussion but gives students a way to engage with unfamiliar material.

To be sure, the gallery walk principle is nothing new. A Google search will yield lesson plans for performing it in K-12 schools, especially as opening, closing, and review activities for a particular lesson. Art classes use them to display student work so that students can critique and examine their peers’ work. But it is also used frequently in the non-art classroom. Literature has been published about its use in science (Chee et al 2015), geography (Francek 2006), and ELL (Stewart 2013) classrooms and colleagues of mine in public health and food and nutrition sciences, for example, use it regularly. One such study revealed what we might have already expected: using gallery walks in the classroom yielded a higher rate of student participation, one which students felt was unusual—in a good way—as compared to the lecture (Hogan and Cernusca 2011). Gallery walks also encourage simultaneous reporting, or exposure to only the most essential data, as part of a team-based activity in order to come to a conclusion about a specific problem (Michaelson and Sweet 2008).

My goal is to have students interact with primary sources in ways that they usually would not. Of course, I can show them an image or a letter at any time, but getting them to interpret and analyze those documents in relation to other similar and related documents proves much more fruitful than examining them in isolation. For this reason, there is no proper type of source to use for the gallery walk. My colleagues in public health, for example, place quotes from government documents around the room and ask the students to interpret and deconstruct them in preparation for an in-class debate. Some science classes use questions that are posted around the room that students answer in their groups in preparation for the discussion. The most important choice to make is to choose documents that are consistent with your learning goals. Each document is printed in color and taped to the walls around the classroom. For the multimedia, you can have one or more laptops or tablets for the viewing stations and mp3 players for the listening station, complete with headphones and splitters. I usually have one tablet and one laptop for each of the viewing stations such that with headphones and splitters, four students can listen at a time.

The gallery walk can take an entire class period or part of one, depending on the scope. You can have as many or as few items as you would like, depending on your goals for that class session. I use a variety of documents in the lesson on Handel’s life and career, which takes an entire class period of 75 minutes including the discussion: this is by far the largest—and most intensely curated—gallery that I use. Most of my other gallery walks have no more than 8-10 images and listening/viewing stations. The students are placed in small groups of 2-3 and the groups spend two minutes at each station; both the timing and the size of the groups are constructed to avoid crowding around any one individual station. The time that it takes the groups to traverse this specific gallery is 40 minutes, although I have, at times, removed certain items from this collection if the class time is shorter than 75 minutes. If it is longer than 75 minutes, then I lengthen both the group discussion and the class discussion segments.

The gallery walk, as an active learning activity, allows the students to use the materials that they examined in the gallery walk to reconstruct an event or biography. For learning about a composer, I provide the students with images of the composer such as paintings, woodcuts, or even caricatures; musical scores and sketches; letters in the composer’s handwriting (translated into English or transcribed such that it is legible, if necessary); primary sources such as programs and concert publicity; images of specific venues in which pieces were premiered and/or performed; writings about the composer by others; and a viewing/listening station or two where the students can play specific excerpts of works by the composer. This could work for students not only to reconstruct the life and career of a composer but also to examine the performance history of a specific work.

This activity works best in a class of between 10 and 20 students, preferably in a room where they can comfortably move around with a lot of clear wall space. The gallery walk can also be modified for a larger or smaller class. One of my sections this past semester, for example, had only six students in it, so we sat in a circle to examine and talk through each document together, with the students taking notes as they went. For large classes, such as the ones with 50 or more students enrolled per section, I put the students in groups, project each item up on the screen, and work that way. Instead of having the groups circulate around the room, each group sits together and everyone looks at the same item that is projected on the board at the same time. This also allows all of the groups to finish at the same time if there is an odd number of groups and an even number of items in the gallery and vice versa. This approach can also be taken if there are students in the class with mobility issues in that it levels the playing field for all students.

The items are placed in no particular order on the handout, but generally, they are positioned around the room in chronological order and items that relate to the same work are placed adjacent. This allows the students to get a perspective of the trajectory of the composer’s life and career. I place captions or translations under the images where I feel they are necessary for the students to gain a better understanding of what they are examining. Once the walk is complete, students will have 10 minutes to discuss their observations as a group and interpret the meaning of these documents in the context of the composer’s life and career. We then reconvene and reconstruct what we know about the composer from the documents. Things I ask them to consider: what might an annotation at the end of a sketch, like the one in document 3, tell them about what the composer was going through at the time? What does the handwriting of the sketch tell us about his compositional process? What importance might a specific piece have had in a composer’s life given its inclusion on their tomb, as in document 4? What can we learn about a composer’s workings with others from letters such as documents 2 and 10? How did others view a composer by looking at caricatures such as that found in document 9? How do paintings, like those in documents 1 and 8, illustrate the stages of a composer’s career? What can information about a performance, as in document 13, inform us about the performance venue, as in document 20?

I’m not necessarily looking for overly specific things that are beyond the capabilities of a junior undergraduate. For example, I hope that from looking at documents 7, 15, and 16 that they would be able to tell me that Handel composed operas that had libretti published in both English and Italian, and from looking at documents 15 and 18 that his operas may have been popular because the arias from some were extracted and published on their own for sale to the public. They should also be able to tell me, from looking at document 16, that the libretti were published in Italian and English side-by-side, owing to their popularity in both England and Italy. They might also tell me by looking at document 19 that he did not just write vocal music, but instrumental music too, and that he had something to do with the king and, yes, there were fireworks involved. For the listening and viewing stations, some of the clips will be edited down to two minutes, but the students can obtain information such as the texture of the piece the composer used, the languages set, the instruments used, and the genre. This allows the students to further connect the composer’s output with his career.

Most importantly, the exercise allows student to understand first, how we as historians obtain our information and second, that there is no one single version of history and that any historical narrative is a simplification of a rich story. What may not make it into a textbook may still be an important part of a composer’s story. Further, one sometimes must find the hyperbole. For example, document 13 is an advertisement for a charity performance of The Messiah with 800 musicians performing, but an examination of the venue in which it was performed in document 20 shows that although Westminster Abbey is quite large, with the layout of the building, there is still no evidence that 800 musicians—plus an audience—would have ever been able to perform in such a space. It allows students to come to their own conclusions about history, just as musicologists do.

I have also used the gallery walk in general education classes with primarily non-music students enrolled, such as Music and Gender, in which, for example, I had students reconstruct musical life in the Middle Ages through images of music performance, translations of troubadour and trouvère songs, and quotes about courtly love or about specific composers. For non-majors, the trick is to rely on musical items on which the students can make basic observations; for example, in a piece of monophonic music they can notice that there is only one vocal part. For non-majors, who may or may not have experience with music, using the gallery walk allows students to approach the course goals more confidently by allowing them to make observations in the classroom setting different from what is typically done in small group work or traditional team-based learning activities. However, it allows even the non-majors to perform the same acts that musicologists do and asks them to maintain an awareness of the course goals (Hausmann 2014).

The gallery walk can also maximize team-based learning approaches. As David W. Rodenbaugh writes, “Gallery walks are beneficial since they promote critical thinking, communication, and practice with critical evaluation of new information as students wrestle with nuance and misconceptions that may be included in the products they review” (Rodenbaugh 2015). Rather than place students in groups for discussion or to perform a task where they just sit in a circle, this allows the students to engage with an item on their own terms, encourages them to think critically about the object in front of them, and asks that all students bring their own interpretations and analyses of a specific item to the table in order to connect the dots.

I have had students tell me that they enjoy this exercise not only because it is interactive but because it also allows them to interact with primary sources, something they often do not get to do. One student told me that it allowed her to see what musicologists do other than teach them. They know what a historian is and what they do but they do not really know what they DO. It also allows students to engage with primary sources just as musicologists do, which is what makes musicology so exciting to most musicologists. Rather than doing the typical recitation of names and dates that occurs so frequently in the music history classroom, it allows the instructor to actually show the students what makes them excited about musicology and share that same activity with them, giving them the opportunity to experience history (Strandberg 2017). It also gives them a modified experience of working with the kinds of documents found in archives, which has been shown to be important for undergraduate music history students (O’Leary and Ward-Griffin 2017). To be sure, others have employed similar hands-on strategies in their music history classrooms, in at least one case involving a museum and local history (see, for example, Morgan-Ellis 2018; Strandberg 2017).

Returning to the beginning of this essay, the gallery walk disconnects the students from the distraction of their phones and laptops during the course of a class period and connects them to history in a way that a traditional lecture cannot; students have to be engaged with the materials in front of them and cannot be only passively listening. It encourages students to look deeper into what may seem obvious to draw conclusions on a larger scale and tie together many observations about a single topic. For students with various disabilities, it allows them to process the information in front of them on their own terms. This is especially crucial for those students with difficulties processing auditory information.

By interacting with various documents, the students can take fragmentary objects and piece them together to replicate the research experience. The students combine these items to create connections to outline the life and times of a composer and understand the contexts around which he or she lived, worked, and created. The activity, therefore, allows students to engage with music history in ways that the lecture does not allow. The gallery walk, therefore, encourages critical thinking about music in its historical contexts and has helped my students become more educated musicians both inside and outside of the music history classroom.


Chee, Keong Chin, Kwan Hooi Khor, and Tiam Kian Teh. 2015. “Is Gallery Walk an Effective Teaching and Learning Strategy for Biology?” In Biology Education and Research in a Changing Planet. Edited by Esther Gnanamalar Sarojini Daniel, 55-59. Singapore: Springer.

Francek, Mark. 2006. “Promoting Discussion in the Science Classroom Using Gallery Walks.” Journal of College Science Teaching 36 (1): 27-31.

Hausmann, John. 2014. “Content in the Learner-Centered Non-Major Classroom: Thinking and Listening Like a Musicologist.” Engaging Students 2. http://flipcamp.org/engagingstudents2/essays/hausmann.html

Hogan, John Patrick and Dan Cernusca. 2011. “Integrating Gallery Walks and Wikis in a Synergetic Instructional Activity: An Exploratory Study of Students’ Perceptions.” Paper presented at the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference and Exposition, Vancouver, BC.

Michaelson, Larry K. and Michael Sweet. 2008. “Creating Effective Team Assignments.” In Team-Based Learning for Health Professions Education: A Guide to Using Small Groups for Improving Learning. Edited by Michael Sweet and Larry K. Michaelson, 35-60. Sterling, VA: Stylus Press.

Morgan-Ellis, Esther M. 2018. “Undergraduate Research and Affective Learning: Examining a Contemporary Music Research Project.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 8 (2): 174-187.

O’Leary, James and Danielle Ward-Griffin. 2017. “Digging in Your Own Backyard: Archives in the Music History Classroom.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 7 (2): 1-18.

Rodenbaugh, David W. 2015. “Maximize a Team-Based Learning Gallery Walk Experience: Herding Cats is Easier than You Think.” Advances in Physiological Education 39 (4): 411-413.

Schendel, Joshua, Chang Liu, David Chelberg, and Teresa Franklin. 2008. “Virtual Gallery Walk: An Innovative Outlet for Sharing Student Research Work in K-12 Classrooms.” Paper presented at the 38th Annual Frontiers in Education Conference, Saratoga Springs, NY.

Stewart, Denise. 2013. “Gallery Walk--An Inspirational Way to Allow Students to Show What They Know. Teaching Successes with ELLs (blog). February 7, 2013. Accessed June 1, 2018.

Strandberg, Kristen. 2017. “Music History Beyond the Classroom: Active Learning Through Local History”. Journal of Music History Pedagogy 7 (2): 32-43.

This work is copyright ⓒ 2018 Reba Wissner and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.