Engaging Everyone: Musical Analysis in the General Education Classroom

George Lam, York College, City University of New York

In many campuses across the country, music departments offer courses for non-music majors as electives. These courses often take the form of standalone surveys, such as History of Rock or Music Appreciation, or an introduction to more advanced coursework, such as a course on music theory fundamentals that prepares the student for the regular music theory sequence. Students often come to these courses with different motivations: some learned to play piano or guitar by ear and wanted to know how to read music, others are intrigued about the idea of a college course on music, others still register for these courses only because they have seats available and the schedule fits.

Since these “non-major” courses require no prerequisites, the students who enroll in them bring different kinds of prior musical knowledge. As Johnson (2015) points out, in order to promote a successful learning community for the entire class, instructors need to be aware of these differences in students’ prior knowledge when they introduce and reinforce new concepts. In my experience with teaching these “non-major” courses, I find it especially effective to ask students to connect new concepts with pieces of music that are already familiar, and to apply their new skills in authentic projects that emulate how a composer creates. Further, it is crucial to create a classroom environment where students are asked not only to learn about potentially unfamiliar music and concepts, such as the Western classical canon or musical notation practice, but also to critically investigate their own playlists by connecting the new ideas with what they currently listen to. (Much of this work was inspired by Marissa Silverman’s Rethinking Music “Appreciation” and her experiences with teaching similar courses in a New York City high school.)

How do we meaningfully engage the entire classroom with what we do as musicologists, theorists, and composers? If a music theory fundamentals course is the only music course a student takes in their lifetime, how can we design learning outcomes that aim beyond the ability to spell an augmented triad in the abstract, so that the skills—however foundational—can also benefit the students’ own relationship with their music, not as practicing musicians but as invested and informed listeners? In this essay, I will focus on strategies that ask non-musician students to apply the technique of musical analysis to more deeply understand a musical concept, by discovering the connection between the concept (e.g. musical form, the major scale) and the music with which they are familiar. I begin with an exercise in a music history survey course that introduces “absolute music” by first asking students to explore the idea of form in moving images. I conclude this essay with a strategy that introduces the major scale to a music theory fundamentals class through applications in keyboard skills, pattern recognition, film music, and composition.

Seeing and Hearing Form

In my experience with courses for non-musicians, students are most engaged when they are able to connect course content with their personal listening experiences. In Ambrose (2010), the authors describe how the construction of new information is critically linked with students’ own prior knowledge. In our classrooms, this “prior knowledge” includes both the musical genres that students already listen to (for example, my students are often most familiar with hip-hop, pop, soca, reggae, and gospel) and how they find and consume music. Furthermore, students often experience music not only as an audio-only genre, but also one that is synchronized with a visual experience (e.g., a visual album, a YouTube video of a live performance). In response, I begin my music history survey with music for the stage and screen in the twentieth century, before moving backwards in time toward absolute music in Europe in the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. To prepare for this transition, I gradually scaffold musical analysis skills as we make our jump from narrative-driven music to purely instrumental music. At York College, we currently use Forney, Dell’antonio, and Machlis’s The Enjoyment of Music for the music history survey, and the units in my course are roughly based on selected chapters from this text.

For the session that introduces the Romantic era, I ask students to first analyze the form of a music video without hearing the music, and to look for formal concepts such as repetition and contrast by using only the visual presentation. For this exercise, I use a clip from the music video for Future Islands’s The Dream of You and Me, which starts with a series of images that do not depict a specific narrative. Forms and colors fill the screen, and certain visual elements such as shapes or movement repeat in various ways. After playing through the video clip “on mute”, I ask students to describe how they would divide the clip into distinct sections. This activity is similar to Michel Chion’s “masking” exercise, as well as Colin Roust’s “spotting session” exercise, in which students score a silent film clip by first deciding where the musical cues will begin and end. Next, students use a worksheet with a partially completed chart that organizes the film clip into eight sections. Students work in partners to discuss how to complete this chart: where do the sections begin and end, what is the same, what is varied, and what is different? The class remains engaged throughout the activity as we discuss the director’s intentions, whether an element is “different” enough from one section to another, and what the accompanying music might sound like. We conclude this part of the exercise by playing the music video with the original soundtrack, and we discuss how this is similar or different to what the students expected to hear. Since I use an example of popular music with lyrics for this first exercise, I repeat the activity with an another abstract film that accompanies the second movement from Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto as a transition to instrumental music.

Figure 1. Excerpt of a worksheet for analyzing form in a music videoimage

In the second part of this lesson, I use a similar “spotting session” worksheet. However, instead of asking students to identify repetition and contrast using abstract moving images, students apply this skill to an excerpt of instrumental music: the Poco Allegretto from Brahms’s Third Symphony. Identifying form in abstract music without lyrics can be difficult at first, as it requires the skills to listen, retain, and identify various musical elements. I prepare for this experience by first introducing the themes in the style of a pre-concert lecture. I play a snippet from each of the three main sections on the piano, and I ask students to sing these snippets back as best they can (to my surprise, they tend to be particularly responsive to this task). Finally, I play a video recording of a performance of this movement as students worked in small groups to complete a worksheet by analyzing the musical form.

Figure 2. Excerpt of a worksheet for analyzing form in Brahms’s Symphony No. 3image

In this introduction to absolute music, I ask students to pivot from the familiar (e.g., the visual experience of watching a music video) to the more foreign experience of analyzing music without lyrics or visual elements. As a follow-up later in the semester, students continue to refine their analytical skills by creating written listening guides for examples of absolute music found both in the Western classical tradition and in popular styles (e.g., an instrumental hip-hop track), describing the use of repetition and contrast across different musical genres.

The Major Scale: A Student-Centered Approach

In past music theory fundamentals courses, I often struggled to find ways of showing the value of music theory to non-musicians beyond applying basic note-reading skills to playing an instrument. For example, how can I best introduce the concept of a “scale” to listeners who cannot play (or hear) a major scale on their own? As I was planning my lesson on the major scale, I decided to connect this concept to music that students are already interested in. More importantly, I wanted to remind the class that I am not only interested in sharing music theory concepts in the abstract, I am also invested in showing how their favorite artists created their music “behind the scenes” by applying musical analysis techniques.

After an introduction to timbre, pulse, meter, clefs and accidentals earlier in the semester, we dive into the major scale. For the course that I taught in Fall 2016, I used an excerpt from Jon Bellion’s Hand of God (outro) to demonstrate this new concept. I chose this song because it was a student’s current favorite, as listed on her pre-course survey, and because excerpts from the chorus included all seven notes of the E-flat major scale. Using a worksheet, I asked students to analyze notated excerpts of the chorus’s melody by first finding and playing the notes on the piano. As the students played, they applied their note-reading skills from previous lessons by correctly interpreting the accidentals using half-steps. Once students had a chance to go through the excerpts on their own, they played them together as a class, carefully listening to how the resulting notes mirrored the artist’s voice in the recording. Next, I asked students to reorganize the pitches into two tetrachords that follow the pattern of W-W-H. As students discovered the underlying intervallic pattern, I described this phenomenon as “the major scale.” Students concluded the activity by applying the same intervallic pattern to different tonic pitches, creating major scales that start on C, A, G, and so forth. As a result, the major scale became not only a new music theory concept, but also a tool for students to delve deeper into their classmates’ favorite music.

In a later part of this course, I ask students to further apply this concept by writing short 30-second pieces to a silent film clip using the major scale. Through this creative project, I connect the major scale with a familiar genre such as TV and film music, in a way that emulates how professional composers also apply the same concept in their creative work. I choose a visually active excerpt from Yohann Gloaguen’s 2006 film Comme un air, whose original soundtrack includes mostly music and almost no dialogue. To prepare for this project, we first analyze the visual information of various clips from the film presented without the soundtrack, similar to a “spotting session” exercise. We discuss the choices that the director made, the characters, the story, and possible kinds of music that could accompany this film. Next, students compose their scores in Noteflight using notes from a major scale, and present their music in class played along with the film clip (synchronized by hitting “play” at the same time). We discuss how the various ways of using the major scale affect our perception of what we see, and we conclude by screening the film clip once more with the original soundtrack.


While this essay focuses on teaching musical analysis concepts to non-musician students, similar student-centered engagement techniques can be applied to courses across the curriculum for both musicians and non-musicians alike, as musicians also come to courses with varying abilities and perspectives. However, it is important that we continue to develop musical analysis skills as an integral part of courses designed for the non-musician student. Such skills allow all students to engage with deeper listening experiences, recognize their own developing and changing musical tastes, and foster a culture of active listening that includes the entire artistic work—not just the lyrics, the music video, and the artist’s brand. Further, in a music theory fundamentals course, the topics introduced are often reinforced with repeated drills (e.g., naming notes correctly on the staff). As such, the study of music in this context can quickly become synonymous with how to correctly recognize and label a musical phenomenon using notation. Hence, it is also important that we show non-musician students that these are not the ultimate goals in our study of music. Rather, these are tools that help us recognize patterns across different genres and understand how artists use these patterns to compose, thereby demystifying the creative process and expanding our students’ ideas of how music can be made. In turn, we create the conditions for all students—regardless of their musical ability—to come to their own conclusions on how musical analysis helps them more deeply engage with the music that they already love.

This work is copyright ⓒ 2017 George Lam and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Originally published in Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, Vol. 5.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message

Welcome to Social Paper (beta)!

Skip to toolbar