Getting Back to Music
A Dialogue about Music Appreciation
R. David Salvage
About the Book
About the Author
Table of contents
Getting Back to Music is a book-length didactic dialogue between a professor and four undergraduate students enrolled in his music appreciation class. Over the course of several meetings outside of class, they listen to and discuss over thirty works from the classical repertory, ranging from the Baroque Era to the 1990s. Like any satisfying conversation, however, the subject matter ranges widely: as they dig into Mozart and Beethoven, they also argue about today’s popular music, face some of their own personal anxieties, and even begin new friendships.
In an attempt to contextualize classical music within historical and cultural material that students might find more familiar or exciting, today’s appreciation textbooks end up as data dumps—huge, expensive repositories of dates and pictures and listening guides that students usually neglect and then sell back at the end of the semester. What is needed is a short, lively book that builds upon the musical experiences students have gleaned from popular music and that takes them step by step into the unfamiliar world of classical music—a book that speaks to students by simply giving them a voice. Getting Back to Music is that book.
I’ve taught music appreciation to hundreds of college undergraduates with no background in classical music. Because of my passion for oral exams, I ended up talking about music one-on-one with almost every one of these students. Getting Back to Music is therefore not only a record of my own methods: it’s a distillation of my students’ perspectives.
Getting Back to Music gives students and lay readers a fast and enjoyable way into the intimidating world of classical music. For professors, it is the ideal supplement to a more comprehensive textbook or online course. Given its extensive listening lists, companion website, and bibliography, it can also serve as a primary text.
About the Book
Music appreciation courses are a staple of General Education curricula in colleges across the United States. These courses typically take students through the history of classical music from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, adding dollops of early music, world music, and jazz along the way. Textbooks for these courses are not hard to find. But because nearly all of them take the same data-dump approach, professors actually have very little choice. In fact, so unwieldy is the typical approach that some widely used textbooks actually have “complete,” “condensed,” and “essentials” editions in print simultaneously! Students and professors know that these books simply try to cram in too much information: everyone gets stretched too thin, and too few students end up developing an appreciation—never mind love—for classical music. The ever-declining finances of orchestras, chamber ensembles, and even opera companies attest to this dismal reality.
Instead of throwing the kitchen sink at students, professors need a book that walks students through carefully selected pieces of music and that models the kind of stimulating conversations that can emerge from learning something new. Getting Back to Music begins by taking into account what students are used to from popular music and then, chapter by chapter, leads students further and further away from their musical comfort zones. For example, pop songs are rarely more than four minutes long, are beat oriented, and reference (through lyrics) extra-musical content. Therefore, the professor focuses on getting students used to pieces of music that gradually get longer, that emphasize the beat less and less, and that move away from extra-musical references. Still other chapters work on getting students used to operatic singing (starting with examples from Broadway musicals and moving toward Verdi, Handel, and others) and bowed string instruments (starting with beat-oriented, electronic-infused Steve Reich and moving toward the Bach Chaconne). To celebrate the end of their “mini class,” the professor and the students attend a live performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, for which the professor prepares a short essay that brings together many threads from their discussions.
While the professor and the students discuss between three and six pieces in every chapter, all the chapters contain two additional listening lists that students can go through on their own. Every piece on each list has a listening guide that gives historical information about the composer and diagrams the form of the piece, listing the times at which important structural moments occur. All the listening guides and recordings can be found on the website www.gettingbacktomusic.com. I’ve made the book’s Prologue available on the website as well.
Getting Back to Music also includes a glossary, a bibliography, a list of all the pieces in chronological order, as well as a handful of illustrations.
Whereas the usual textbook treats students like learners preparing for a test, Getting Back to Music treats them like people with legitimate concerns that influence their reception of the course material. Students often wonder why they need to study classical music if they’re not going to be musicians; or how they’re supposed to judge music—or anything, for that matter—that’s unfamiliar; or why anyone would listen to bizarre contemporary music or attend a concert where you’re only allowed to applaud at certain—hard to determine—times. By addressing these questions, Getting Back to Music situates classical music within the context of students’ lives, rather than an ocean of (maybe) somewhat familiar or interesting information.
Finally, unlike the stereotypical didactic dialogue, Getting Back to Music is not a one-way street. While the professor’s perspective is the most informed, he finds himself having to concede a point or two or refine what he’s said earlier; at one point, the students corner him about contemporary popular music, and he finds himself on his back foot a bit; another time, he has to admit that his preference for operas over musicals is probably more biased than principled. Nor are the students all alike in character; they come to the conversation with vastly different levels of preparation: some of them have essentially no musical experience, whereas another plays in the school orchestra and listens to Ravel; sometimes the professor invites this student, whose name is Jessica, to explain things to the others. Another student, a senior named Sam, while not musically experienced, is intelligent and self-confident and takes on the role of chief provocateur.
In the end, their conversations illustrate the kind of intellectual exchanges that reinforce richly the material of any class. At times humorous, contentious, and poignant, Getting Back to Music is a sorely needed antidote to the overwrought, impersonal books currently on the market.
About the Author
I am a composer and pianist who taught college for ten years before leaving academia for personal reasons. I taught music appreciation every semester for seven years at a small liberal arts college and, after my first year of teaching, required that each student complete an oral exam with me at the end of the semester. These exams, which probably numbered around 200, offered me the opportunity to see what students knew and to guide them toward certain connections. I grew frustrated with the textbooks available on the market and ended up using Grosvenor Cooper’s Learning to Listen, a small, often technical book from the 1950s, while hoping to write one of my own.
I am an experienced writer. From 2005-2010, I was an editor at the popular new-music website Sequenza21.com, during which time the website received an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award. Back in college (I graduated from Harvard in 2001), I was an active playwright. One of my plays was produced at the Loeb Experimental Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I took a playwriting seminar with Gideon Lester (now head of the theater program at Bard). I also have written three librettos for short chamber operas (two have been produced) as well as a few short stories and a novel—all unpublished. My dissertation, a close-reading of György Kurtàg’s …concertante…, op.42, is itself a creative text, being structured in interconnected fragments that reflect the structure of the piece.
My educational background has given me experience at the nation’s most elite and most inclusive institutions. After graduating from Harvard, I received my Master’s degree in Composition from Manhattan School of Music, where I studied with Richard Danielpour. After MSM, I worked for a year at the now-defunct Tower Records at Lincoln Center before enrolling at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York for my Ph.D. During this time, I taught music theory, ear training, and composition at Brooklyn College as well as writing at Kingsborough Community College. Before defending my dissertation, I accepted a tenure-track position at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, from where my music appreciation experience largely derives. Despite recommendations from the president and committee, I was unexpectedly denied tenure in 2015. As of now, I am working independently and living in Italy, where my wife is from. We have two children, ages five and three.
I have presented at the Society for Music Theory and am (usually) a member of that scholarly organization. I am also a member of the College Music Society. As a composer, my principle project is the ongoing musical blog, www.albumleaves.com. To date, I have written 119 “albumleaves,” which range in length from a few seconds to six minutes. I have also written for film, orchestra, a wide variety of chamber ensembles, and voice.
Table of Contents
Part One: Musical Time
Chapter 1: Duration
Interlude: Historical Knowledge
Chapter 2: Slow Speeds
Chapter 3: Irregular Rhythms
Part Two: Musical Sounds
Chapter 4: String Instruments
Chapter 5: Operatic Singing
Part Three: Getting Back to Music
Chapter 6: Programmatic Music
Interlude: Popular Music
Chapter 7: Absolute Music
Chapter 8: Atonality
Chapter 9: Putting It All Together—Beethoven’s Ninth
Listening Guides in Chronological Order
A senior, Sam, visits his music appreciation professor during office hours near the beginning of the semester. He’s frustrated that he has to take a class about classical music when there seem to be so many more urgent matters needing his attention. A sophomore, Sophia, soon joins the discussion. The professor explains how music factors into everyone’s life, justifies his focus on classical music—something which, in Sam’s words, “nobody listens to”—and begins suggesting how classical music gratifies expectations that are often out of place in popular music. They end up listening to the first movement of “Winter” from The Four Seasons, a piece, the professor argues, in which expectations derived from popular music are largely gratified.
Part One: Musical Time
NB: For every chapter, an additional two listening lists, complete with listening guides, are found on the Getting Back to Music website.
Chapter 1: Duration. Focuses on getting students used to incrementally longer durations of music by listening to solo piano pieces by Mozart, Liszt, and Corigliano. The conversation branches off into the similarities between music and sports, the fact that classical music is still being written today, and the differences between aesthetic experience and normal, day-to-day experience. The professor attempts to convince the students that “ugly” contemporary music—music that’s harsh and without memorable melodies—is often worth listening to.
Interlude: Historical Knowledge. Addresses the professor’s unusual approach to music appreciation through the questions of Jessica, a student in the class (and friend of Sophia’s) who happens to be very musically experienced. The professor argues that historical contextualization is largely unhelpful when encountering classical music for the first time.
Chapter 2: Slow Speeds. Focuses on getting students used to incrementally slower tempos by listening to orchestral works by Schumann, Respighi, and György Kurtág. The professor proposes that much slow music conveys a sense of space rather than a sense of motion, thus holding in check our instinctual desire to move to music. The conversation branches off into how listeners can judge music fairly without being either too accepting or too narrow minded. The difficulty of contemporary classical music continues as a theme.
Chapter 3: Irregular Rhythms. Focuses on getting students used to music that, in one way or another, avoids the rhythmic regularity of popular music. The professor plays piano works by Haydn, Debussy, and Messiaen: the Haydn manifests jarringly different surface rhythms, the Debussy a tremendous amount of rubato, and the Messiaen contains music where meter is impossible to perceive. The conversation branches off into how one behaves at classical music concerts (and why) and a debate about how rhythm can be “humane” or “inhumane.” The students continue to wrestle with the weirdness of much twentieth-century music.
Part Two: Musical Sound
Chapter 4: String Instruments. Focuses on getting students used to music where bowed string instruments are the center of the music’s sound. The professor and the students discuss works by Reich, Bartók, Dvořák, Beethoven, and J.S. Bach. The professor argues that bowed string instruments produce the sound most characteristic of classical music. The conversation ranges over topics such as minimalism, amplification, motif, as well as the significance of other instruments, like the piano and the flute. A freshman with no previous musical experience, Frank, joins the discussion.
Chapter 5: Operatic Singing. Focuses on getting students used to operatic singing by listening to songs by Bernstein, Gershwin, Puccini, and Verdi. The professor illustrates the differences between operatic and popular singing. The students press him on the difference between operas and musicals. They wonder what the difference is between being sentimental (which is bad) and being romantic (which is good). The excerpt from Porgy and Bess leads to a discussion of race and gender roles, and the anxieties of one of the students lead to a brief discussion of sexual orientation.
Part Three: Getting Back to Music
Chapter 6: Programmatic Music. Begins getting students used to pieces of music that have ever more tenuous narrative threads through listening to orchestral works by Rimsky-Korsakov, Beethoven, Debussy, and Ives. The professor discusses the difference between absolute and programmatic music, stressing how unusual the former is. He also explains what it means for musical expression to be unmediated (Beethoven) or mediated (Debussy). The students respond enthusiastically to this group of pieces and express particular appreciation for the Ives, a piece like none other they’ve heard.
Interlude: Popular Music. Pressed by the students to reveal his true feelings about popular music, the professor admits that, while there are plenty of good songs out there, the increasing critical prestige of pop music troubles him, given how much more complex and ambitious classical compositions are. The students push back by claiming that the complexity of classical music is lost on most listeners. The conversation gets more heated before taking a comical turn, when the professor expresses appreciation for a particular song.
Chapter 7: Absolute Music. Continues getting students used to music without narrative components first through listening to orchestra pieces in sonata form by Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and Stravinsky. After stressing the dramatic nature of sonata form, the professor turns the conversation to how music expresses comedy and tragedy without reference to a story. This leads to a discussion of an artist’s responsibility to society—whether it’s better to be an entertainer or someone who has a message. The chapter continues by listening to pieces in theme-and-variation form, a structure with only one theme and, thus, less dramatic potential than sonata. The pieces are by Handel, Beethoven, and Brahms. Two additional listening lists are presented in the text, each introducing a new musical structure: concerto (a variant of sonata form) and fugue, which represents tonal music at its most absolute. (Still more listening lists are available on the website.)
Chapter 8: Atonality. Focuses on getting students used to atonal music by listening to chamber music by Schoenberg, Berg, and Ruth Crawford Seeger. Like the previous two chapters, the pieces are arranged in an order that moves from programmatic to absolute music. The professor begins by showing how atonality can readily convey unease and disorientation. But he then broadens this proposal by playing atonal music that is at times jolly and romantic. After the students reject the Berg, the professor engages them in a discussion of what a composer can expect from an audience. When the students express appreciation for the Crawford Seeger, the professor opens a discussion about emotions that aren’t necessarily tied to pleasant or unpleasant stimuli (“excitement,” for example).
Chapter 9: Putting It All Together: Beethoven’s Ninth. Takes the form of an essay—with listening guides—about Beethoven’s Ninth. The first part illustrates how the piece brings together many of the threads that have been discussed: long durations, slow tempos, and operatic singing, to name three. The essay then moves on to discuss the Ninth’s role in the history of programmatic and absolute music. Finally, before turning to each movement, the essay addresses the interplay between popularity, influence, and artistic endurance and relates the entire mini-course to more general goals of education.
Early the following semester, Sam returns to catch up with the professor. They talk about music; Sam’s making his way through the Beethoven symphonies. But he’s really there to pick the professor’s brain about a job offer he’s just received. He doesn’t know whether to take it or not; he has another interview in a few days. The professor offers what advice he has, but makes sure Sam leaves knowing he doesn’t have all the answers. The professor decides to take a break from reading campus e-mail and listens to the first movement of “Spring” from The Four Seasons.
I envision Getting Back to Music as a 185-page trade paperback book costing around $20. Production should be straightforward. All the listening would ideally be made available on a website hosted by the publisher and resembling what I have created. I do not recommend including CDs with the book, as today’s students uniformly have internet access but do not all have CD players. The listening guides in the text do not require much special formatting: they consist of boxed text against a tinted background. The five illustrations need not be in color. The manuscript is complete and can be delivered upon request.