Music Appreciation 2.0

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ April 6th, 2012. Filed under: Pop Music Studies.

I recently spent umpteen hours in front of a video screen, viewing three television series devoted to the understanding (and then appreciation) of music. But, rather than regretting the down time, I got off the couch very impressed and perhaps even changed. All of them were hosted and researched by Howard Goodall who has an impressive career as a populist music educator and documentarian for the BBC.  I began with the 2006 series entitled  How Music Works and then moved on to his self-titled Great Dates (2002), followed by the piece de resistance for me, 20th Century Greats: The Beatles (2004). Summer 2012 students enrolled in my course MUSC 403J – Introduction to the Study of Popular Music – should have a close look at the latter. The three programs (but not his first documentary dating from 2000, the Big Bangs of Music History, commercially available from Kultur) are unofficially available on YouTube. Naturally, I am anxious for all of them to be formally published so that all concerned can benefit from its sales, but for now they are least viewable, albeit in some sort of legal limbo.

How Music Works

For my blog, I have chosen to describe “How Music Works” in some detail, although it is by no means superior to the others. It jumped out at me because my courses are open to non-music students and his explanations of the mechanics and aesthetics of music would certainly give them a major leg up as they prepare for my lectures.  Also, the series resembles a Music Appreciation program but with an important upgrade I will explain momentarily.

How Music Works is sometimes irreverent and always far-ranging, with profuse use of popular music to make its points. The startling use of pop and rock to underline music concepts normally illustrated by Western art music is reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein’s extremely popular televised children’s programs called “Young Peoples’ Concerts”. In his usual Manhattan button-downed, up-town style, Bernstein introduced the fundamentals of music to a concert hall full of children trucked in from suburban schools. But, in addition to describing musical characteristics with the usual classical music settings, he also employs popular music. When he launches the musicians of his New York Philharmonic into a chorus of a Beatles song to illustrate some sort of construction in melody, the enthusiasm of the tweenies is electric. The camera pans to the audience, showing us the barely contained delight of row upon row of surprised kids.

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Goodall also reminds me of another great explainer of all things music – Robert Harris, an occasional presenter on CBC.  His series called Twenty Pieces that Changed the World, featured on the Sunday Edition, is still one of the most popular items in the history of CBC programming. Although radio-bound, like a radio play, his language and tone more than compensate, conveying information with a marvelous mix of common sense and unexpected wonder. And he too places great emphasis on popular music alongside the usual classical music suspects.

How Music Works is divided into 4 sections in sequence – Melody, Rhythm, Harmony, and finally Bass – each one presented on Youtube in five parts. Although the joints of each part are rather awkward, I didn’t find them disruptive.

The quirks

Right off the bat, you have to accustom yourself to the fact that the program originates from England, complete with accent and jokes that are a bit mystifying. For example, during several discussions, he uses the expression “meat and veg” (i.e., vegetables) as a metaphor for middle-of-the-road musical taste. If you’re a Corrie fan or BBC World Service is your site for international news, you’ll be fine. When he illustrates aspects of music notation, English music terminology prevails, such as minim instead of half note. In general, I personally find it refreshing to hear thoughts from England as opposed to the omnipresent (yet necessary) voice of the States. Another more likely criticism will come from people on both sides of the pond who will accuse Goodall of skimming the surface of Western art music, given the vast ocean of information that has been uncovered by Western Art Music musicologists. However, I find it very intriguing to see what strikes the writer as particularly relevant among so many choices, given the time limitations of a TV production.

There are a few questionable bits. In typical Western fashion, he privileges harmony, as evidenced by the third section, but I will give him that indulgence, considering his audience. His pop music examples are a bit dated, favouring early Cold Play, simply because the series came out in 2006 (with research and production taking place for several years before).

In part 1 of “Melody” he suggests (but does not say outright) that the heart of universal melody is the pentatonic scale and then proceeds to illustrate his point with songs from different cultures. However, when he has a South Asian singer present a song in pentatonic mode, he stretches the facts close to the breaking point. South Asia has a profuse number of scales consisting of multiple numbers of notes and as far as I know, none of them source back to an ur pentatonic root.  This inconsistency should not detract for the uncanny fact that pentatonic set tones do seem to pop up everywhere, occasionally independent of each other. Rather than get in a huff, I found myself enjoying his musings and wanting to engage with them by shooting the breeze around a table full of good cheer with like-minded musicians or ethnoids (i.e., ethnomusicologists).

The good

When I first saw this video presentation I was composing my own syllabus for a future Music Appreciation Course (which can be seen in my blog’s list of syllabi). I wanted to address the listening needs of 21st century listeners, attuned as they are to popular and world music perhaps more than Western art music. In fact, I state in my syllabus introduction that it is no longer acceptable to assume “Music Appreciation” means Western art music, even if the book or instructor occasional wanders into the music of Other (including pop and folk). You might imagine, then, how vindicated I felt as I watched the series. Rather than tangents, popular and world music are on equal footing.

What I find compelling in all the series are the visuals. Instead of just listening as if in a traditional classroom or lecture hall, my brain was equally engaged both visually and aurally in a wonderful parallel experience. And there’s no way a viewer can’t help but notice that all the performers are young people.

After this kind of program, how could anybody think of mounting a Music Appreciation program in pure lecture format? That would be so last century. To put it another way, Howard Goodall’s presentation has raised the bar so high that teachers such as me should either rise to the challenge or make room for the next generation of instructors who can.

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