Developing Ways of Listening
The fundamental goal of this course is to develop learners’ ways of listening—not just to music, but also to our environment and to sound itself. Listening is one of the greatest gifts we can give to somebody.
We often think of listening to music as it’s conventionally understood—but I try to broaden students’ definition of music. I try to stoke their curiosity about different types of music. In the past, I attempted to do this with extensive listening lessons on all different types of music, but this series of lessons never felt complete, because it’s not possible to represent the vast spectrum of music comprehensively in a single course. The approach I use now is to inspire students to find music for themselves in their surroundings, and to discover new ways of relating to their environments.
As students develop their ways of listening, they also gain a greater appreciation for how hard it is to write music for other performers. If you’re not there to guide the performers, but rather just give them a piece of paper—a set of instructions—it’s quite difficult to translate your way of hearing or imagining sound into something others can follow. Students learn that it takes a lot of work and respect to communicate compositions clearly.
Learning to listen to your environment in new ways and to translate your perspectives in such a way that others can experience something similar are very useful skills, transferrable to all areas of life.
A Hands-on Introduction to Music
Another key goal of this course is to offer students a direct hands-on way to explore and experiment with music.
The MIT Music program offers four different introductory subjects with no prerequisites: 21M.011 Introduction to Western Music, 21M.030 Introduction to World Music, 21M.051 Fundamentals of Music, and 21M.065 Introduction to Musical Composition. Each of these subjects offers a different lens through which to look at music. For example, 21M.030 takes an ethnographic approach, while 21M.051 introduces traditional Western music elements – written notation, scales, chords, and a piano lab.
Introduction to Musical Composition focuses on studying music through writing it. It is an alternative to conventional music appreciation and theory/composition classes in that it is extremely hands-on. Evan Ziporyn created this subject specifically with this hands-on approach in mind so that it would be a true MIT introductory class. At MIT, where we emphasize learning by doing, exploring music through composition is a powerful way for students to connect with the subject.
Composing music in experimental ways often requires that students step out of their comfort zones. For instance, one project requires that students create and perform a piece with phonemes and other types of sounds that are not words! This kind of presentation can inspire fear. I work hard to create an environment in which people feel safe to try strange things.