Updating the traditional classroom listening center
In its most basic form, this is a statement about the piece with evidence that persuades your reader to agree with your argument. As you can see, making an argument in music involves historical or cultural evidence AND specific observations about the piece itself which combine to give a richly textured picture of the music and the composer, as well as the context from which they both emerged.Clearly presenting your overall argument will help you organize your information around that main point. For example, if you are writing about the historical importance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, you might develop an argument like this: If this is your argument, then you should research what the audience expectations for a symphony might have been in 1824 based on other pieces of the time. Even when making evaluative or interpretive claims about music, you should always provide evidence to support your claims.You should aim to make an argument about the song in question, using both text and music to support your claims. Does the composer set it in an unusual way for the genre?Does the music seem to fit with the general meaning of the text, or does it seem to be at odds with it?If you don’t know exactly what Mozart did and when, you will have trouble making any kind of argument.
You may complete this assignment for a music history or appreciation class. Now look at the text and listen to the music with it.For example, instead of saying “The chorus of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounds angrier than the verses,’ you might argue that, “The added distortion in the guitar, increase in volume, and additional strain on Kurt Cobain’s voice give the chorus of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ an angrier or more critical tone than the verses.” On occasion, or in some assignments, you may feel overwhelmed by the amount of technical vocabulary used to describe even the simplest musical gestures.Over the past thousand years, the study of music (particularly Western classical music) has acquired a host of specialized terms from Latin, Italian, German, and French, many of which remain untranslated in common usage. If you have questions about these terms, ask your instructor or consult a reliable music dictionary.Generally these include casual value judgments such as “good,” “bad,” “lame,” “awesome,” “girly,” “soulful,” etc.These words may be fine when discussing an album with your friends, but they are not acceptable descriptors in academic writing.
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Does the composer bring out certain words or lines of text? For example, you might say, “In the chorus of ‘Poses,’ Rufus Wainwright sets his first line of text to a long, arching melody, reminiscent of opera.” This describes the music and lets the reader know what part you are talking about and how you are hearing it (it reminds you of opera).