[Smt-talk] Writing prose in music theory courses

Laurel Parsons laureljparsons at gmail.com
Sun May 26 10:05:48 PDT 2013

Dear Lynne et al,

I've incorporated prose-writing in a few different ways over the years,
depending on the size of the class.  In one 3rd-year 20th-century analysis
class, I had students submit a listening journal so that I could ensure
they'd really focused on the music on the listening list and not just put
it on while they were talking to a friend on the phone or something.  I
printed up something like a table in landscape format with a
generously-spaced row for each piece, and they had to write a few sentences
of reflection on each. They had to comment on at least one specific moment
in each piece that struck them as interesting or beautiful or whatever, and
provide the time on the track.  It was a really worthwhile exercise, but if
I did it again I would find an alternative way of grading them because it
took way too much time.

In other classes, I've asked students to write a final analytical essay on
a piece that they are performing or that they really love, an essay that
concludes with their reflections on how what they've learned through
analysis could inform their performance decisions.

In one very small chromatic harmony class, inspired by my reading of David
Lewin's articles on Schubert and Clara Schumann's contrasting settings of
Heine's poem "Ich stand in dunkeln Traumen," I had the students do a
compare-and-contrast essay analyzing both songs and then discussing how the
differences between the settings affected their perception of the meaning
of the text.  I did not give them any information about the composers'
identities or the Lewin articles until the in-class discussion after I'd
handed back the graded essays.

Sometimes in lieu of a final essay, my courses have ended with an in-class
poster session where students in pairs prepare analytical posters on some
piece of music they've chosen that fits with the focus of the course
(subject to my approval).  It's not full-on essay-writing, but they have to
write prose paragraphs for their poster.

What often happens, of course, is that when they look at an entire piece,
they encounter compositional techniques that are beyond the scope of the
course (e.g. augmented 6th chords in a first-term diatonic harmony course).
 This just means that they are forced to figure out some logical
explanation as to how this apparent anomaly has come about, which can be
more instructive for them than just finding an explanation in a textbook.
 And especially if they're working in pairs or small groups, they can find
it an enjoyable challenge to figure out the puzzle.

And finally, on a couple of occasions I've asked students to compose a song
based on the course material, and then write an analytical essay on it that
explains what they've tried to do with respect to relations between music
and lyrics.

I really believe having students write and reflect on listening and
analysis is extremely valuable, even if it is unquestionably difficult from
the grading side.  That said, after teaching in a writing-intensive liberal
arts environment for a few years where I spent countless agonizing hours
grading abominable undergraduate prose, I've become very nostalgic for the
elegant simplicity of scanning for parallel 5ths. . .

Laurel Parsons

On Sun, May 26, 2013 at 7:33 AM, Rogers, Lynne <ROGERSL13 at wpunj.edu> wrote:

>  Dear Colleagues,
> I'd like to get a broader sense of the use of prose-writing in music
> theory courses, especially undergraduate courses. If you ask students to
> write in your courses,
>    -- in which courses do you require students to write prose?
>    -- about how often during the semester do you require students to write
> prose?
>    -- what forms does the prose take (short essays of 1-4 pages, longer
> essays, term papers, responses to published writings, blogs, concert
> reports, journals, in-class writing, other)?
>    -- are the writing projects primarily analytical or historical?
> Feel free to respond off list if you prefer.
> Thank you.
> Lynne Rogers
> RogersL13 at wpunj.edu
> William Paterson University
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> Smt-talk at lists.societymusictheory.org
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