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In what ways do we understand music? . Susan Hallam. Introduction. The way that we conceptualise musical understanding is important for: curriculum development in formal schooling decisions about the provision of musical activities in the wider community

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  • The way that we conceptualise musical understanding is important for:
  • curriculum development in formal schooling
  • decisions about the provision of musical activities in the wider community
  • Musical understanding can be viewed from a range of different perspectives.
  • These are rarely made explicit in education.
study 1
Study 1
  • Participants were asked to complete two statements:
  • Musical understanding is........
  • You learn to understand music through........
the sample
The sample
  • 465 individuals
  • 113 professional musicians
  • 60 adult amateur musicians
  • 94 adult non-musicians
  • 92 school students engaged in extra curricular activities
  • 104 students only engaged in music making as part of the school curriculum
  • Musical understanding was seen by some as complex and multidimensional
  • 10 other categories emerged some with sub-categories
understanding as complex and multidimensional
Understanding as complex and multidimensional
  • ‘A peculiar but highly satisfying conjunction of intellectual appreciation (of form) and of emotional response (to sound).’
  • ‘A whole network of different cognitive, psychological, sociological, musicological as well as neuropsychological processes.’
1 understanding music as a form of communication
1. Understanding music as a form of communication
  • Music as a language
  • ‘To know the language of any type of music and be able to interpret it.’
  • ‘The ability to comprehend music as an expressive language by means of awareness and knowledge obtained through listening.’
Understanding the composers intentions
  • ‘Understanding what the composer wants to express through the song or the classical piece they have composed.’
  • ‘Understand the message or feeling that the composer artist is trying to convey’
  • Understanding sound
  • ‘How sound is recorded, transmitted, and received by the listener. Acoustics, distortion, echo and other effect’
2 kinaesthetic understanding
2. Kinaesthetic understanding
  • ‘For musicians and singers there is also a physical understanding. The physical sensations of touch, blow, finger pressure, engagement of the whole body all combining with hearing and feeling the note to constitute appreciation of the musical phenomenon and therefore understanding.’
3 emotional understanding
3. Emotional understanding
  • ‘Experiencing feelings in response to the music.’
  • ‘Being able to understand the emotions that are being conveyed and to derive joy and understanding.’
  • ‘Hearing music and being moved emotionally or subconsciously by it for no academic or definable reason.’
  • ‘Bypassing language and cultural norms to make contact with emotions directly.’
4 personal meanings
4. Personal meanings
  • Personal/subjective understanding
  • ‘Being able to produce yourself what you believe the music to mean. It’s a personal relationship with the page/aural stimulus.’
  • ‘Musical understanding is highly subjective. I would argue that there is no absolute musical understanding but that each individual makes their own understanding of a particular piece of music.’
Links with other elements of life
  • ‘The subtleties of music escape me. Nevertheless some performances of some pieces of music do affect my feelings. Some move me considerably usually I suspect by associations with the first time I heard them or some other emotional event in my life.’
  • Subjective appreciative evaluation
  • ‘A simple understanding of what you like.’
  • ‘Having an opinion/musical taste.’
5 knowledge about music
5. Knowledge about music
  • Knowledge of factual or historical aspects of music
  • ‘Knowledge of music, composers, history, background.’
  • ‘Knowledge of the era in which the music was written and why that kind of music was popular.
  • Knowledge of genre
  • ‘There is also the notion of having a wide knowledge of different genres of music of different musicians within a genre. Someone might have a wide knowledge of jazz which enables them to identify different styles within jazz.’
Knowledge of cultural context
  • ‘Understanding cultural attitudes in society.’
  • ‘Initially understanding is a form of tacit knowledge of musical practices as heard/experienced within the historically specific, socio-cultural milieu of a person’s childhood.’
  • The role and function of music in culture
  • ‘The place in human society, its uses in society, its impact on society economically, politically, scientifically, religiously as a force and agent for change.’
6 critical evaluation
6. Critical evaluation
  • ‘Being able to listen to music critically.’
  • ‘Being able to distinguish errors in performance.’
  • ‘Being able to listen to music and appreciate with discernment.’
7 understanding musical elements
7. Understanding musical elements
  • ‘Being able to listen to music with perception of melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre.’
  • ‘An awareness and appreciation of how music communicates through rhythm, pitch, speed, volume, and instrumental and vocal tone, and colour.’
Musical structure
  • ‘Understanding the structure of music, the way in which tones and rhythms are constructed and manipulated to produce certain effects.’
  • ‘A sense of the structure of a piece, its harmony, melodic structure and form.’
  • Identifying instrumentation
  • ‘The knowledgeable listener knows which instruments are playing.’
  • ‘Distinguish the instruments which are used in music.’
8 analysis comparison
8. Analysis /comparison
  • ‘Being able to make comparisons across different styles of music.’
  • ‘Being able to understand what is happening in an analytic way.’
9 internal representations of music
9. Internal representations of music
  • ‘To be able to recognize it, know what is coming next and be able to hear it internally without it being played.’
  • ‘The ability to guess where the music is going and to recognize the logic behind where it has gone.’
10 understanding is creating music
10. Understanding is creating music
  • Creativity
  • ‘To write music in an original style.’
  • ‘Being able to put together and experiment with elements of music – constructive/creative.’
  • Interpretation
  • ‘Phrasing, making decisions about style of playing.’
  • ‘Partly projecting one’s own experiences onto the music and making it one’s own.’
Being able to make music
  • ‘Knowing enough to successfully create, perform and understand why it works or why it doesn’t.’
  • ‘Understanding how to make music through improvisation and composition.’
  • Making music with others
  • ‘Participating with other people.’
  • ‘Play in an ensemble then when you listen to other people playing you have more appreciation and understanding of what’s going on.’
Reading notation of some kind
  • ‘Being able to turn notation (graphic, staff, tab, etc) into sound.’
  • ‘Be able to read notes.’
  • Aural skills related to making music
  • ‘Having an aural understanding of a piece in terms of an appreciation of what the piece is aiming to convey.’
  • ‘Listening to the beat, the rhythm so see or know if it is movement such as dance, drill or marching.’
  • Explain or demonstrate
  • ‘Being able to explain or practically demonstrate to others.’
  • More complex (average of 5.1 themes)
  • Emotional (43%)
  • Subjective appreciative evaluation (35%)
  • Musical structure (30%)
  • Musical elements (27%)
  • Identifying instrumentation (27%)
  • Understanding the composers intentions (25%)
  • Knowledge of genre (23%)
  • Knowledge of cultural context (23%)
  • Personal subjective understanding (22%)
young musicians
Young musicians
  • Mean responses (2.27)
  • Being able to make music (37%)
  • Musical elements (21%)
  • Emotional understanding (20%)
  • Musical structure (19%)
  • Knowledge of genre (17%)
  • Understanding the composer’s intentions (15%)
  • Music as sound (15%)
  • Subjective appreciative evaluation (15%)
  • Reading notation of some kind (15%)
  • Identifying instrumentation (10%)
young people not actively engaged in making music
Young people not actively engaged in making music
  • Lowest number of statements (1.25)
  • Being able to make music (28%)
  • Reading notation of some kind (24%)
  • Understanding musical elements (20%)
  • Understanding composers intentions (18%)
  • Knowledge of genre (12%)
  • Emotional understanding (5%)
how understanding is developed
How understanding is developed
  • Love and enjoyment of music;
  • Physical responses to music;
  • Emotional engagement;
  • Analytic processes and discussions;
  • Active engagement with making music (expression, communication, experimentation, reflection);
  • Education or guidance in formal or informal contexts (feedback, teaching);
  • Exposure to music (family, friends, early years);
  • Listening (wide range of music, being open eared, media).
professional musicians
Professional musicians
  • Listening (75%)
  • Active engagement with making music (74%)
  • Education – guidance (27%)
  • Experimentation (21%)
  • Love and enjoyment (20%)
  • Engagement in discussions (16%)
  • Through exposure (16%)
  • Through other media (14%)
  • Being open eared (14%)
  • Analytic processes (13%)
  • Reflecting (10%)
young musicians1
Young musicians
  • Active engagement (79%)
  • Listening (66%)
  • Education and guidance (36%)
  • Love and enjoyment (15%)
  • Being open eared (10%)
young people not actively engaged with making music
Young people not actively engaged with making music
  • Listening (61%)
  • Active engagement with making music (37%)
  • Education and guidance (29%)
  • Love and enjoyment (10%)
  • Being open eared (4%)
  • Music learning through other media (4%)
study 2 participants
Study 2: Participants
  • 18 10-year-olds
  • 12 male and 6 female
  • All of the participants belonged to the same KS5 class in a state primary school located in western London.
  • Three different types of music were used: classical/ film music, jazz, and popular music.
  • The main theme from Star Wars (film/classical music);
  • A jazz piece (Blue Cycles) performed by the Five Corner’s quintet);
  • A song by Madonna, Get into the Groove.
Children drew a picture representing the music
  • They were interviewed afterwards about their understanding of the music using their pictures as prompts
  • A number of themes emerged from the data:
  • Dynamics;
  • Musical elements;
  • Musical instruments;
  • Musical structure;
  • Lyrics;
  • Overall conception of the music;
  • Events associated with the music;
  • Affective responses;
  • Images associated with the music;
  • Familiarity with musical style.
Dynamics: Hmm…The dynamics make it easier to listen to and, yes, to process. The loudness and the dynamics of it make me feel like something is going to happen. That is why there is a volcano in the drawing. Like an explosion… (classical/film music)
Musical elements: It is the elements in the music that vary and I mainly listen to. They help me in understanding the music. Like, the tempo, the volume, the movement. You can see the movement in the drawing too. (Classical/film music)
musical elements hhmm the tempo the volume the pitch shortness of the notes classical film music
Musical elements: Hhmm…The tempo, the volume, the pitch, shortness of the notes…(classical/film music)
Musical instruments: The trumpet is very loud. You pay attention to it, mostly. You hear it better than any of the other instruments. Also, you can hear the drum well. Like it shows in the picture.(Jazz piece)
Musical structure: Yeah, if there is not structure, then I listen to the musical instruments alone. The notes in the picture are like the consistency (popular music)
Musical structure: How the whole thing continues in an easy to follow way. Kind of like a structure that you can focus on. (popular music)
Overall conception of the music: The overall picture. I listen to it that way. Like, everything…Musical instruments and the voice, lyrics…Yeah, if there is not structure, then I listen to the musical instruments alone. (Popular music )
Events: It reminds me of when my uncledied. And when my hamster died. It makes me feel sad again.(classical/film music)
‘Events: The music makes me feel relaxed and happy. It reminds me of a holiday on Hawaii. I remember the beach when I listen to the music. The white beaches…The images help me in listening to the music…(Classical/film music)
Events: I was going to school for the first time when we heard this music in the car. Whenever I hear it now, I always think about my first school day. It sort of makes me understand the music through that memory… I saw a lark then, and I was thinking about space men… (popular music)
Affective responses: The music makes me feel happy; it is happy music. That is why I used a lot of yellow in the picture. (jazz piece)
Affective response: It made me feel so nice and good. It depends on how the music makes you feel, how you understand it…You can see a nice drawing. (jazz piece)
images this is why it reminded me of the sun it also reminded me of swimming classical film music
Images: This is why it reminded me of the sun. It also reminded me of swimming (classical/ film music)
Familiarity with the genre: I listen to this kind of music at home too. I am familiar with it. So…I guess that’s why I understand it easily. It just makes sense to me straight away...The picture shows me listening to the music in a comfortable way since I understand it straight away (popular music)
  • Music can be understood in a variety of ways
  • Engagement with music in any way is likely to increase understanding in some way
  • The level and type of engagement is likely to lead to different understandings
  • There will be age and expertise related changes
Promoting musical understanding


Music as communication

Kinaesthetic understanding

Internal representations





understandings (events/images)


comparison of music

Love and enjoyment

Education (formal and informal)

Active engagement

Emotional understanding

Critical evaluation

Creating and


Knowledge about music

Musical elements

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