Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Music and history, emotion and intellect

Recently, Perspectives had an article on using music in the classroom, but it was pretty boring. American college kids are not going to understand the mid-nineteenth century by dissecting the form of a Schumann Fantasie, or something they are equally unlikely to respond to emotionally.

How can you play weird- or foreign-sounding music to anyone, and expect that it will help them to understand a distant time and place? I watched a Noh performance in New Delhi once, and although I'm sure it was excellent, I just didn't get it. The narrative, which was explained in the program, was the easy part. But, from what I could gather, Noh is not about the unfolding of a plot, the way that a drama or thriller would be. I imagine it's about music or poetry. But the music made no sense to me at all -- I couldn't even detect a hint of a rhythmic cycle. I remained completely unmoved by the whole thing, except that I found the set and costumes very elegant. I was (still am) too foreign to Noh!

I say if you want to use music in a history classroom, look around for a sound that's familiar to your students. Doesn't have to be 100% familiar: I won't put myself through the pain of looking for rap to communicate with my students. Nor am I anxious to make some sad, undignified, doomed-to-failure attempt to be "cool", or to be just like them. But there does exist some common musical ground between them and me: we both like a strong beat, a bouncy bass, reggae, energy. In my classes, I've played reggae, "world" music, dance, soul, classic rock, sufi rock, raggamuffin, chutney soca... At the end of the semester, I'd play a well-known Christmas carol (or an Easter hymn, if it's the Spring semester) -- in Arabic.

If I want my students to get the feel of mid-nineteenth century Europe, I could play Donizetti or Liszt. But I doubt it would help even one in a hundred students to see the world changing as Liszt saw it change. I find the emergence of a new musical form too cerebral a topic to convey a feeling or world view -- makes no sense when the learner is unfamiliar with the form from which it evolved. Besides, I've a notion most young Americans don't respond very emotionally to classical music, because it's unfortunately meant to be ignored (e.g. in hotel lobbies and malls, or when a company puts you on hold on the phone).

No, for a gut feel of the nineteenth century, I'd choose the twentieth-century composition "Do you hear the people sing" from Les Misérables, accompanied by a slide that presents a really brief synopsis of the musical and of Hugo's novel. The story brings together themes that we would already have started discussing in previous lectures: urban poverty, the rise of working-class consciousness, increased birth rates, the abandoning of orphans, the revolutions of 1848, and the general industrial squalor of Europe. I've found that 3-4 students in a class of 50 recognize this song. Even those who haven't watched Les Misdo know about the musical, and the song quickly becomes familiar because it's repetitive and intense. The martial éclat can't fail to move you; it goes straight for the gut, like all musical theater. I've never had a problem with anyone confusing fiction and history; my students always seem pretty clear that Hugo's novel is just that, a novel, written many years after 1848.

I think when students are emotionally moved, it can spur them to empathize and imagine. Most importantly, that emotional moment has intellectual potential; it can spur them to think independently and empathetically about other times and places. Years of education have nearly severed their emotion from their intellect. That wound has to heal for real understanding to occur. Many of them don't even grow up reading literature, which might have somewhat compensated for the American glorification of cold, mechanistic logic. Playing fun music is a good way to do that.

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