How to Teach Students to Think Critically About Music

Instructor: Matthew Hamel

Matt has degrees in Journalism and Business and has taught a variety of courses at high schools and universities around the world.

For many people, music is an integral part of life. However, most tend not to adopt a critical approach to this pervasive art form. In this lesson, teachers are provided with strategies designed to teach students how to think critically about music.

Music Critic 101

The first step in teaching students how to think critically about music is to remind them that they are analyzing a piece of music based on its own merits. For example, one doesn't criticize a Puccini opera for its lack of drum solos. The music should be judged for what it is or intends to be, not what the listener wishes it to be. Also, students don't have to personally like or enjoy a specific style of music to insightfully critique it.

While a music critique can include healthy amounts of negatives or drawbacks, the purpose of the critique should be to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of a particular work. While both pans and raves have their place; for the purposes of this lesson, students should focus more on developing a balance critique that demonstrates insights the reader may find beneficial.

Critical Judgments

Critical judgments about music should take into consideration a few factors.

  • It's important to remember the context in which a piece of music was written. For instance, computers couldn't have influenced music written in the 1800s, so don't judge the piece as if that's the missing component.
  • Don't let the sound or tone of a specific instrument overly influence your critique. A Bach concerto played on a cello will sound different than the same piece played on an electric guitar.
  • Consider the interpretation of the work. Many popular songs have been covered multiple times by different artists. When judging a cover tune, consider how the new interpretation uses the strengths of the original piece and how it minimizes any perceived weaknesses.

Benefits of Critical Thinking

The critical thinking skills your students will develop as part of this lesson are invaluable. First of all, when critiquing music, students are required to form a thought-out, defensible opinion. If each student in the class is critiquing the same piece of music, there will undoubtedly be a variety of opinions and views offered. This type of critical diversity often leads to new insights and can be a great way to encourage group discussions and analysis.

A Time to Criticize

Now that you've provided students with a basis for their critiques, it's time to provide them with an opportunity to criticize music. This is perhaps best done in the classroom where you can minimize distractions and focus attention. Written critiques can vary in length, but provide students with the following guidelines in terms of what the critiques should include.

  • A short history or context of the piece and its author/performer
  • Initial impressions
  • Positives and negatives/strengths and weaknesses

All music being critiqued should be listened to several times. This is because it can be difficult to form an opinion after one listen and multi-layered pieces will reveal more to the listener upon repeat hearing.

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