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(This post is based on a paper presented at a conference on the subject of popular music pedagogy.  It is derived primarily from my experience of teaching popular music for music students, instrumentalists and composers (from primary school to university), and from experience of using popular music in lectures on music analysis and in aural skills classes.)

From discussions with music students of all ages (although primarily high school and undergraduate students) I have become aware that it is very common for there to be an interesting disconnect between students’ listening choices and the music they perform. Whether in school or in university, when asked about the type of music that students are interested in, the vast majority of students state that they choose to listen to popular music whereas the music they play is closely aligned with the repertoire historically associated with their instrument. Although this is simply anecdotal evidence, it suggests to me that there is something of an aural familiarity with many forms of popular music and it follows to suggest that such familiarity can be capitalised upon as a starting point for the development of aural and analytical skills, in addition to instrumental skills and theoretical knowledge.  Additionally, it is believed that listening to and engaging with popular music can be important in the development of students’ analytical listening, the contextualisation and enhancement of their understanding of traditional music analysis and in musicianship skills.

This observation serves merely as an example of the way in which understanding the prior knowledge of one’s students may be instructive in the design and delivery of learning experiences.  By embracing the current knowledge and aural familiarity of a group of students, it is possible to develop understanding and build strong links to concepts and skills central to the education of music students in higher education.  In this sense, the proposed philosophy of ‘start with what you know’ is particularly useful as it accepts and celebrates the considerable and diverse knowledge and experience that music students arrive at university with and encourages them to contextualise, develop and build upon this, in turn empowering them and making them feel valued as legitimate contributors to the collective educational experience of the group.  In considering the diverse range of knowledge and skills of undergraduate students arriving at university, it is also important to consider the changing and varied nature of: (a) high-school music education (b) the experience and aspirations of new first year students and (c) the music industry (in it’s widest sense), including the expectations and demands of other industry professionals.

The inevitable diversity inherent among  first year undergraduate students, in particular, poses interesting challenge to the design of learning activities and, in the wider context, the design of courses and degree programmes.  It is a multi-dimensional issue in the sense that it relates not only to the nature of students entering music degrees but also has strong implications for the attributes of graduates.  More specifically, the perceived nature of the music industry (in the most general sense) impacts upon the values and beliefs of learners to the extent that they choose to study music at university level.  However, in order to be admitted to study music at university and also, to be able to engage practically with the music industry there are certain ‘entry requirements’ related to musicianship skills.  The nature and development of such skills are based on education and experience and vary significantly (both in level and focus) depending on the nature of training and the aspirations of the student.

In an environment where motivations, values and knowledge are so diverse, it is difficult to conceive of absolute definitions of terms such as ‘aural skills’ and ‘musicianship’, for example.  Consequently, this may lead to focus on certain aural skills deemed most important/relevant by lecturers who inevitably have their own educational/professional biases and beliefs with regard to the requisite skills, knowledge and attributes of a music graduate.  It is believed, based on anecdotal accounts from students, that this may result in a situation where some elements of music literacy or musicianship skills may be considered ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘irrelevant’ in the current industry context or ‘inappropriate-for’/‘incompatible-with’ many contemporary forms of music including popular music. This is an important issue when we consider that engagement with such contemporary styles may indeed have been the motivation for university study and the aspiration for future employment or practice, for example.  Indeed, given the relatively recent advent of graded performance syllabi in rock music and jazz (e.g. Rockschool, ABRSM jazz exams, Trinity Rock and Pop etc.), many students undertaking music degrees may arrive at university with little experience of classical music beyond that which is covered in national curricula (e.g. Highers or A-Levels, for example).

I believe that it is, therefore, important to use and build on the (not inconsiderable) prior knowledge and experience that students have as this (a) helps them to learn the material more thoroughly (b) improves their self esteem and, (c) promotes engagement in self directed learning/practice by encouraging them to consider their own experiences and knowledge as valid and valuable.  Building on this allows such prior knowledge to be contextualised within certain fields and for learners to explore the area they are working in and the ways in which their knowledge, expertise and skills relate to wider disciplines, for example.  From my experience of teaching music in a range of educational contexts, for the vast majority of the students, prior knowledge and aural familiarity is generally built around popular music.  If popular music is that which is known, then the philosophy of ‘start with what you know’ dictates that popular music is a suitable starting point.  By building on aural experience and ‘hanging’ theoretical concepts on that which is already understood aurally, it is possible to begin to develop and introduce appropriate discourse that allows students to engage with theoretical and analytic concepts based on solid aural experience.

In the interests of clarity, this approach requires two caveats.  Firstly, I am in no way suggesting that popular music is a ‘stepping stone’ or an easy ‘first step’ into a supposed ‘mystical’ or ‘complex’ world of Western classical music.  This particular use of popular music is as a result of many students indicating that they choose to listen to this type of music and that they are, therefore, familiar (aurally) with many aspects of it.  Secondly, when using popular music to teach students about specific concepts, examples should not be selected in an attempt to be populist and appeal to the musical tastes of the group; rather, any musical example should be stylistically suitable and genuinely represent that which is being discussed or explored and not merely bear a passing resemblance to a concept or compositional device, for example.  Popular music should be considered a valuable pedagogical tool for music students in the development of listening/analysis skills and theoretical knowledge; additionally, engagement with popular music encourages students to embrace other ways of listening to music and to attend to musical features that, (although not traditionally the focus of music theory and analysis), provide valuable and interesting information about the composition and production of the music.

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