Peeling Layers: Can Music Appreciation Be Taught?

Music appreciation classes are everywhere. But let’s ask one fundamental question: Can music appreciation be taught?

What does it mean to appreciate in the first place? The dictionary on hand defines appreciation as “to value justly; to be aware of; to be grateful for; to increase in value”. Many classes are centered on the second: “to be aware of”. Students are made aware of music fundamentals, from pitch and meter to Bach and Boulez. And that is the bare minimum.

What a music appreciation class really wants to do is peel back the layers of appreciation. First it will make you aware and then lead you to appreciation’s other definitions: “to value justly”, “to be grateful for”, and “to increase in value”. This intention is made clear on most syllabi. One remarks, for instance, that the class “is designed to help the student acquire informed listening skills which promote the development of curiosity about, an enthusiasm for, and the enjoyment of many types of music”.

But beyond awareness, can that second layer of appreciation be taught? What if it cannot? What if we approached creating a music appreciation class from this acknowledgment?

John Baldessari, an artist whose had a reputable stint at Cal Arts (his class assignments here), approached teaching art from this ground zero:

“‘Well, can art be taught at all?’  And, you know, I prefer to say, ‘No, it can’t. It can’t be taught.’ You can set up a situation where art might happen, but I think that’s the closest you get. Then I can jump from there into saying, ‘Well, if art can’t be taught, maybe it would be a good idea to have people that call themselves artists around. And something, some chemistry, might happen.’ And then the third thing would be that to be as non-tradition-bound as possible, and just be very pragmatic, whatever works. You know, and if one thing doesn’t work, try another thing.”


Think back to the situations where genuine music appreciation happened for you. My love of Modest Mouse was cultivated when one day after jamming with a friend. He showed a song of theirs to me. That lead to the lending of an album, sharing favorites, pirating other albums, learning some of their songs, talking about them, and on and on. It was an organic experience full of things that music appreciation classes fail to mention.

To create a situation where music appreciation might happen: could that lead to the appreciation these classes are trying to cultivate?


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