In my first class session of first-semester music theory, I ask my students two questions: “Who are you?” and “What is music?” The first question usually takes the form of name, hometown, instrument or voice part, and a favorite of something. I answer with Dr. Krystal J. F. Grant, Birmingham, Alabama, composition and piano, and something related to The Afro-Semitic Experience or M. Night Shyamalan or chocolate-covered strawberries. The second question remains as is: “What is music?”
The students tend to describe emotion, personal expression, and connection between people in addition to using terms such as groove, melody, and harmony. Some call music an art or a ministry while others say it is simply sound. There is always one person who mentions that music is a universal language.
Before last fall, I would scatter the words on the board, making a collage of their ideas expressed in brief phrases, eventually circling course topics. Now when I scribe, I organize the phrases into untitled columns. I speak in response to their collective thoughts, reflecting on how their individual approach to music-making might be similar to or different from another’s. I distinguish between several meanings of harmony and also elaborate on the curriculum’s definition and application of other terms. I observe that while most cultures have music, not every culture understands every other culture’s music. Then, I explain the untitled categories of the columns: what will not be covered in music theory, what will be mentioned in music theory, and what will be focused on in music theory.
I ask “what is music?” because I noticed in my undergraduate and graduate education that meanings of music outside the context of theory and history are often marginalized. While I do want my students to use Roman numerals and lead-sheet symbols, rhythmic durations, and form charts to identify structures within music, I don’t want them to lose sight of what music means to them. Even though in-class references are scarce, I want them to know that I value the emotion and purpose each of them brings to music.