The Torch or the Firehose

A few years ago, when I was putting together my first two-semester music history sequence, I referred to the syllabi of my predecessors for guidance. Their precedent was daunting, to say the least: the “Early Music” semester (Greeks through J.S. Bach) comprised 105 pieces over 14 weeks; the second semester (Pergolesi to present) weighed in at 120 pieces. For comparison’s sake, my own undergraduate survey syllabi had featured no more than 30 pieces a semester, although admittedly they were surveys of individual style periods (“Romantic,” “Baroque,” etc.) and not intended exclusively for majors. Still, in one semester, the students in my predecessors’ classes encountered – and were tested on – more pieces than I had encountered in three semesters of undergraduate study.

As a new faculty member in a still unfamiliar department, I wanted to maintain some elements of traditional music historical instruction. In a survey for majors – many pursuing BM degrees, many heading towards graduate study in performance – it makes sense to apply rigorous standards. But how rigorous, and to what end?


For many graduate students new to teaching, The Torch or the Firehose is their first exposure to pedagogical best practices in higher education. While the pamphlet focuses on section teaching for large lecture courses in any discipline, the title’s metaphor serves as a thought-provoking one for anyone planning an undergraduate music history survey. Are we brandishing a torch, illuminating the way for novices to explore a new field that may intimidate them at first? Or are we dousing them, firehose-style, with information, hoping that the initial soaking will leave some residue behind as they continue on, whether they like it or not?


My first instinct was to thin the syllabus, freeing up time and energy on the part of the students and myself. Ruthlessly, I cut the first semester’s syllabus from 105 to 76 pieces. The second semester syllabus went from 120 to 85. It still felt like too much.

I surveyed friends teaching similar courses to find out how many pieces they assigned and was surprised to find that most syllabi included between 70 and 100 pieces. In some cases, students were only responsible for a subset of those pieces on tests. In some cases, more pieces were on the syllabus than the professor had time to cover in class – titles were included largely for the sake of exposure. None of it made me feel any better.

80 pieces means 80 piece titles, 60-70 composer names, 80 dates, 40 or more genres – that’s at least 260 bits of information. Most texted pieces are in languages other than my students’ native language, and the language of a piece is supposed to be remembered, too. 80 pieces means at least 80 distinctive aural features that allow students to recognize them on a test; in many cases there are several distinctive features per piece. Finally, 80 pieces come with 80 sets of cultural, religious, political, philosophical, biographical, and other contextual or hermeneutic details that help us connect sound to human history. By the end of a semester, students are expected to have absorbed (memorized) thousands of bits of information while also practicing/applying critical thinking and sometimes writing skills. No surprise, then, that many students report forgetting most of what they learned in music history as soon as a year or even a semester later, and that’s assuming they even learned anything in the first place.


At a 2014 AMS-PSG panel titled “The End of the Undergraduate Music History Sequence?” J. Peter Burkholder argued that the survey maintains its value in an environment where critical thinking is privileged precisely because of the way the survey gets students to develop habits of mind and repertories of factual information that they’ll use throughout their careers as musicians. Research on critical thinking suggests that it does, indeed, depend heavily on prior knowledge, so there is merit in the idea that a fact-heavy music history survey is worthwhile.1 And the “frameworks” that Burkholder advocates as a way to organize all the facts corresponds to research on the importance of connecting new knowledge to prior knowledge in the classroom.2 Burkholder also suggests that the comprehensive survey of the kind that my predecessors taught offers something for everyone: the aspiring Baroque violinist, the jazz aficionado, the student who didn’t know that Renaissance polyphony would become her passion. (Jump to 32:00 for his presentation of these ideas.)


He makes a persuasive case for the soul of the survey, but we’re left to wonder about specifics: how many pieces, and how many facts, do students need to learn before they can begin to think critically and historically about music? When does the balance tip from helping students practice developing habits of mind to overwhelming students with excessive and, for them, practically indistinguishable examples?

These are some of the questions that remain with me as I revise my undergraduate survey syllabus for the coming fall. I’d be interested to hear your responses.


  1. For a general overview of this topic, see Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 2009), 87-105.
  2. Another good general resource exploring this and other cognitive science research is Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2014).


I tend to lean towards quality rather than quantity myself. If we can help students engage thoughtfully with music, they can become acquainted with a new piece very quickly.

An idea for a compromise between focus and exposure: Have a list of, say, 100 pieces that cover all the traditional style periods (creating this list is its own challenge, but I’ll leave that alone here). Use these pieces in your teaching, but don’t worry about covering them all. Give the list to students and advise them that it would be wise to familiarize themselves with all the pieces on the list, but only assess students on these pieces as they are covered in a particular class. For individual assignments, ask students to select pieces from the list that they are not yet familiar with. Create a Naxos or Spotify playlist so students can easily access good recordings of these works. If you can get your colleagues to draw from your list in their own teaching, so much the better.

In music history listening activities/exams, use pieces that are NOT on the list and ask students to identify the style period, performing forces, possible genre, and/or possible composer instead of asking them to identify the specific piece. This approach makes the exercise about hearing and identifying characteristics rather than remembering details about a specific piece.

First, I have to remark that I so thoroughly agree with Burkholder’s comments that I almost see no point in writing anything about music history pedagogy myself.

I agree that 100+ pieces of music per semester sounds excessive, so I went ahead and counted up the pieces on my own listening lists. I was surprised by how many there were: 63 for pre-1750, 55 for 1750-1900, and 48 for 1900-present. These lists contain every piece of music that I might teach; in reality, I usually cover about 75% of the material. I do not encourage my students to study the other pieces on their own, but I maintain a comprehensive list because I don’t teach the same things every year.

You make a great point about the many additional pieces of knowledge–cultural, religious, political, philosophical, biographical, etc.–that are associated with each work. I always use a piece of music to illustrate a specific development or idea, and I ignore lots of facts that are not relevant to the argument I am making. At the same time, I examine students on the listening in an open-ended way that lets them decide (to some extent) which facts they want to learn about a piece. For example, if I play “Wachet auf” on an exam the student needs to know roughly what the text is about and in what context the cantata was originally performed, but beyond that they can choose a path of expertise. Full credit is available to anyone who has something worthwhile and factual to say. The hardest part for me is ceding ground on what I think is important.