Rhetorical Analysis Essays in Music Appreciation: A Sample Assignment

Many of us college music professors have struggled to create writing assignments that meet our pedagogical goals and engage students. As music teachers, we need to create equitable assignments that meet our students where they are, help them gain the skills that will be necessary for their success, and meet our course general objectives for thinking and writing about music. In this post, I discuss the rhetorical analysis assignment I use in my music appreciation sections and how I scaffold the informal low-stakes writing and research skills necessary for students to be successful.

Many of us college music professors have struggled to create writing assignments that meet our pedagogical goals AND engage students. Additionally, many college professors have found that students are unequipped to engage in college-level writing activities, which may become even more widespread as we deal with first-time college students in the COVID era. As music teachers, we need to create equitable assignments that meet our students where they are, help them gain the skills that will be necessary for their success, and meet our course general objectives for thinking and writing about music. In this post, I discuss the rhetorical analysis assignment I use in my music appreciation sections and how I scaffold the informal low-stakes writing and research skills necessary for students to be successful. The structure of this assignment reinforces what students learn in their writing courses, helping them become more proficient in the skills they will need to be successful in college. This assignment could be adapted to other music courses, especially those for non-majors, and to other forms that are becoming popular in college classes including the long blog post, the podcast, or the album review.

Rhetorical analyses are common assignments in first-year college courses because they allow students to work on building the skills of analyzing information and creating an argument about that information. I chose a rhetorical analysis because I wanted to align the curriculum goals in my class with other core classes at the university level. Studies have shown that aligning curriculum across courses improves student learning and outcomes (Grubb & Cox, 2005; Fink, 2013). For many of my college students, especially those who have not had the advantage of advanced placement courses in high school, this is the first time they are exposed to academic writing, and they benefit by a wider exposure.

I teach Music Appreciation at two Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) in Texas that enroll many first-generation and underserved students. To supplement my in-class teaching, I use Kevin Salfen’s Pathways to Music as the textbook. Pathways to Music models a variety of ways of analyzing and writing about music through its five sections or “pathways”: Ritual, Emotion, Work, Art, and Politics. For each of these pathways, students see different models of discussing music from across the world and make connections to their own musical experiences. They get to learn about musical rituals, musical expression of emotions, the work involved in creating music, musical art (aesthetics), and musical politics (messages) not only from the textbook, but from each other. Furthermore, musical rhetoric is discussed during the second pathway. Students learn that rhetoric is communication, and the six major components of rhetoric can be applied to music analysis: topic, audience, persona, context, purpose, and genre.

To plan this assignment, I began with my expectations for what I want students to do in the final paper. Students are to choose a piece of music and analyze it for what it says and how it musically conveys this message. Considering this goal, I reverse-engineered the course to cover the skills they would need to achieve that goal and build them throughout the semester. The final project prompt, given below, is similar to other rhetorical paper prompts used in college courses. The prompt addresses all six elements of a rhetorical situation. It asks students to think about the topic of the music, who listens to the music, how the performer(s) want(s) to be perceived by the audience, and the context, purpose, and genre of the piece of music.

Prompt for Rhetorical Analysis Final Paper, by Michele Aichele

The skills required to perform this rhetorical analysis are then broken down into “write to learn” activities in the form of weekly blog posts. Music, as an aural art, can be very difficult to write about, even for trained professionals, so blogs provide regular opportunities to build such skills. Weekly blogs require students to continually practice communicating about music, and ideas seen in the blogs can be discussed during class time. About half of the blog posts in my class directly engage students in the process of writing their final paper.

One of the first blog posts I have students tackle during the semester is to listen to and reflect on the “How to Listen to Music in 4 Easy Steps” from the Switched on Pop podcast. Hosts Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding walk listeners through their four steps of how to listen to and interpret music through the example of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I let the students know that while this is not the only way of listening to music, it provides a good model for those unfamiliar with actively listening to music. The first step is the “liner notes,” where the listener learns the contextual information of the song: who made it, when, where, and how. Next, they model the “needle drop,” which is simply listening to the song all the way through. The third step is the “scratch,” where the listener goes back to the recording and focuses on short sections that draw them in. For this step, listeners need to listen multiple times and consider what it is that is drawing them into the piece. Finally, the fourth step is “remixing” a song. “Remixing” in the Switched on Pop method is not a re-creation of the song, but encourages the students to make connections and interpret what they hear. The “remix” asks them to consider what they think the song means and why, which is primarily what I want students to be able to do by the end of the semester. In their blog post, students summarize the four steps from Switched on Pop and compare that method of listening to their own style of listening to music.

“How to Listen to Music” Worksheet, by Michele Aichele

The second pathway from the textbook introduces the idea of musical rhetoric for conveying musical emotion. For an in-class activity, I have the students look at an example mentioned in the textbook to see how the musical choices made impact the message of the music. In class, we listen to “Hurt,” first by Nine Inch Nails and then Johnny Cash’s cover.  Through this activity, students can hear and compare how the different choices of instrumentation, singing style, slight lyrical changes, and the context in which the musicians made their music can affect how the music makes them feel different emotions.

After we have learned about rhetorical analysis, I have the students listen to another music podcast and analyze how the hosts discuss the music. I provide a list of suggested podcasts that cover a variety of musical styles for students to choose from. Students are able to bring podcast episodes to me for approval. In order for the podcast to be approved, it has to discuss the music (or musician) in some informative way and not be just a radio show. Students listen to the episode and write about the context of the podcast episode. This information includes who the hosts are, when the hosts made it, and the purpose the hosts made the episode—what did the hosts want the listeners to do with the information they provided? Students then share their insights during class. Because of the diversity of student interests, we get to hear about many musical styles and ways of discussing music. This assignment is useful because it provides another model of discussing music and has students practice their rhetorical analysis skills.

Suggested list of podcasts:

To promote good writing habits, I have the students submit a “Topic Proposal” blog in the first half of the semester. This assignment ensures that they are already thinking about their music example and can collect resources and practice their analyses throughout the semester. In the topic proposal, students indicate what piece they want to analyze for their final project and why they chose this piece. Students are not allowed to choose the same piece as another student. Additionally, allowing students to choose what piece they want to analyze increases student excitement in the project and allows them to explore and reflect on their own musical values.

Information literacy is another important skill for student success in their academic careers. To help with information literacy, I introduce students to the library, teach them how to find sources, and then discuss how to evaluate those sources. I prefer to do this by taking the students to the library and meeting with a librarian, but that is not always possible. Many of our academic librarians have created short library introduction videos that could be helpful as well. During these tutorials, I introduce the students to databases that would be particularly helpful to them in this class, like Credo Reference or Oxford Music Online. Students learn the acronym CRAAP (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose) and practice evaluating sources in order to find reliable sources. On the reflection post for this assignment, many students have divulged that this is the first time these topics have been taught to them. Once we have covered the CRAAP test and library sources, students then do a “source report” blog. Students have to find a source related to their topic, summarize it, and evaluate it with the CRAAP test. While there are not many articles on the specific songs, works, and artists in which the students are interested, I encourage them to look up sources on related genres and styles to contextualize their piece. Practicing evaluating sources helps build their critical thinking skills.

CRAAP Test Worksheet, by Michele Aichele

At this point in the semester, I have students do a Rhetorical Situation Chart for their chosen example. I adapted this rhetorical situation chart, linked below, from an Advanced Placement Summer Institute English Language and Composition workshop led by Teri Marshall. By this time in class, students are used to rhetorical analysis because they have encountered it in other course activities. They research the context, the audience, the persona, the purpose, and the style of their example and begin figuring out what they want to say about the piece. The synthesis statement at the bottom of the worksheet can then be revised into a thesis statement for their papers.

Now that students have some sources and ideas regarding what they want to discuss, I have them submit a “half-draft” of their paper where they begin translating all of the information they have into a prose paper. The half-draft is also a low-stakes assignment where students get credit for turning in two to three paragraphs and an outline of further points. This shows that they are thinking about the music and what it conveys, and we can focus on higher-order issues with the writing. At this point, I also look at the sources students are using and let them know if they need to find more and point them in the right direction. I do not evaluate the drafts for grammar, but I do provide feedback on common errors. The goal is to encourage early writing and continuing the “write to learn” process.

The final paper is due a few weeks after students have received feedback on the half draft and is evaluated for thesis, structure, effectiveness of analysis, and use of sources. Since implementing this assignment in the fall of 2020, the papers I have received are much improved from previous semesters. While the writing still is not perfect, these papers make for a much more enjoyable read and demonstrate that students are able to communicate about music. For those in my classes who have had effective writing pedagogy before, this provides another opportunity for them to practice and apply their skills to writing about music they love.

There are a few things I particularly love about this assignment and the thought processes students go through in creating their analyses. The assignment uses low-stakes writing for students to practice their musical analyses without fear of failure. Students also become better informed consumers of music who can contextualize and discuss musical performances. Finally, this assignment provides a tangible way for students to explain to me why they love the music they love. Students reflect at the end of the semester about what they have learned and their relationship to music. For some final thoughts about the paper, this is what the students themselves say they learned in their final blog post of the semester:

I was very hesitant that I wouldn’t enjoy this class when I was signed up for it and saw it on my schedule, but I was very pleasantly surprised! I really did enjoy this class and I think I’ve learned so many new ways that I can listen to music. As a musician, it was really nice and interesting to get to see where some of the pieces that I’ve played or even just listened to came from. I also really liked comparing the music we listen to now to music that was popular in different time periods, and how music from so many years ago is still influencing music today ! I really enjoyed the “Music as Art” section, because it goes to show how much work goes into some of the songs we listen to, as well as how often times, many musicians don’t intend for their pieces to be formal art, but the connections we make to the piece give it meaning and a whole different purpose. I really enjoyed this class! I think I have a bigger appreciation for all the work and talent and craft that goes into making all the pieces I know and love today. 🙂

I didn’t have any expectations for this class due to never taking any sort of music class before. I thought it was going to focus more on instruments and reading music. Learning about how to analyze music and music history was eye-opening. As odd as it sounds, I actually learned how to listen to music and how aspects of music created and used many years ago are still used today. Before this class, I just thought lyrics were the only meaningful part of a song and everything else was just put in to make the song sound better. Now I know that every part of the song holds meaning and nothing is added or done unintentionally, everything has a purpose. Now when I listen to music I can feel the emotion beyond the lyrics and have a better understanding of the message the artist is trying to send. This class definitely gave me a new perspective on music. When I listen to music now I can identify the type of message the artist is sending, the emotion they were trying to provoke, and who their intended audience is. When we first analyzed music I thought it was going to be such a long process and would turn into me disliking music, but it is the complete opposite. I am able to analyze the song after listening to it a few times and after each analysis, I am amazed by what I discover. After taking this course I have a deeper appreciation for music. 

I never gave much thought to the way I listened to music before this class or even thought about the evaluation of music at all. My favorite part of this class was learning about all of the different eras of music and how they impacted each generation. When I listen to music now I find myself trying to hear the different instruments being played along with trying to figure out the style and patterns throughout the song. Doing this has made me find new meaning in songs that I’ve listened to forever. I also like that I can hear certain music and relate it back or hear similarities from music that was made long ago. Learning how present day artist implement parts of music from a different age and era is really cool. This class has definitely changed the way I listen to music and without even thinking about it I find myself hearing part of a song or hearing the instruments being played and I think about where that came from and why the artist chose that instrument for the specific piece being played. It’s interesting how much goes into making music that I never even knew. I have a new found appreciation for music and the artist who make it. 

Sources and Further Reading

Burkholder, J. Peter. “Decode the Discipline of Music History for Our Students.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 1, no. 2 (2011): 93–111.

Crain, Timothy. “Beyond Coverage: Teaching for Understanding in the Music History Survey Classroom.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 4, no. 2 (2014): 301–318.

Deadman, Alison. “Sonata, What Do You Want of Me?”: Teaching Rhetorical Strategies for Writing About Music.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 6, no. 1 (2013): 23–40.

Epstein, Louis, Taylor Okonek, and Anna Perkins. “Mind the Gap: Inclusive Pedagogies for Diverse Classrooms.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 9, no. 2 (2019): 119–172.

Fink, L. Dee. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. Somerset: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

Grubb, W. Norton and Rebecca Cox. “Pedagogical Alignment and Curricular Consistency: The Challenges for Developmental Education.” New Directions for Community Colleges 129 (2005): 93–103.

Haefeli, Sara. “Using Blogs for Better Student Writing Outcomes.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 4, no. 1 (2013): 39–70.

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Hund, Jennifer L. “What Is the Discipline of Music Appreciation? Reconsidering the Concert Report.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 4, no. 2 (2014): 255–72.

_____. “Writing About Music in Large Music Appreciation Classrooms Using Active Learning, Discipline-Specific Skills, and Peer Review.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 2, no. 2 (2012): 117–32.

Kiefer, Kate, Mike Palmquist, Nick Carbone, Michelle Cox, and Dan Melzer. “Introduction to Writing Across the Curriculum.” The WAC Clearinghouse. https://wac.colostate.edu/resources/wac/intro.

Knyt, Errin. “Rethinking the Music History Research Paper Assignment.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 4, no. 1 (2013): 23–37.

Marshall, Teri “Analyzing the Rhetorical Situation.” Advanced Placement Summer Institute: English Language and Composition. St. Mary’s Hall, San Antonio, Texas, June 2018.

Sloan, Nate and Charlie Harding. Switched on Pop. https://switchedonpop.com/.

Talbert, Robert. Flipped Learning: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty. Bloomfield: Stylus Publishing, 2017.

Wells, Elizabeth Anne. “Foundation Courses in Music History: A Case Study.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 6, no. 1 (2016): 41–56.

Wright, Jeffrey. “Teaching Research and Writing Across the Music History Curriculum.” Journal of Music History Pedagogy 7, no. 1 (2016): 35–42.