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).

Where have we been? Where are we going?

By Colin Roust, University of Kansas

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the AMS Pedagogy Study Group. With that auspicious date and the new website, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on the recent history of music history pedagogy, as well as offer a few thoughts on directions in the field.

Last September, Ashgate Publishing recognized Mary Natvig’s 2002 essay collection, Teaching Music History, as one of their publications that has made the greatest impact on the author’s field. While Scott Dirkse has recently shown that this was hardly the first publication on music history pedagogy, I find it hard to challenge Ashgate’s assessment. In response to the publication of Natvig’s book, Kathryn Lowerre organized the first Teaching Music History Day in 2003 at Michigan State University. We are currently preparing for the eleventh edition of that event and the growth is palpable. What began as a one-day regional workshop has now become a national conference drawing participants from across the United States and Canada. The attendees at the 2015 conference represented eleven of the fifteen AMS chapters and, after the next two editions take place in Denver and Boston, the event will have been hosted within the boundaries of five of those chapters.

Since the publication of Natvig’s book, James Briscoe and James Davis have assembled complementary essay collections. Under Jessie Fillerup’s leadership, the founding of the Pedagogy Study Group in 2006 ensured that there would at least one pedagogy session at every AMS annual meeting. The Committee on Career-Related Issues also hosts an annual Master Teacher Session and in just the last few years, half of the other study groups and the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music have organized pedagogy-related sessions at the AMS meetings. The first issue of the Journal of Music History Pedagogy appeared in 2010. Then in 2013 we experienced a watershed moment, when the members of the society voted to revise the AMS Object Statement to include the word “teaching.”

Nor has the AMS been alone in generating discourse about music history pedagogy. The College Music Society has had a decades-long history of engagement with the topic. At the 2012 Congress of the International Musicological Society, Giuseppina La Face chaired the inaugural session for the Study Group on the Transmission of Knowledge as a Primary Aim in Music Education, a group focused on international conversations about music pedagogy and didactics. La Face has also served as the executive editor of Musica Docta, a multilingual online journal about pedagogy and didactics whose first volume was published in 2011. And in 2014, John Spilker founded the Pedagogy Interest Group for the Society of American Music.

In short, there is more happening now in the field of music history pedagogy than at any prior point in the discipline’s history. But the majority of the essays in Natvig’s, Briscoe’s, and Davis’s essay collections are self-reflective and anecdotal. This is perhaps most transparent in Michael Beckerman’s “How Can You Teach What You Don’t Know? … and Other Tales from Music History Pedagogy” and Gavin Douglas’s “Some Thoughts on Teaching Music History from an Ethnomusicological Perspective.”[1] These are essays written by music history teachers for music history teachers. The anecdotal basis of these essays has also been reflected in the vast majority of music history pedagogy conference presentations that I have heard—and those that I’ve given. There is value in this, certainly, but it hardly resembles the sort of critical scholarship that is demanded in other fields of musicological inquiry, or academic inquiry in general.[2]

At the 2014 AMS roundtable on the undergraduate music history curriculum, Daniel Di Censo challenged the panel, commenting that there is considerable scholarship on pedagogy happening in other academic disciplines, all of which seems to be ignored in the scholarship on music history pedagogy. Di Censo was both right and wrong. There is indeed a dearth of non-music history related sources in the bibliographies and footnotes of the essays in Natvig’s, Briscoe’s, and Davis’s collections, as well as the articles published in the Journal of Music History Pedagogy. However, there have been several notable exceptions in recent issues of JMHP. To the best of my knowledge, as of February 2016, this is the comprehensive list of these exceptions: Matthew Baumer’s 2015 article on the undergraduate curriculum is based on a quantitative review modeled on similar curriculum studies done in other fields. Kevin Burke’s 2014 article applies the principles of “Reacting to the Past,” a teaching methodology developed in the discipline of history, to the music history classroom. James Maiello’s 2013 article draws on recent trends in music education to discuss how to apply a paraxial approach to music history courses; Maiello’s article is accompanied by a response from Thomas Regelski, a prominent contributor to the discourse on praxial philosophy in music education. Also from 2013, Robert Lagueux’s essay engages with Benjamin Bloom’s famous taxonomy of learning. In addition, I must mention José Bowen’s 2012 book Teaching Naked,[3] which does an outstanding job of engaging with pedagogy scholarship from a variety of fields—and which is quickly taking its place in the pantheon of essential books to read for college professors, alongside such venerable classics as McKeachie’s Teaching Tips and Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do.

To conclude, I want to take a moment to reflect on where I think the scholarship of music history pedagogy is going and where this blog might fit into it. I have no doubt that we will continue to see the kinds of self-reflective and anecdotal essays that have built the foundation of this field of scholarship. These are valuable as a way to share ideas of what has worked for a certain person at a certain institution with a certain kind of students. But I also hope that the recent trend represented by Baumer, Burke, Lagueux, and Maiello will continue to expand. We need more examples of rigorous, evidence-based scholarship on the teaching of music history. Musicology is a beautifully interdisciplinary discipline, but little of our pedagogical scholarship has engaged with other disciplines in a substantial way. I am absolutely convinced that our scholarship can have usefulness to people working in a wide variety of other fields, but first we need to accept Di Censo’s challenge and engage more fully with the wealth of pedagogy scholarship being produced in those other fields.

This blog provides an ideal place for short-form writing on pedagogy. Let us know what is working for you in your classroom, but also let us know what you are reading about pedagogy. As you discover helpful ideas from other fields, let us know what they are and how you envision them translating to our classrooms.

[1] Both essays appear in Briscoe’s Vitalizing Music History Teaching.

[2] Shawna Ross recently published a short essay about similar issues with digital pedagogy on the blog of the MLA Committee on Information Technology.

[3] The website for Bowen’s book also has a variety of additional resources worth looking at.