Conquer The Vortex Learning Barrier
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Conquer The Vortex In An Online Music Course

A general survey music course can overburden students with little musical experience, especially if the course objective is that students retain music theory fundamentals particular to specific time periods. I learned that if we shift the course objective and simplify it, this can be avoided. Students are more receptive to the historical lineage of western music composers and how western music has changed over time through influence. I learned this after teaching Music Appreciation online and recognizing the vortex learning barrier.

LinkedIn Learning’s “Instructional Design: Adult Learners” describes the vortex learning barrier as occurring when students are so stressed by the amount of information given to them that they are prevented from learning new skills. One solution is the immediate application of the material and practice opportunities, thus covering the learning objective. This is possible in a Music Appreciation course that does not heavily focus on music fundamentals. I will demonstrate how to keep the vortex in mind by identifying the elements of a Music Appreciation course that need to be altered, with an emphasis on key music elements, how western music has changed over time, and the historical lineage of western composers.

Focus On Key Elements

Students taking this course have little exposure to music education; therefore, an emphasis on three music elements, out of rhythm, dynamics, melody, harmony, tone color, texture, and form is key. While they all appear important, the course instructor chooses three of them to focus on. Students have disclosed that they struggle with these concepts. To help students, an instructor could focus on dynamics, melody, and texture.

The course could require students to read selective material. Rather than demand that students read an entire chapter on elements, one should select specific sections that cover the focused elements. The selected elements will be covered in-depth and students could even write a discussion board post where they need to identify an element in one of their favorite popular songs. In the beginning, students need the opportunity to apply the material to a song they are familiar with.

The discussion prompt could direct students to select a song and identify either dynamics, melody, or texture. For example, a student could choose the Jackson Five "ABC" song and describe the conjunct melody found within the Eb major. The students will be able to share with each other because they recognize popular songs and they can discuss how they discovered these elements in the music they always listen to.

Once students have been introduced to selected elements, they can go on to identify them in a composition from a previous time period. For example, music texture is the number of individual melodic lines and the relationship they have with each other. Unit 1 covers the Middle Ages, a period predominated with monophonic music texture or a single musical line. A music example could be “Alleluia: Vidimus Stellam” (We Have Seen His Star). After reading about this music period and that piece, the written assessment would require students to describe and identify the music texture in “Alleluia.” To prevent students from forgetting how to approach music texture, it should be covered again in a Renaissance composition.

The Renaissance contains the introduction of polyphony, which is two or more melodic lines, and the unit objective should focus on texture and explain how it developed between the two periods. After reading about the Renaissance, the assessment could involve a written comparison between the Renaissance composition "Ave Maria" and "Alleluia: Vidimus Stellam" (We Have Seen His Star). Students will be required to identify the type of texture in "Ave Maria" and explain how it is present and why it differs in "Alleluia."

This helps students focus on one music element and retain what was previously learned. This keeps the vortex in mind because we prevent students from being bombarded by too much information. Students need time to digest and process music knowledge. With the reduction of the amount of music theory knowledge, we should focus on the historical context of each period.

Focus On Music History

The history of music includes the cultural context of the time period and how society progressed alongside music composition. Rather than have an entire course textbook as the only literature, an additional source about music history through primary documents could be a beneficial addition. Students benefit from a diverse collection of literature, breaking them away from the monotony of the same coursebook.

A good example of this is the Library of Congress Music History from Primary Sources, the website features insightful information and documents about the cultural landscape of the different music periods and the development and influence of composers on each other. Many sources are provided within the website and it can be used alongside different music periods.

The cultural context of the period will be covered before going into the music elements, which frames the outline of the reading material. It will even tie in with the previous material on the Middle Ages. The course needs to design an interconnected structure for the material that is easily visible to students so they can identify the links between music compositions.

If students are overwhelmed, they are unable to make connections or see an overarching structure which leads to a vortex. A focus on the culture and societal context of each music period will allow students to continue learning without feeling overburdened. This period can even focus on a single or two composers whose work best reflects the time period. For example, Josquin des Prez and how his music embodies the cultural movement of the Renaissance. Students benefit from a focus on a key composer, rather than ten at a time.

Focus On A Single Composer And A Single Piece

Once the historical-cultural context of the period is established at the beginning, then the final part of the unit should focus on one or two composers. This would be at the discretion of the instructor. If students want to learn more information about other period composers, they should be encouraged but not required to do so. Having ten composers in one unit will intimidate students. A unit should cover one or two composers and one or two of their pieces.

Students will read about the cultural context of the period, the musical elements, and then about the composer. Because the previous unit requires discussion board posts, the proceeding unit could end with a larger written assessment that instructs students to make a comparative analysis of the previous period and those pieces. The course objective is to help students build from the previous unit and identify the similarities and differences between music and how composers challenged the previous, traditional music forms.

One can prevent a vortex through format change and a variety of content. For example, I provided a visual documentary about a key modern composer and altered the discussion board post. I focused on Aaron Copland and reiterated the main theme of lineage to help students put everything together, and this is demonstrated through Copland’s homage to American Folk and Jazz music. Copland represents a continuation of the spiritual influence on music creation. Churches have maintained a heavy influence on music creation since the Middle Ages, and Copland was well-known for incorporating shaker music elements into his pieces such as "Appalachian Spring."

I had students watch a documentary about Copland’s life and contributions to music. For the discussion board post, I provided students with options to write about. Select one contribution of Aaron Copland (Folk, Jazz), select one piece that includes Jazz or Folk elements ("Appalachian Spring" or "Music for the Theatre"), and identify one music element (texture or dynamics) found in the piece. This changes the format of the assessment and provides students with options to choose from, which gives them guidance.

Students were positively receptive of the documentary and focusing on just Aaron Copland. This change helps provide focus on a single composition, a key music element, and allows reflection on the course learning objective. After students have been learning about the previous periods, we want them to finally hear in Copland’s music a development of composition in parallel to faith, which enables them to structure everything together.

Conquering The Vortex

Structure and organization are key to helping students. I have even learned from teaching Music Appreciation that online courses easily lead students into a vortex. We need to pay attention to the inclusion of alternative learning styles, which pertain to the reduction of reading material and the restructuring of course objectives and assessments. Not all students learn the same way. A Music Appreciation course needs less music theory, more focus on music history and cultural context, and with a focus on one or two composers.

The design of a course should be steered from the perspective of a student. Ask yourself a series of questions about the course learning process. Is this doable, is this enough, what is missing? We cannot perceive students as automatons that easily absorb and process information without any hesitation. We need to organize and structure the course in a way that allows students to create, identify, and process what they are learning at their own pace.

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