Music From Ancient Sumer

Ensemble de Organographia is a group that specializes in performing music of the ancient world on period instruments.  Recently, with some help from archeologists, they have recreated music from ancient Sumer.  Here are a couple of videos of what Sumerian music might have sounded like.

They have released an album of this music that also includes music from ancient Egypt and Greece as well.  Now perhaps the next time I teach Music Appreciation I should start the historical portion with ancient music, rather than with music from the Middle Ages.  I see they also have an earlier album of music from ancient Greece, so I have no excuse now.

Studying For Listening Exams

It’s midterm season for me, so I’ve been giving exam reviews and meeting with students who want some additional help preparing for upcoming tests.  Music students, including non-musicians taking general studies courses, almost all become familiar with what is sometimes called a “drop the needle” type of listening test.  The instructor will play a random excerpt from a piece that was covered and the student will need to recall things like the title of the piece, composer, musical elements, and historical significance based on hearing the excerpt alone.  From the teacher’s standpoint, it’s a very effective way to test if the students are grasping the materials.

From the student’s viewpoint, however, this can be very challenging to study for, particularly for students without a music background (e.g., non-musicians taking a Music Appreciation course for a general studies elective).  Since I’ve recently given a review session to two of my appreciation classes on how to better prepare for this portion of the upcoming midterm exams (and since a couple of my students have admitted to actually reading my blog occasionally, after brownie points, no doubt!), I thought I’d offer some of my advice for preparing for the “drop the needle” test here. Continue reading Studying For Listening Exams

The False Dichotomy – Imitation vs. Process

This particular topic is one that has bugged me for a while.  It only seems to become an issue when I’m involved in an online conversation, however, which suggests to me that part of the problem is that written communication is more difficult to get this particular point across.  When I have the opportunity to discuss this with teachers and players in person, we almost always immediately come to an agreement.

What I’m talking about here is the difference between two extreme pedagogical approaches to music.  On one end there are teachers who advocate imitation as the most important part of the learning process.  The gist of this idea is if you play for and along with your students, and get them to imitate the sounds they hear, they will figure out what their bodies need to do on their own, without resorting to instruction on exactly how to form the embouchure, manipulate the tongue, etc.  As evidence for this approach it’s common for people to offer that we learn to talk and walk without needing to worry about the exact physical details and usually do so perfectly.  Additionally, since we don’t want to think about the details when we perform (we want to concentrate on the musical expression), we should always practice with our attention on the sound alone.

On the other side are the analytical types.  According to this extreme, you need to understand exactly how you create the sounds on your instrument and always focus on doing so correctly.  By analyzing the details you will learn exactly how to play best the and learn how to make your body perform correctly.

The problem is that these two extreme points of view are not mutually exclusive and, with few exceptions, no one really seems to advocate either to the point of leaving out the other. Continue reading The False Dichotomy – Imitation vs. Process

The Trouble With Easy Listening

Steve Almond writes about the devaluation of the music listening experience here.

“See, back when I was a kid in the ’70s, the way I listened to music was pretty simple. I put an LP on the turntable, dropped the needle, then sat on the living room rug and listened to every single note. If I liked the record a lot, I would listen to it two or three times in a row, usually with the album cover on my lap, so I could study the lyrics and artwork.

In other words, I considered listening to an album an activity in and of itself. It was not something I did while working on homework, let alone while checking e-mail or thumbing out text messages.”

This is something I’ve been musing about for a while myself.  Sometimes when I’m giving a lecture to a new class I’ll ask the students to consider the last time they listened to an album all the way through while all their attention was focused purely on the music.  While I’m frequently surprised by how many students actually have (or claim to have) spent time listening to music and doing nothing else, it’s typically only a handful of the entire class.  It’s something that I’ve noticed that I do less and less these days too. Continue reading The Trouble With Easy Listening


As someone with one foot in the jazz tradition and the other in the classical I find it interesting how the etiquette for the audience is different.  During a jazz performance it is considered appropriate for the audience to signal their approval of a soloist by applauding or cheering in the middle of a piece, or even just after a particularly nice moment.  In contrast, during a classical performance it is customary for the audience to hold their applause until the very end of the piece.  Applauding between movements will get you a dirty look and maybe even a reprimand.

But historically, this was not always so.  Alex Ross, of the Royal Philharmonic Society, recently gave a lecture about the history of applause.

When the average person hears this [EXAMPLE: End of third movement of Pathétique] his or her immediate instinct is to applaud. The music itself seems to demand it, even beg for it. The word “applause” comes from the instruction “Plaudite,” which appears at the end of Roman comedies, instructing the audience to clap. Chords such as these are the musical equivalent of “Plaudite.” They almost mimic the action of putting one’s hands together, the orchestra being unified in a series of quick, percussive sounds.

Historically classical audiences didn’t always exhibit the restraint that is expected today. Continue reading Applause