In this section, Professor Emily Richmond Pollock shares how she uses music to help students think critically about their own value systems. She also points to ways in which the act of writing papers helped promote students’ critical thinking.
You Like a Particular Piece of Music? Figure Out Why.
In 21M.260 Stravinsky to the Present, I want students to become better critical thinkers, and in particular, to learn to think critically about their own value systems and value judgments. Music is a great context for teaching this skill because it’s a space in which people usually have strongly held opinions, reactions, and values. I push students to explore those values, often saying something along the lines of, “So you like this piece of music and you don’t like that one. Figure out why.” I urge them to discern what in the music is making them feel or react in particular ways. In this context, it isn’t enough for them to say, “I just don’t care for this music.” I ask students to articulate—using technical vocabulary—their values. The ability to communicate their subjective reactions and personal values with authority and evidence is a skill that will be useful in many parts of their lives.
Writing Their Way into Critical Thinking
Writing papers for the course is another opportunity for students to develop critical thinking skills. The first paper asks students to engage in a listening-based analysis of a work of their choice, not covered in the course, composed between 1900 and 1945. In the second paper, students compare the sounds and techniques of two aesthetically related works of their choice, one composed between 1945 and 1990 and one composed between 1990 and the present. For both papers, the first step is for students to select a topic by deciding which readings, composers, and pieces they found most interesting and providing some justification for why the topics they select are worthy of exploring.