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Moving Beyond the Weird, Creepy and Indescribable

Pedagogical principles and practices for listening to electroacoustic music in the general education classroom

Our undergraduate students typically range in age from 18 to 22 — a time before wireless Internet, YouTube and Twitter is hardly imaginable to them. And despite the ubiquity of electronic sounds emanating from cell phones, laptops and iPods, these students still present a resistance to and negative perception of electroacoustic music in my general education music classes. Most recently, when I played an excerpt of Henri Chopin’s Le Bruit de Sang, students exclaimed that it was “weird” and “creepy” — most certainly from a science fiction movie soundtrack.

This reaction surprised me, given the science fiction films undergraduates today have likely watched, including more recent films like Prometheus and Interstellar. The soundtracks for these films are non-electronic, even as they depict the unknown limits of the universe and other worldly creatures. Older films that these students are aware of include E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, all films with famous and memorable non-electronic film soundtracks. So why then the persistent notion that electronic beeps, synthesizer melodies and theremin portamento equate images of robots, aliens, space and a dystopian technological future?

Timothy Taylor asserts that technology’s central theme in 1950s science fiction parallels a broader socio-cultural interest in and concern about technology and the future:

Space travel takes one into the unknown and can be deadly; contact with advanced technology is trouble, sometimes psychological trouble. And even having advanced technology cannot prevent one’s civilization from disappearing. (Taylor 2001, 93)

Not only, then, are electronic sounds a sonic representation of technological advancements but they also depict anxieties typical of the Cold War. These associations endure. Lisa Schmidt explains:

In sum, the conventions of representing alien beings, times and/or spaces through the electronic, the atonal or dissonant have been more or less continuous, from roughly 1950 (when American sci-fi begins as a film genre) to the present. (Schmidt 2010, 24)

Electronic sounds became the perfect sonic depiction of space creatures and deep space because they are “necessarily concealed, remote, detached” and thus point to “electronic sound’s indexical relationship to intangible spaces, both cosmic and psychological” (Leydon 2004, 63). Listeners are therefore uncomfortable with electronic sounds because their source remains concealed. The theremin is a good example because of its notable use in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). While Schmidt explains that although early reviews did not immediately characterize the instrument as “alien”, it was “associated with the popular sensibility that technology was transforming society in ways that were unprecedented” (Schmidt 2010, 28). Nonetheless, Schmidt suggests that in reviews “there is perhaps a thin thread of uneasiness detectable in the persistent concern over pitch instability” (Ibid.), as the theremin, along with the telegraph and radio, had also been thought of as “somehow ‘haunted’ by the otherworldly” (Ibid., 29). Philip Hayward and Rebecca Leydon both point to the lack of direct contact in the performing of the theremin as contributing to its otherworldly affiliation.

Why the persistent notion that electronic beeps, synthesizer melodies and theremin portamento equate images of robots, aliens, space and a dystopian technological future?

Electroacoustic music shifts the perception of the gestural relationship between agent and instrument, as the listener’s perception of effort, agency and intention — to build on Simon Emmerson — points to a “rich sound environment [in which] we search for clues that help us to construct, not just dry objects and processes, but living decisions, choices, strategies and pathways” (Emmerson 2007, 34). Even with the ubiquity of sounds divorced from a clear cause in this 21st century, Emmerson explains, “how we perceive many of the sounds around us is a real negotiation of our needs as organisms and what we believe to be the agency producing the sound” (Ibid., 17). And the effortlessness that Julio d’Escriván notes (2006) in the perception of electroacoustic music contributes to a continued anxiety about this music and a confusion regarding its value.

This is a persistent aural and conceptual barrier that I have found prevents my students from engaging meaningfully with electroacoustic music. My aim is to implement appropriate pedagogical strategies for removing these barriers, helping students apply musical vocabulary and facilitating critical listening through activities and assignments. I will outline four activities taken from Elizabeth Barkley’s Classroom Engagement Techniques (2010) and Judy Lochhead’s principles of phenomenological listening (1995) for an imaginary general education class using Hugh Le Caine’s Dripsody (1955) and three remixes released on the Canadian Music Centre’s Centretracks. These musical works are rather short and relatively accessible, thus providing a potentially more appropriate starting point for the uninitiated general education student.

Lochhead was motivated to apply phenomenological philosophy in her classroom after witnessing students’ negative reactions to audio examples of “new music” and their inability to overcome this resistance through lectures on contextual information. What was lacking was student engagement, which I define as the outcome of combining motivation and active learning. Students are motivated when they believe they can succeed at a task and consider it valuable. Active learning means that the mind is active, not necessarily the body (although that will also be appropriate sometimes). Active learning embraces a range of learning objectives, such as those in Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy, and rejects the dominance of passive modes of knowledge transfer ubiquitous in a traditional teaching model: the dump truck method or sage on the stage.

David Sousa’s 2006 book How the Brain Learns was instrumental in my own pedagogical growth, as it explained why the traditional approach of only lecturing was a poor investment of my time in the classroom and would result in minimal retention. If students could not even retain the knowledge I gave them in class, how could I expect them to do anything deep, critical and meaningful with it? As shown by the chart in Figure 1, when students learn only through lecture, they remember only 5% of the material 24 hours later. But as the material is increasingly supported by audio-visuals or demonstrations, and as students are asked to do something with the knowledge or skill being taught (e.g., discussion group, practice by doing, and teaching others), the rates of retention rise to 90%. What Barkley and Lochhead offer, then, are specific ideas for facilitating more active learning approaches that will increase retention, allow for higher-level learning outcomes and increase motivation because the tasks are both reasonable and valuable.

Figure 1. This diagramme shows the average percentage of retention of material after 24 hours according to instruction method. The percentages are not additive. [Click image to enlarge]

Most of these activities include a collaborative component, an approach that has proven effective because “building learning communities… [helps] students feel connected to rather than isolated or alienated from the teacher and their classmates [which] addresses a basic, motivational human need to be part of a social community” (Barkley 2010, 25). Collaborative learning ensures that all students are actively engaged, as opposed to only the few confident and independently capable ones. By discussing, brainstorming and debating with fellow students, a student is more actively involved in the process of critical thinking. Students build on each other’s strengths to construct, analyze and evaluate course material. Collaborative activities also often typically include the instruction methods Sousa identifies as achieving the highest levels of retention, such as discussion groups, practice by doing, and teaching others. Despite all of these arguments, evidence shows that students, especially in large classes, may be resistant, and managing a large group has its challenges. But the payoffs to knowledge formation and critical assessment are too significant and I have found that being transparent about the pedagogical reasons for incorporating these approaches helps students value them.

I begin my imaginary class with a student engagement technique called “Hearing the Subject.” Students listen carefully to Hugh Le Caine’s Dripsody, noting characteristics on both the broad and detailed levels, without any kind of evaluating or interpreting. This requirement can be challenging, especially for students who don’t feel comfortable describing music; they can skip right to interpreting, such as saying the music is happy, upbeat, strange and so on. This activity helps them focus and communicate what they hear. Then in small groups (3–4), students share their observations, but they are reminded not to give a value-based opinion of the music (e.g., good, bad) or to speculate on its meaning. As the small groups discuss, I circulate to make sure that all students are contributing and that groups are staying on task. Then I combine two or more small groups together or shift to a whole-class discussion. I ask students to reflect on the experience of focused listening, without being permitted to evaluate or interpret.

As a standalone activity, “Hearing the Subject” can end with a discussion about the work’s meaning, including important historical or socio-cultural context. However, normally I will use another activity to achieve that. In “Hearing the Subject,” students noted musical characteristics and now I want them to organize those characteristics and apply vocabulary we have been using throughout the course.

A concept map is a graphic organizer that allows students “to synthesize and be creative as they organize their hierarchy of associations into a meaningful graphic” (Barkley 2010, 219). In this imaginary class, students arrange their observations of Dripsody from the “Hearing the Subject” activity into a graphic image (Fig. 2). Students can work with the same small groups as the previous activity, or they can be sorted. I instruct students to refer to our course’s musical terminology handout and differentiate their observations by the various musical elements. Students might choose to group several observations under the broader category of timbre, or to indicate how structural divides are articulated by dynamics, texture and melodic range. The goal is to have students synthesize their numerous observations into patterns and relationships.

Figure 2. Three examples of a concept map: network tree (upper left), spider map (lower left) and spoked wheel (right). [Click image to enlarge]

The two activities outlined thus far have focused almost entirely on the sonic component, with no consideration yet for composer, technology, genre and so on. Keeping in mind that students maximize retention when teaching others, I use the “Jigsaw” classroom engagement activity as a collaborative in-class or out-of-class assignment. Often students are hesitant to contribute in class because they are insecure about their knowledge or skill competency. The jigsaw allows students in small groups to become experts on a particular element through collaborative research and planning.

I provide a simple prompt for each expert group, something they can manage to accurately teach to their peers but complex enough to require discussion and planning within the group. In this example, I create three expert groups, each assigned a topic that will contextualize Dripsody:

  1. Musique concrète;
  2. Hugh Le Caine;
  3. Multi-track Tape Recorder.

Students are required to research the assigned topic and together design a five-minute lesson; I provide each expert group with prompts that will guide the content of their presentations. An audio-visual component is required because Sousa found greater retention with audio-visual components than pure lecture; Lochhead also found that having a visual component, such as a video interview with the composer, increased students’ positive attitudes towards the composers, their ideas and the aural examples of “new music” far more than when the instructor conveyed these ideas herself.

Students are reassembled from their expert groups into jigsaw groups, which consist of one member of each expert group. Each expert in the jigsaw group teaches the material (the five-minute lesson) to the other members. After all three experts have taught, the jigsaw group has a short discussion that integrates the three lessons. Students can be required to brainstorm discussion questions themselves or the instructor can provide some discussion questions. I then ask the whole class to reflect on the discoveries and discussions in the jigsaw groups.

After the “Hearing the Subject,” “Team Concept Maps” and “Jigsaw” activities, students have gained insight into the musical features of Dripsody, including trends within particular musical elements, and they have learned important contextual information about the composer, genre and technology of Dripsody. Because students were actively engaged with activities that included frequently teaching other students, they will retain these competencies as they move onto the three Hugh Le Caine remixes by Boundary, Elaquent and Sandro Perri.

Lochhead argues that “pictures-as-transcriptions are a record of [structural and affective musical perception] in which listeners holistically apprehend the sonorous object” (Lochhead 1995, 40). In my imaginary class, I assign each student one of the three remixes; students are instructed to listen to each remix several times and then create what Lochhead calls a “visual representation ‘map’” (Ibid.). The guidelines are vague, in order to give students freedom; they will have to be precise in their explanation of the map.

The results of this audio-visual assignment could follow a number of paths:

  1. The visual representation map and an accompanying written reflection could be a major assignment that is graded.
  2. I could initiate another jigsaw: I create expert groups with students who listened to the same work; they discuss the decisions behind their maps and make note of striking similarities and differences in their experiences. Then, I rearrange students into jigsaw groups and each “expert” describes his/her map of the remix. They can listen to all three remixes together, or have a discussion about the challenges of translating an aural experience into a visual one.
  3. Students could go back to the team concept maps and mark which musical features of the original Dripsody are present in each remix.

In any case, the goal is to facilitate student engagement with electroacoustic music through active learning that students consider both valuable and manageable. The specific knowledge gained through these exercises and the skills of focused listening, analysis, synthesis and evaluation will have staying power because students practiced by doing, taught others and immediately used what they learned.

What I encourage us to remember is that undergraduate students in our music classes, especially general education classes, are not us. We love electroacoustic music. The idea of sitting in a dimly lit room as sounds emanate from loudspeakers does not seem strange to us — it is desirable. Terms like “spectromorphology” and “granular synthesis” make sense to us and we know how to use them appropriately and evocatively. Almost without exception, these statements do not apply to our students. It will take more than an encouragement to “listen closely” and “with an open mind” to give our students meaningful, lasting and critical insight into electroacoustic works. To our students, electroacoustic music is a world unknown, and this can create anxiety for students as they feel perhaps a bit like Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Carefully designed activities that emphasize active learning and collaboration can remove some of these barriers, giving students manageable yet challenging tasks that require them to analyze, integrate and interpret, and will likely give them a more positive reaction to this music we love.


Barkley, Elizabeth. Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for college faculty. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

d’Escriván, Julio. “To Sing the Body Electric: Instruments and Effort in the Performance of Electronic Music.” Contemporary Music Review 25/1 & 2 (2006) “Bodily Instruments and Instrumental Bodies,” pp. 183–191.

Emmerson, Simon. Living Electronic Music. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2007.

Hayward, Philip (Ed.). Off the Planet: Music, sound and science fiction cinema. Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey, 2004.

Laudadio, Nicholas C. “‘Sounds like a Human Performance’: The electronic music synthesizer in mid-twentieth-century science fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 38/2 (July 2011), pp. 304–320.

Leydon, Rebecca. “Forbidden Planet: Effects and affects in the electro avant-garde.” In Off the Planet: Music, sound and science fiction cinema. Edited by Philip Hayward. Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey, 2004, pp. 61–76.

Lochhead, Judy. “Hearing New Music: Pedagogy from a phenomenological perspective.” Philosophy of Music Education Review 3/1 (Spring 1995), pp. 34–42.

Schmidt, Lisa. “A Popular Avant-Garde: The paradoxical tradition of electronic and atonal sounds in Sci-Fi music scoring.” In Sounds of the Future: Essays on music in science fiction film. Edited by Mathew J. Bartkowiak. Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2010, pp. 22–43.

Sousa, David A. How the Brain Learns. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press, 2006.

Taylor, Timothy D. Strange Sounds: Music, technology & culture. New York : Routledge, 2001.

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