The Importance of Musical Interest: Insights from Louise Hung

The Importance of Musical Interest

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By Louise Hung


Through my experiences so far as a music educator, I have found one core aspect that needs to exist for a student to develop as a musician: the student needs to be interested in the music they are playing. Without that interest, music lessons become a chore, especially when not every student enjoys the process of practicing from the outset.


When a student is interested in a particular piece or style of music, the practicing becomes an immersive exploration guided by the desire to successfully play the music how they want it to sound. 


In taking this interest as the core aspect of a successful musician, I think the question is, for many educators and parents: how do I encourage student interest in more “classical,” historical, or musically complex styles? (Especially when these styles are what make up half or more of the music styles explored in the RCM exams.) 


I have found that most students naturally gravitate towards the music they are surrounded with and listen to regularly. Pop, movie soundtracks, and video game music are usually what my students choose when they get the opportunity to choose music to play completely without interference. Their connections with these styles are deep, since they identify with the stories, characters, moods and aesthetics reflected in the music. Most students are not often exposed to “classical” or historical styles of music in their daily lives. Without that exposure, it can be difficult to develop the deep interest needed to sustain the detailed and consistent dedication and practice needed to play this music well. 


Interest in a musical style does not always begin with the music itself. Much of our tastes in music are largely influenced by the aesthetics and lifestyle associated with a specific subset of music or artist. Music is a product of its environment. “Classical” and historical styles of music are no different! One of my favorite kinds of classes I teach are group or one-on-one music history, listening, and theory classes. In these classes, I can introduce students to the rich social and cultural history that “classical” and historical styles of music are rooted in detail. In exploring the stories of the world these styles of music were created in through understanding the historical events, social and cultural practices and attitudes, the lives of past composers and performers, and the theoretical building blocks composers used to build their works, “classical” and historical music can be brought to life. The music no longer stays stagnant and frozen as a relic of the past, but as a living work connecting us to the people who came before us. 


In understanding how the music was made, students have the agency to make educated decisions about how to interpret and personalize the music, instead of uncritically playing what is put before them. It allows them to be active participants in the creation of the music and in their own musical learning. So far, every student I have taught history and theory to have developed a stronger interest in the “classical” music they play. As I predominantly teach purely instrumental music through piano, I have found encouraging aspects of imagery and storytelling to be important to student engagement. Most of the music that is listened to are songs where the lyrics explicitly give meaning. However, purely instrumental music can often pose a challenge for emotional connection, especially when it is unfamiliar. However, with guidance and suggestions, students can use their imagination to link the music they are playing to their own lives, to stories they are reading and watching.


We already associate certain emotions with certain styles of music, and to certain harmonies and rhythms, because they are all around in the media we consume. Movies, tv shows, plays, musicals and songs all reinforce these musical cultural associations. Whereas these examples all feature visual or textual context for the music to meld with, playing a purely instrumental piece doesn’t come with that context built in. Thus, it’s important to encourage students to use their imagination to give the music meaning. Instrumental music on its own does not have innate meaning. This does not stop music from being meaningful -despite the fact that music has similar structures and aspects to language, it is certain not one, and not a universal one at that. It needs the imagination and cultural context of the composer, performer, and listener to give it meaning.

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