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Logically Looking for the Perfect Beat

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Author: 
Boombox
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Brief Assignment Overview: 

In this assignment, students learn to identify the objective musical elements that make up their favorite songs — and then become personal Pandoras for their peers.

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Rhetoric: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Required Materials: 

Instructors should ask each student to bring a pair of headphones or earbuds to class in order to listen to music without disturbing their neighbors. Each student should also come to class with a favorite piece of music already in mind.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

For most students, music is a major part of daily life: They listen to it in the car, when they do homework, as they walk to class (but hopefully not during). Very few students, however, actually play music, and very rarely do students consider why they might prefer one song over another. This exercise aims to help students articulate their preferences a little more clearly by encouraging students to think about a favorite song in terms of its objective qualities and the ways in which those components create an underlying logical structure. Additionally, this will help illustrate for students how the rhetorical term logos does not merely point to stastistics or facts, but refers to the ways in which those individual elements tie together to create a line of reasoning.

As a way of introduction, I like to show my students this video from TIME Magazine, which discusses how Pandora — the music streaming website — selects new songs for users to listen to. Later on in the project, students will be asked to act like mini-Pandoras for their classmates, so the video should help them to start thinking along those lines early. Once they have a picture of the overall exercise, I provide my students with general and simple definitions of the most basic components of any piece of music: Instrumentation, tempo, timbre, tone and form; we then discuss how those elements join together in particular ways to establish a genre. It's instructive to note that many styles of music share qualities — heavy metal and reggae, for example, both tend to have songs written in the sonata form (AABA) and played by simple rock instrumentation (guitar, bass, drumset, vocal) — but it's how those elements are strung together that define a song's genre.

Once the basic definitions are out of the way, the students should keep those terms in mind and note those elements as they listen to an example piece of music selected by the instructor. In my own classes, and based on my own preferences, I like to play upbeat dance music like "Treasure" by Bruno Mars — students have most likely heard the song before, and can generally think of a number of similar post-disco songs right off the bat. But the key is for the instructor to pick a piece that he or she really does enjoy, and one that is not too esoteric, in order for students then to be able to suggest other similar songs. As outlined in the Instructions for Students subsection, the individual objective elements should be identified as the students listen to the music; they can then offer their own ideas on what pieces might be a close match.

Having thus provided an example as a class, the instructor should then partner up the students and have the pairs each take to individual computers. Again, as outlined in the Instructions for Students subsection, each student will tell his or her partner of a favorite song, and then help them locate a version online. Repeating the same sort of exercise as they did with the instructor, the students will identify the objective components that make up the genre of their partner's song, and then suggest what they think is a similar song (and, again, locating a version online for their partner to hear). When all the pairings have finished the exercise, the instructor should ask them to share the results of the exercise — what song their partner gave them; what song they suggested in return and why; whether the partner liked the new song — with the rest of the class.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

Before class, instructors should select their example carefully. There is often a generational divide between the instructor and her students, so they may not know many of the same songs. The instructor should thus try to play a more contemporary artist, and one that is relatively generic, in order to make the example easier to understand. Furthermore, having similar songs already in mind would help illustrate the ideas and stoke discussion. When I have done this exercise, I have played "Treasure" by Bruno Mars for my students, comparing the style and instrumentation to "Baby I'm Yours" by Breakbot (as well as this mashup by The White Panda).

Instructions For Students: 

Whenever listening to a piece of music during this exercise — whether it's one that the instructor is playing, or a song shared by their peers — students should write down the objective musical elements that they hear. These include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Instrumentation (e.g., acoustic guitar, synthesizer, female lead vocals, drumset)
  • Song form (e.g., Verse-Chorus-Verse-Chorus-Bridge-Chorus)
  • Tempo and time signature
  • Timbre and tone (i.e., does it sound distorted and angry? slow and low?)
  • Finally: What genre do these elements suggest?

In the second half of class, the students will break into pairs. Each one will tell his or her partner one of their favorite pieces of music, and help the partner to locate a version to listen to on YouTube or Spotify (or possibly using their own iPod). After listening to the partner's piece of music once or twice and writing down the above components, each student should try to think of other songs they have heard before that have similar qualities. The students will then suggest those new comparable songs to their partners, assisting them in finding a version on YouTube or Spotify. Once they are both finished and have listened to the suggestions, the students should discuss with one another what they liked (and what they might not have liked) about the second songs, then share those results with the class.

Evaluation Suggestions: 

This assignment is ungraded — all that matters is participation.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

Students have generally enjoyed this exercise, and are better prepared for later lessons on syllogisms, enthymemes and fallacies. Furthermore, once they have finished the assignment, I have noticed a few students logging on to Facebook to friend their partners, which helps to build a healthy class atmosphere for the rest of the semester.

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