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Online Music History Materials

“How Resonances Came to Be”

My music appreciation textbook, Resonances: Engaging Music in Its Cultural Context (2020), was born out of an email I received on March 27, 2018. The message came from an adjunct music appreciation instructor at my institution and was addressed to the entire appreciation faculty:

Hi Esther and all,

I’m wanting to revamp my approach to Music App next semester.  Do you know of any textbooks or sources that organize music into ‘moods’ (for lack of a better term)?  I’d like to present pieces that reflect moods or affects such as:

Sacred/awe of god
Awe of nature
Drug use

I’m preparing to go without a textbook but was wondering if you were aware of one that already does something like this? 

This instructor was inspired to ask his question by a conversation that had taken place two months earlier, at our first-ever retreat for music appreciation faculty. At the University of North Georgia, music appreciation—the sole music class in the core curriculum—is taught by a large and diverse roster of faculty (19 different instructors in the 2017-2018 school year) across four campuses and online. After years of knowing only their names, I had set out to build personal connections between instructors for the purpose of sharing ideas and improving teaching. (I have written extensively about our Faculty Learning Community here.) The retreat was our kick-off event. We spent most of the day discussing the purpose of music appreciation and sharing our unique approaches. I then encouraged instructors to stay in touch using an Outlook Group I had set up for the purpose—exactly as this instructor was doing.

I hit “Reply All” and responded:

Too fun. I love it. But I don’t know of any textbook or other resource that takes such an approach.

However, another adjunct instructor took the inquiry a bit more seriously:

Looking at your list I see some topics that could be joined together to form some larger units (not sure if you thought of it that way). Heroism/Nationalism/Protest/Victory/Pride as an example.

I also agree with Esther – I haven’t run across a textbook yet with this layout.

My immediate reaction to this is if you can’t find a text, make your own. Granted, writing an entire textbook is a huge project but you could cobble together readings from sources to address these topics.

I am also scrapping my current text and working on revamping my course for next year. I’m going to borrow a few ideas from Esther as well.

I followed up:

If anyone is feeling 1) super excited about this and 2) suicidally ambitious, we could collaborate on an open textbook for UNG Press. I’m on the board and I’m sure they would be interested. I think there’s a real market for this approach.

The response to my second email was staggering. Within hours, eight instructors had indicated their interest in getting involved with the creation of a new textbook. Never one to think twice, I immediately set up a meeting with UNG Press to pitch the idea (and also a meeting with the lead editor of another UNG Press textbook to see if she would talk me out of it). The Press was enthusiastic, and I was provided with an overview of what the process would look like.

First, I needed to secure an Affordable Learning Georgia (ALG) Textbook Transformation grant. ALG is a state program that funds the creation and adoption of Open Educational Resources (OER) across the University System of Georgia, and UNG Press is the official publication outlet for OER textbooks created through ALG grants. At the time I applied, the grant framework heavily favored large teams: the funding maximum was $30,000, yet the maximum for an individual stipend was $5,000, and UNG Press was only asking for about $7,000 to cover the expenses related to peer review, copyright clearance, and typesetting. I issued a blanket invitation to all the instructors to join the grant team, providing a list of ways in which they might contribute—writing sections, sourcing images, creating supplementary materials, designing graphics, checking proofs, and managing the YouTube playlists. In the end, the ALG application listed nine team members, with a tenth joining in the second year. Seven of those team members were adjunct instructors, most of whom held degrees in music performance.

ALG made this project possible, but also placed restrictions on our work that profoundly shaped the outcomes. Most significantly, ALG grant projects must be concluded within a maximum of three semesters. We learned that we had been awarded a grant on February 1, 2019. The completed manuscript was due to the Press on October 14, at which point it would undergo peer review. We had already agreed on our general approach and sketched out potential sections and examples at a January meeting (a “special edition” of the annual retreat that had first brought us into conversation on the topic of curriculum redesign). Now the only task left was to write the darn thing.

To facilitate collaboration, I set up a series of Google Docs to which all team members had access. One of my collaborators took principal responsibility for the first chapter, which was concerned primarily with music cognition and therapy—topics on which she had expertise. I was in charge of the remainder of the book, and ended up writing most of it myself. Four other instructors indicated an interest in contributing writing, although none of them had a clear idea about the specific topics they wanted to cover. I made assignments based on my knowledge of their interests and expertise, and also my awareness of my own deficiencies. Although editing for coherence was a significant task, they all brought significant insights to the project. Other team members corrected errors, provided feedback, and suggested or created auxiliary materials. By the first week of October, the book was done.

Nothing about the remainder of the process is really worth commenting on. I responded to reviewer reports, made revisions, produced teaching materials, and—with invaluable assistance from team members—corrected the proofs. Given the extraordinary workload and limited resources of UNG Press, the composition process was fairly rushed, but one of the marvelous things about our mode of publication is that corrections and revisions can be made on an ongoing basis. Resonances exists principally as a PDF, free for download from the UNG Press website (a print version is also available at cost). The staff member in charge of typesetting can issue a revised edition at any time by making changes, compiling a new PDF, and publishing it to the website. The process takes a few weeks, but—with the cooperation of the Press—the book can be updated at any time. So far we have been through three rounds of revision (one to correct an initial exporting error and two to fix mistakes in the text), and a fourth is underway. We also plan to undertake a more significant revision in the future, funded by an ALG Continuous Improvement Grant. This will include significant changes to the contents and layout, which I hope will reflect feedback and contributions from instructors using the text at UNG and beyond.

Why Write a Music Appreciation Textbook?

As suggested by the email exchange above, none of us were happy with the traditional approach to teaching music appreciation, which is enshrined in most available textbooks. We wanted to de-center Western art music while still keeping it as a major focus of the curriculum. We also wanted to abandon the chronological approach and organize our material around themes, each of which would bring together examples from diverse traditions. We never imagined ourselves to be undertaking any sort of profound or transformative mission—we just wanted a curriculum that would facilitate teaching and learning that was meaningful, effective, and fun.

Before the creation of Resonances, our official text was Steven Cornelius and Mary Natvig’s marvelous Music: A Social Experience (whose essay about teaching music appreciation has also deeply influenced my thinking). I selected this textbook because it represents the approach to teaching music history that we all favored. It prompts students to consider the role of music in their lives, and brings them into contact with diverse examples. However, some of the instructors pointed out that adopting the Cornelius/Natvig text required a great deal of labor on their part. Although they appreciated what the book sought to accomplish, it relies heavily on non-Western examples that were unfamiliar to our faculty. With the new book, we wanted to leverage our collective expertise while also speaking to the region and history of our institution. UNG is located in the Southern Appalachians and houses the only Appalachian Studies Center within the University System of Georgia. For this reason (in combination with my own interests), several of the chapters explore musical traditions practiced in the Appalachians, including ballad singing, fiddle and banjo music, Sacred Harp singing, and square dancing. UNG is also the military college of Georgia, housing a full-time ROTC program from which hundreds of graduates commission into the US military each year. The history of military music, therefore, is explored in great depth in the context Philip Sousa’s career and works.

The structure and contents of Resonances reflect the textbook-less curriculum I had been pioneering for several years. In writing it, I essentially transcribed my own lectures, and the class I am teaching now with the textbook is nearly identical to the class I taught in the spring of 2019 without the textbook. However, having a text provides a number of advantages. I am now free to change my approaches to teaching—I can ask students to read the text outside of class, for example, and dedicate class time to collaborative listening or discussion. It is also easy to change up the curriculum from semester to semester, for Resonances was designed to contain about three complete semesters worth of material. Most importantly, Resonances is set up for easy adoption by new instructors. I remember my own first semester at UNG: I was hired at the end of July for a term that started in mid-August, meaning that I had about three weeks to pack up my house, move, and plan five courses on subjects I had never taught (or in some cases even studied). Without a prepackaged music appreciation course, I could not have done it.

However, I have never really thought of Resonances as a textbook. To me, it is a framework for thinking about and teaching music appreciation—a framework to which new themes and examples can easily be added, and within which the material can be infinitely rearranged. I hope that instructors are bringing their own interests and expertise to that framework, and I look forward to adding material that comes to my attention. In a way, Resonances is a confessional account of my own career; it reflects my experiences, interests, and biases. It can only be improved through future collaborative efforts.

The World of Open Education Resources

In addition to being freely available as a PDF, Resonances is published under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 license. This means that the contents can be reused, reformatted, and remixed in any way, as long as the initial authors are credited. Publishing under this license has already benefitted me enormously: in addition to the fact that the book has been widely adopted, other instructors have taken on the task of improving the contents and access. So far, collaborators at other institutions have produced a web version, supplied alt-text for the images, and provided a greatly expanded text for Appendix B, which outlines the history of Western art music. These last two improvements will be included in the next version of the book, which should be available in fall of 2021. Students are also free to pursue projects based on the text, such as the creation of podcasts, videos, posters, teaching guides—anything that can be dreamt up. All such derivative materials can then be published and shared.

The primary benefits to teaching with an OER textbook are fairly obvious: there is no cost to students, and they have instant access to the text. This offers an outsized advantage to low-income students and increases their likelihood of finishing college. (In addition, all students have no excuse for failing to obtain and read the textbook.) Numerous studies have confirmed the advantages of OER, which are associated with higher retention rates and improved performance. In a subject like music appreciation, which is taken to fulfill a core requirement, it is particularly amenable to provide students with a free text; most are not likely to consider a $100 textbook to be a worthwhile investment, and it is a relief to lift such a requirement.

The major drawback to publishing an OER is even more obvious: money. Although I was compensated by means of an ALG stipend (reduced significantly after my institution took its cut) and have also enjoyed the intangible professional benefits of being the editor-in-chief of a widely-used textbook, I will never see anything to match the royalties provided by commercial textbook publishers. I do have the advantage of serving at an institution that values this type of work, and I was able to compensate all of my contingent-faculty collaborators generously, which was of significant value to me and to our program. However, models for open-access publishing are improving each year, and programs like ALG seem to be gaining support. The production of high-quality OER can only serve the growth of open-access publishing, which is surely a worthwhile aim.