How could VTS be applied to music?

October 24, 2013   

Without launching into a detailed description, Visual Thinking Strategies is a great way to get learners of all ages and abilities to talk about and learn about visual art together. In fact, seeing it in action–seeing children as young as kindergarten or first grade quickly start to develop their visual literacy–is so inspiring that it makes me wish there were an analogous tool in music education. What would it take to adapt VTS’ approach of close looking to close listening?

There are a few challenges that present themselves immediately:

  • Music is time-based, so there is no immediately available object upon which to focus one’s observations or to refer to when considering the work as a whole
  • In music, what we hear is most often considered to be a performance of a piece, not the piece itself, though this relationship changes between musical styles
  • Music is typically non-representational, so telling a story with it relies on a very different set of skills than visual art

One recent approach to adapting VTS to music, Critical Thinking in Music (CTM), begins to tackle some of these challenges. Following VTS’ lead incredibly closely, CTM uses 40-second clips of musical recordings where VTS would use visual art. These clips are followed by nearly the same questions used in VTS:

  • What is going on in this music?
  • What do you hear that makes you say that?
  • What more can we find?

On the surface, this straightforward adaptation of VTS makes a lot of sense. We focus on 40-second segments, for example, because that is an appropriately short clip to keep in one’s mind after listening, enabling us to interact with the music as if it were an object that can be turned over, rotated, inspected closely, and so on.

The CTM approach does leave some lingering questions, however:

  • To what extent could this be adapted to allow the listeners to discuss formal aspects of the piece that span longer lengths of time?
  • Do Housen’s stages of aesthetic development apply to music? Do young listeners have the capacity to develop metaphorical understandings of music?