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Even if you have had no formal music training, you very likely have some embodied knowledge of music. Most people have a "feel the beat" knowledge that lets them clap, snap fingers, sway, nod, tap toes, walk, march, or dance "in time" with familiar kinds of music. Many people also have embodied singing skills that let them sing, alone or with others, with the correct rhythms and pitches. Although an inability to do this is sometimes called a "tin ear," the problem is usually a lack of practice singing (embodied knowledge) as much as a lack of ear training.

A music knowledge inquiry

If you believe you don't know anything about music, or are not certain what kinds of music knowledge you already have and how they might be useful as you learn more about music, then you may want to start with the inquiry below. If you feel you are already aware of the types of music knowledge that you have and how they might help you learn more, then you may prefer to explore a specific type of knowledge instead: ethnomusicology (cultural knowledge), Listening to Unfamiliar Music , ear training, how music is written, learning music theory, and music as practice (embodied knowledge).


The questions you will be exploring in this inquiry are:

  • What do I already know about music?
  • How did I get that knowledge?
  • How might I go about learning more about music?


    Choose three types of music to investigate:

  • Choose one kind of music that is very familiar because you like it very much and have chosen to sing, play, or listen to it often.
  • Choose one kind of music that is very familiar because other people in your culture value it. (Perhaps your music teachers insisted that you learn it, for example, or you hear it in your place of worship, your parents took you to places where it was played, or your friends listen to it often.
  • Choose one kind of music that is unfamiliar but that you would like to learn more about.

For each type of music you have chosen, find a recording of a piece that you feel is typical of that type of music. For each of these pieces, listen to the piece and do your best to answer all of the questions in the list below. It's a pretty long list, and you will be answering it three times and then making notes about your answers, so you may want to print out three copies of the list (here is a PDF ) and write the answers in single words or short phrases. (For example, the answer to "what do the musicians wear" might be "tuxes" or "torn jeans and t-shirts.") Use standard terms when you can, but your own descriptions are also fine. (For example, you might describe the rhythm as "salsa groove," "syncopated," or "6/8 time,", but "like a march," "fast and smooth," or "unpredictable" are also good.) If you have no answer at all to the question, write a question mark instead of an answer.

list of questions

    Now go back and think about each answer that you gave

  • If you are confident that an answer would be considered "correct" by the musicians who performed the piece, put a star next to it.
  • If your answer may not be the officially-correct answer, but you believe it is accurate and makes sense, put a check mark next to it.
  • If you were just guessing, or have no idea if your answer is accurate or would make sense to others, put a question mark next to it.

As the last step of your investigation, look at each answer that is marked with a star or check mark, and try to remember how, where, or from whom you learned it. Write down a short note next to the star or check mark listing where the knowledge came from: for example "piano lessons," "reading," "school choir," "dance hall," "friends," or "Dad."


Study the sets of answers on the three sheets. Look for patterns, connections, and themes. For example, does most of your knowledge come from one or two sources? Are you more confident about knowledge from a particular source? Can you group the questions that you could not answer into two or three categories? Are there types of knowledge that seem to be your strong points or weak points right now? Are the patterns the same or different on the three sheets? What you want to create is a way to organize this information so that it says something about you as a musician and music learner.

Create a single chart, diagram, map, outline, or sketch that shows the patterns, groups, connections, or themes that you are discovering. It may take you several tries to figure out how to arrange the information so that it clearly shows the patterns, groups and connections. Simply trying to arrange the information will help you think about it, so try out different arrangements or different types of charts or diagrams until you have something that you think clearly shows something about you as a music learner.


If you are doing this inquiry as part of a group or class, show your chart/diagram to the group. Explain what you think it shows about you as a music learner. Look and listen carefully to other people's presentations, and ask questions when you notice anything that is interesting, surprising, or unclear. After everyone has made their presentations, compare the various patterns and connections that were found and discuss the likely reasons for similarities and differences.

If you are not part of an inquiry group, try to find a way to discuss what you have discovered about yourself with someone who would be interested. One good way to interest people is to ask questions about the things that you don't know and gather advice, rather than talking about what you do know. For example, your music teacher might want to know that you feel your "ear" is not as advanced as your music-reading; or a friend might admit to having similar questions and suggest that you go to a concert together to try to learn more.


    What have you learned about where you are and where you might go next as a music learner?

  • What music knowledge are you most interested in pursuing right now? Are you interested in developing a particular kind of knowledge about familiar music? Learning more about an unfamiliar kind of music?
  • What are your strengths as a music learner right now? In what ways might you expand or build on these strengths in your quest to learn more?
  • How have you gotten most of your current music knowledge? What types of resources have you found most useful and accessible? How might you find these types of resources for your next music-learning inquiry?
  • Is there a particular type of music knowledge that appears to be a weak point for you right now? Might there be resources that you have not tried yet that would help you gain this type of knowledge?

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Source:  OpenStax, Music inquiry. OpenStax CNX. Mar 18, 2013 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11455/1.4
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