HUM 223: Ethnic Music
Springfield College in Illinois
Fall Semester 2006

Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art. -- Charlie 'Bird' Parker

How to Write a Reflective Response on Music
(or literature of any other work of art)

From time to time this semester, you'll be asked to write a kind of paper I call a reflective response. It's a term I made up (which means I think it's brilliant, right?), and the technique should help you get beyond writing papers that just say it's-a-nice-song-and-I-liked-it to saying why you liked it. I borrowed the technique from literary studies, where it's known as reader response. But it works just as well with other works of art, and it helps you think -- or reflect -- on the song, the painting, the Native American dance tradition or whatever. So instead of a listener response or a viewer response or whatever, I call it a reflective response because you think about the work of art you're responding to.

When you write a paper for me, write as if you were writing for a general audience. Look at the music reviews in a good newspaper like The Chicago Tribune or a magazine like Rolling Stone for examples. I will link others to my humanities weblog at as I find them. Scroll down, read a few of the stories I've linked to and you'll see the kind of writing I like. Your purpose in writing the paper is twofold: (1) to get a better understanding of how your taste in music is formed, in other words what it is about the music that you react to; and (2) to communicate that understanding to someone else. It's easier to do it with a song or a composition that you like, but it's not 100 percent necessary. I've had very good papers that slam-dunked a piece of art! Criteria for grading will be the usual ones: How well organized is your paper? Does it flow smoothly and logically from one point to the next? Do you back up your points with specific examples? Do you identify your sources? Do you understand the concepts we're dealing with? How thoughtful is your paper? How creative is it? I will use my rubric for grading.

In some ways, writing about music is like writing about a poem or a play in English classes. In other ways, it's different. Here's what Dartmouth University has to say about one type of music paper:

In a review, you should focus on the form of the music. What sounds make up the music? How does the composer or performer fuse together these different sound elements? How do the different movements work together to create the music's overall effect? Remember to stay away from comments beginning with "I" that reflect only how the music affected you. Instead, question the music using criteria by which we judge excellence, and provide insight into those elements of excellence. ("Writing")

The reflective response papers you write for me will be a lot like reviews at Dartmouth. You don't have to stay away from "I" statements altogether; in my classes, in fact, you shouldn't even try. In doing reflective response papers, I want you to start with your own reaction to the music. But I want you to go beyond that and focus on the music. Here's how. As you listen to it, ask yourself these questions:

Here, from Robert E. Probst of Georgia State University, are some more detailed questions you can ask yourself as you create an interpretation that works for you. He was talking about reading, but it works for : "Read the text [or listen to the music] and record what happens as you read -- what do you remember, feel, question, see ... ? Afterwards, think back over the experience. What is your own sense of the text . . . does it recall memories; does it affirm or contradict any of your own attitudes or perceptions? What did you see happening in the text? . . . What image was called to mind by the text? Describe it briefly. . . . Upon what did you focus most intently as you read -- what word, phrase, image, idea? What is the most important word in the text? Does this text call to mind any other literary work (poem, play, film, story -- any genre)? If it does, what is the connection between the two? How do the circumstances -- this room, this group, other events in your life -- help shape the reading?" (43-44) Think it through, and craft a thesis statement giving your overall response to the work. Then support your thesis by quoting and analyzing the passages you identified.

A Handy Format

If you're writing a reflective response essay, here's a useful three-part format to follow.

  1. Circumstances. Give a one- to three-paragraph introduction to your essay (and it can go longer for a term paper). Start by describing the concert, or if you're reacting to a recording by saying what's on your mind, where and why you're listening to the work - or listening to it again - what your first reaction was, how you feel about it now, what you had for dinner, what the weather's like, anything that sets the stage.
  2. Background. Here's where you give the necessary information about the piece. Title, artist, style of music. Example: "Uncle Dave Macon was one of the most popular performers in the early days of the Grand Ole Opry. He started out in traveling medicine shows and made the jump to the record industry and radio during the 1920s. His 'Gray Cat on a Tennessee Farm' is still a favorite tune among Appalachian dulcimer players."
  3. Analysis. As always, argue a thesis. Support your thesis by quoting passages from the lyrics and analyzing the music. Check those suggestions from Dartmouth again. They'll tell you what to look for. Find some reviews on the internet and quote them. Agree with them, or disagree with them. And say why. Remember, in college-level writing, an unsupported thesis is sudden death!

To see an example of how I might draft a reflective response essay, click here. Note how I use the sources as a stepping stone to my own interpretation -- one that nobody else has ever written before.

Works Cited

Probst, Robert E. “Reader-Response Theory and the English Curriculum.” English Journal March 1994: 37-44.

"Writing the Music Paper." Dartmouth Writing Program. 2004. 24 Aug. 2006.

-- Pete Ellertsen, Becker L-16, Springfield College in Illinois

Click here to return to my faculty page.