A Challenge for Everyone

Each year, the students in our schools compete to win (or in our school’s case this year, to defend!) the Scholar’s Cup. While it’s an enjoyable and friendly competition among Hillsdale member schools, it’s also a great opportunity to see how students are accumulating knowledge that leads to a life well-lived.

This year’s Fourth Grade challenge is a musical one:

Write a two paragraph explanation of how the melody for one song from the music curriculum developed and why it is appropriate for its genre using the basic elements of music.

It’s a prompt that calls on the students to use the elements of music (rhythm, pitch, dynamics, and tempo) that they’ve learned this year, alongside their skills of analysis and writing to explain how a song is effective at storytelling and why it is written the way it is.

The brilliant thing about this challenge is that it asks students to employ skills they can and should use to understand all music from all eras. There is no piece of music that can’t be aided by this process of analysis. This makes both the simplest pop music and the most complex twentieth century serialist music make sense.

Our students are gaining knowledge of the building blocks — the grammar — of music. They learn the how and the why — the logic — of music. And it is important that students also have the chance to engage in writing about — the rhetoric — in music. Once students have worked in all three of these categories, they are thinking like a composer! They are thinking the way the composer wanted them to! They understand music from the point of view of its author’s intent.

Many may think that this challenge is a trivial challenge, forcing students to use certain words in a certain order, but as our little musicians work on this prompt, they are challenged to think like a professional musician, and to be thoughtful, classically-informed listeners to works both great and small.