A music appreciation course can be a window into a better understanding of music of all types. In decades past, most music appreciation courses focused almost exclusively on Western classical music. However, the curriculum scope has broadened. As of 2010, courses include some instruction on Word Music, in addition to material on music basics, periods, instruments and composers.
Music appreciation courses start with instruction on the basics of music, such as melody, harmony, rhythm, structure and form. The early portion of the course will likely involve more lecture than any other portion. The instructor will play examples of different kinds of music to illustrate the points emphasized in the lectures.
To better understand music of any genre, a sense of the music’s production is vital. A course that focuses on Western music will involve instruction about the different instrument families: wind, brass, string and percussion. The instructor may play recordings of the different instruments and how they sound in various types of compositions. For example, the oboe may sound plaintive in a melancholy Romantic Period piece but more vigorous in a modern composition. Teachers will expect students to start learning to identify each individual instrument and to understand how composers employ varying instruments to achieve a certain effect. Some music appreciation courses may include material on early instruments, such as the harpsichord.
The typical music appreciation course involves some study of the various periods of classical music, to include at least Baroque, Classical, Romantic and 20th century. The instructor will play many examples of music from each period, perhaps asking the class to compare and contrast work within and across periods. This kind of discussion will help students to begin to discuss music intelligently. Teachers may also call upon students to write about music of the various periods.
Every period has its exemplary composers, such as Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff. Lecture material will include information about the composer's life and the milieu within which he created. The course instructor will play excerpts of works with different instrumentations, for solo artists and ensembles, and from different periods of the composer's life. Teachers may expect students to compare and contrast different works by the same composer, or to compare the work of one composer to another. As the course progresses, the instructor might play a musical excerpt, and ask the class to identify the composer.
Most music appreciation courses offer some instruction on non-Western musical traditions. The music of China, India, other Asian countries, parts of Africa and South America may be included. Instruction relative to the different scales, rhythms, tonalities and structures employed by non-Western music is the norm. For example, the teacher may explore the pentatonic scale, which is the basis of Chinese music. This portion of the course, especially, may help enhance students' appreciation of popular music, as many pop artists include non-Western influences in their work.