Drop the Needle

In the 1970s, “Drop the Needle” was a game one of MENC member Joseph Rutkowski’s college music professors played—a quiz in which he would drop the needle of a phonograph arm onto a turntable while an LP record was spinning. Students tried to identify the composer and piece.

Today, the LP has been replaced by CDs and MP3 players. Rutkowski decided to play an updated version of Drop the Needle in his classroom

Every day at the John L. Miller-Great Neck North High School in Long Island, he turns the radio to New York City classical radio station WQXR. Students get to hear great music and spend a minute or two of every class trying to guess which period the music comes from. (WQXR posts a daily playlist online that he refers to.)

Most of the time, orchestral music is broadcast on the station. Rutkowski asks the students to listen for the characteristics of each period of music:

  • Twanging harpsichord and contrapuntal texture tell us that the music is baroque
  • Clarity, symmetry and melodies that are singable and predictable suggest the classical period
  • Tonal melodies with lush accompaniment, rich sonority, and lots of brass and percussion mean that the piece might be from the romantic era
  • Atonality and dissonant harmonies often signal a 20th-century work.

When the class agrees which period the piece is from, Rutkowski asks student to name composers who might have written the piece. He also asks them to guess what category the piece is—for example, a symphony, concerto, opera, solo piano, chamber music, choral, etc.

If the piece is a minuet, he might inquire what the meter is. If a piece features a solo instrument, he asks students what the instrument is. This brief music history lesson allows the class to learn terms such as virtuosity, bel canto, impressionism, 12-tone, and counterpoint.

This daily game allows the more experienced listeners to show off their “resume” of known pieces, while students who never listen to classical music get the daily practice that helps them become discerning listeners.

Rutkowski says: “My greatest satisfaction comes when a student goes out and buys a CD of the pieces we heard, or a having a parent call to say that she is learning from her child about classical music, or that we actually hear a piece of music that our class has studied, rehearsed or performed.”

MENC Member Joesph Rutkowski teaches band and orchestra at John L. Miller-Great Neck North High School in Long Island, New York. The school’s Tri-M Chapter is 1st runner-up in MENC’s Chapter of the Year competition.

— Nicole Springer. December 1, 2010. © National Association for Music Education.