The 4 Cs: Critical Thinking

“The music classroom is a perfect place to teach critical thinking and problem solving,” says MENC member Donna Zawatski. Instead of giving students the answers, she asks questions that will clarify the process and lead to better solutions from the students. “Students will define the problem, come up with solutions based on their previous experience, create, and then reflect on what they’ve created,” she says.

Analyzing and Composing Music

Zawatski plays several music works for students to analyze. John William’s “Jaws” is a favorite. She asks questions to get students thinking:

  1. “What picture was the composer trying to paint?” she asks. “Fear,” is usually the answer.
  2. “In your opinion, what expressive quality did the composer use most effectively to paint that picture?” The most frequent answer is “melody.” The low-pitched half step at the beginning of the piece creates fear.

    Students sometimes ask Zawatski to experiment with other intervals and pitch levels on the piano to see what the effect would be. “You know you have them hooked when they ask you to do this,” she says.

    Other answers:

    Tempo—by speeding up, the listener knows the shark is nearby.
    Tone color—an instrument played in the lower range is much more ominous.
    Articulation and dynamics—for various reasons.

After listening, students draw from their own experiences to compose. Zawatski asks them to predict what expressive qualities would capture audience interest, tapping into their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.

Other Tips

  • Accept many different solutions, and dispel the idea that there is only one “right way” to do things.
  • Encourage students to see themselves as composers. Motivate them by inviting a composer from the community to class or showing a video clip of a composer at work.
  • Loosen up your parameters. Solicit student-generated problems for the class to solve.
  • Allow for a variety of ways for students to express what they know, and encourage them to use their skills.
  • Call activities challenges, projects, or opportunities to avoid the negative vibe of “problem.”

Adapted from “4C + 1C = 1TGMT,” by Donna Zawatski, Illinois Music Educator, Volume 71, Number 3. Used with permission.

Donna Zawatski teaches teach K–5 general music at Thomas Metcalf Lab School on the Illinois State University campus in Normal, Illinois. She is the JEM (Junior High/Elementary Music) VP for the Illinois MEA.

—Linda C. Brown, August 17, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (