MESA Banner
Teaching Language with Music and Music with Language: Pedagogical Innovations in Ethnomusicology and Arabic Language Instruction

Session III-16, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel offers much-needed discussion on new pedagogical approaches that stretch the boundaries of teaching Arabic as a foreign language and instruction in musics of the Middle East and North Africa. The five contributors - two language instructors and three ethnomusicologists - present reflections and tools from their own classroom experiences utilizing music, arts, and culture as aids in Arabic language learning and using Arabic as part of teaching music theory concepts, practical musical performance, and music history and culture. Taken together, these papers provide an integrated approach that blends the sonic aspects of the musical, linguistic/textual, and aesthetic and broaches important overlapping topics in the socio-cultural and historical elements of language and the arts. Listening often gets short shrift in the Arabic language classroom, which privileges reading, writing, and speaking. Meanwhile, students in ethnomusicology area studies courses on music of the MENA region rarely learn to pronounce and comprehend, no less sing the most commonly occurring words in the songs they study. The authors on this panel seek to bridge these gaps with innovative and interdisciplinary frameworks that combine foreign language and ethnomusicology course content and assignments, emphasize the oral-aural in language and music studies, and consider advantages and disadvantages of translation. One paper will discuss the advantages of teaching vocabulary, grammar, word usage, dialect, and register through songs and singing in class and highlight music-oriented projects and assignments, including the use of college radio stations. In a complementary work, another panelist will present on teaching tajwīd (the traditions and styles of reciting the Qur’ān) in the Arabic language classroom, such as using makhārij al-ḥurūf to teach pronunciation. In the sphere of music pedagogy, a third panelist will reflect on their extensive experience teaching students to sing in Arabic as members of college performance ensembles. Another paper explores issues of music theory and aural skills instruction in Anglophone MENA music courses, arguing for the benefits of keeping terms in Arabic. Finally, a fifth paper proposes the “sonic nexus” as a guiding concept in ethnomusicology MENA courses, locating music in relation to soundings of language, ritual, and the everyday.
Media Arts
  • From musical settings of medieval Sufi poetry, to renditions of modern poetic works, to contemporary hip-hop and trap, when utilized effectively in the language classroom, music can help students develop and maintain Arabic proficiency at all levels. In addition to helping to improve listening, speaking, grammar, and pronunciation, a music-centered curriculum - and active participation in music-making in the classroom - encourages students to connect meaningfully with the Arabic language through embodied practices. As I highlight in this paper, teaching Arabic through the lens of music and cultural arts can illuminate cultural, societal, political, and historical topics while simultaneously providing rich opportunities for pleasurable enjoyment of its sheer sonic and aesthetic beauty. This paper argues that incorporating music-making, listening, and sharing as an essential component of the Arabic language classroom has wide-ranging benefits. Drawn from pedagogical experience and classroom observations, student surveys and interviews, and critical literature in the field of second language acquisition, the author presents several innovative approaches, teaching tools, and course assignments that can accelerate and augment the learning experience for students. This approach also provides a welcome alternative to the standard avenues for teaching Arabic in the US that have focused on developing language for diplomacy, journalism, and war. Listening is one of the greatest challenges for Arabic learners, especially given the complex diglossic nature of the language and the diversity of spoken dialects. By assigning regular “listening portfolios,” instructors can empower students to explore topics of particular interest to them, while simultaneously increasing their exposure to colloquial speech. College radio stations are, I argue, an untapped resource for language instruction; the radio station is readily transformed into an interactive language lab for engaged, multidimensional, dialogue-based, student-centered activation of the language they are learning in the classroom. Curating, hosting, broadcasting, and sharing their own Arabic radio shows gives students a great sense of accomplishment and strengthens their commitment to language learning and cultural learning more broadly. Furthermore, given the ease with which music broadcasts, audio recordings, and playlists can be shared across distances, this method has a unique capability of connecting students with native speakers abroad, fostering meaningful human connections beyond the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, entering music in the Arabic classroom not only improves overall learning outcomes but also makes the material more meaningful and enjoyable.
  • For the past 25 years, the William & Mary Middle Eastern Music Ensemble has been introducing students to the Arab world and Middle East, and their Diasporas though music. As a forum for exploring the varied histories, repertoires, performers, composers, contexts and audiences for this music, students learn through experience as they tenuously tap out and then fully embrace rhythms, melodies, musical forms, song lyrics, and the terminology of musical discourse. The ensemble routinely works with guest artist/scholars who bring their languages, musical repertoires, and cultural demeanors into our mix, requiring the group to collaborate in new ways toward the common goal of transmission through rehearsal and then performance. While the ensemble has performed repertoire in Farsi, Greek, Ladino, and Turkish, the lingua franca of the group is Arabic. By literally putting Arabic into their bodies and intentionally performing song lyrics, ensemble participants are invited into the cultures and biographies of songs, artists, and communities. They then share this knowledge, however kinesthetic, visceral, and emotional it is, with audiences -- from their peers and professors, to communities of heritage, who attend our concerts (and often sing along!). The effect of learning Arabic through “techniques of the body” (Mauss) can have profound impact, as is demonstrated by the millions of non-Arabic speakers who study the Qur’an worldwide. In addition to expanding their worlds, the embodiment of Arabic, however rudimentary can lead to serious language study, to travel and work abroad, to new relationships (including love and marriage), to enlightening political reorientation, to empowering insights on family heritage, to creative endeavors, and even to moments of tarab-enhanced spirituality. This paper investigates the aesthetics of language performance through the rehearsal of music and draws on a quarter century of teaching and learning in the context of a university-based ensemble. The presentation also incorporates lessons from more than two decades of ethnographic research and musical performance in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim majority country in the world, and one where the experience of Arabic through speech, recitation, song, and music is key not only to religious ritual and education but to civic and social life as well.
  • Qur’anic recitation, or tajwīd, is an art form that can be used as a pedagogical tool to encourage, support, and enrich the learning experience of students of both Classical and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), or fuṣḥā. Understanding tajwīd rules engages the four major skills of language (reading, writing, listening, speaking) and provides students with a firm grounding in foundational aspects of formal Arabic, especially pronunciation. Learning tajwīd can motivate students of Arabic by helping them build embodied connections to the complex sonic aspects of language and nuanced meanings. This paper draws from classroom observation and applied linguistics research to explore the wide-ranging benefits of utilizing tajwīd as used as a tool for Arabic language instruction. The fundamental principles of learning tajwīd are: (1) the points of articulation (makhārij al-ḥurūf); (2) the manner of articulation (ṣifāt al-ḥurūf); and (3) the rules of recitation (aḥkām at-tilāwa). Through exercises directed at precise articulation, students of Arabic can learn to differentiate between vowels and fine-tune their pronunciation of consonants. By actively engaging with the language in this way, students learn to express musicality in tone and rhythm, while simultaneously absorbing grammatical rules and sentence structures along the way. Relatedly, this paper also argues for a reconceptualization of conventional categories of Arabic learners (i.e. non-native, heritage, native speakers). Since everyone learns MSA in school, this author argues that native speakers of formal Arabic do not exist, and that fuṣḥā ought to be considered as a foreign language for everyone. From this perspective, learning Arabic through tajwīd can benefit anyone learning MSA, regardless of linguistic background. This is the case even in countries where Arabic is an official national language. For example, many Amazigh students in Morocco grow up in environments in which Arabic is not commonly spoken in their communities or homes. For these students who study Arabic as a second language in school, tajwīd training can be a key step in the language learning journey and can aid them in the process of integration into Moroccan society. Teaching tajwīd can be a challenge, especially for students who did not grow up in Arabic-speaking countries. However, the beauty of this challenge lies in the aesthetic pleasure of the experience. For students and teachers alike, including tajwīd as a part of Arabic pedagogy can be immensely beneficial, not only in language development, but also in appreciating the traditional craft and artistry of reciting the Qur’an.
  • The process of teaching Arabic music and music theory to non-Arabophone audiences involves two separate and interrelated problems: translation of the language of Arabic theory to render it legible to students, and development of the aural skills to apply musical abstraction to sonic practice. Of these, musicians and teachers invariable acknowledge the second as the more difficult task. Despite ongoing progress in the translation of the over 11-hundred years of musical theorizing available in the Arabic language, the aural/oral nature of the tradition makes the direct connection of theoretical concepts to sound difficult, especially in the initial stages for non-native musicians. Moreover, the English translation of theoretical language absent direct sonic referent has the potential to create false precision, as the mathematical clarity of intervallic and maqam-degree concepts give the illusion of isomorphism with English lexical equivalents. More plainly, the note C is not rāst, and rāst is not a C; even if he occasionally said “Do”, ʿAbdel Wahab’s “Do” was not Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Do.” This paper describes an attempt to circumvent the problem of musico-linguistic incommensurability in Ali Kisserwan’s recent work Liqa ͑ al-Harimayn - Alḥān Moḥamad ʿabd al-Wahāb li-Umm Kulthum (Meeting of the Great Pyramids - The Compositions of Mohammad ʿAbdel Wahab for Umm Kulthum) translated by [this author] and Lama Zein. The availability of this corpus of 10 “long songs” (~400 pages or six hours of transcribed music) from the heart of the Golden Age tradition, and Kisserwan’s accompanying analyses, make it much easier for Anglophone students to link Arabic music-theoretical concepts directly to sound. After detailing the choices and compromises involved in our “English” version of Kisserwan’s analyses, I argue for a musicological and pedagogical practice of minimal or even non-translation, bypassing English to link Arabic theoretical language directly to that musical corpus. To conclude, I posit the (Arabic) theoretical language of Arabic maqām not simply as an addendum to the Western music theory curriculum, but as a solution to some of the other longstanding problems of that curriculum: specifically an underdeveloped English vocabulary for the practice and analysis of linear motion and improvisation.
  • In his watershed book, "How Musical is Man?" (1973), John Blacking proffered a new definition of ‘music’ that has become bedrock substrate for ethnomusicological discourse: “humanly organized sound.” However dated his terminology, Blacking hoped to destabilize Eurocentric and exclusionary frameworks in favor of culturally-relative, contextual, and relational definitions. Taking up his project in a new light, this talk presents a new approach to ethnomusicological teaching about music of the Arab world or music in the MENA region. Drawing on Sound Studies, Linguistics, and Linguistic Anthropology, this new paradigm centers around ‘sound,’ rather than ‘music,’ as the nexus of music, language, voiced religious expression, and everyday life. How do different cultural groups organize sound differently from each other or across time and place? Within a shared cultural area, what are the recurring themes or tensions across different types of organized sound (i.e. music, language, ritual oral/aural expression)? Though this model may be useful in teaching about many musico-cultural worlds, I explore several reasons why the ‘sonic nexus’ lends itself especially to the study of the Arabic-speaking world. These include: (1) the centrality of the human voice; (2) the importance of orality in Qur’anic recitation and religious commentary and in the oral arts of poetry, storytelling, and music; (3) the emphasis on the value of listening as a site of knowledge transmission and production, and (4) the significant parallels between regional linguistic dialects and musical diversity. While it is logical to concentrate on the Arabic language and the musical idioms of Arabic-speaking people, the ‘sonic nexus’ affords pedagogical inroads into the study of the musics and languages of other groups of the MENA region including, but not limited to Indigenous peoples (e.g. Imazighen, Tuareg, Bedouin groups), minority religious communities (e.g. Jews, Christians, Copts, Zoroastrians, Bahai.), and minority racial and ethnic groups including (e.g. Peoples of Sub-Saharan descent, Druze, Maronites). The ‘sonic nexus’ framework also opens up discussion of the soundscapes of violence, war, and political protest and is a generative platform from which to examine the various ways that ‘music’ is/has been conceptualized and the legality of music-making and listening in Islamic and Jewish Law. In conclusion, I argue that opening up music teaching to include the study of language enriches student understanding of the inextricable connections between music and language in Arab creative expression, cultural practices, history, and politics.