Cal State Fullerton’s Stan Breckenridge, Ph.D., professor of African-American music history, jazz and composition, discussed his novel, “Music Taste or Waste: Critical Listening Skills for Students, Teachers, and Parents,” Tuesday as part of a special lecture series for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).
His lecture was the final installment in OLLI’s “The Great American Songbook,” a series of six free classes in the Mackey Auditorium that cover American music history.
An accomplished academian who earned his doctorate in musicology, Breckenridge is also a professional vocalist, pianist, composer and author. As a specialist in American music, Breckenridge has published two books previously: “African American Music for Everyone: Including Theater, Film, and Dance” and “Popular Music in America: Forging the American Spirit.”
His newest novel was inspired by the desire to educate parents, teachers and students on why they listen to certain songs and don’t appreciate others, Breckenridge said. The purpose of the novel is to inspire more active listeners of music who can identify and understand for why they prefer certain songs over others, Breckenridge said.
Because the majority of the crowd was composed of OLLI members who were older, Breckenridge related this idea to the music that someone’s grandchild would listen to, which others might identify as sounding like “noise.”
“That’s what this book does,” Breckenridge said. “It asks us to consider these various elements as a way to understand music.” To open the lecture, Breckenridge played two contrasting songs. The first from the heavy metal band Pleasure of Pain and the other from rhythm and blues artist Amy Winehouse. He then asked the audience to express their thoughts and opinions of each selection, segueing into the main topic of his lecture.
“What do we use to decide what we prefer?” Breckenridge asked. “We prefer certain songs and certain styles over others, but for what reasons though?”
To lead the discussion, Breckenridge mainly used chapter seven of his novel, which deals with performance practices, because it acts as a compilation and summary of the previous chapter. The chapter covers the components of melody, harmony and rhythm as tools that affect a song’s likability, Breckenridge said.
“Don’t think about how it makes you feel, think about what is it that you hear that makes you feel the way that you do,” he said. Throughout the rest of the discussion, he played a diverse genre of songs such as Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” as examples. Breckenridge elaborated on these components of melody, harmony and rhythm.
To close out the afternoon, Breckenridge took requests and performed a doo-wop rendition of Nat King Cole’s “Route 66” on the piano, which captivated the audience, eliciting loud cheers and a standing ovation. Though the discussion mostly drew an OLLI crowd, some CSUF students, such as 24-year-old psychology major, Michael Reyes, were in attendance. The name of the discussion caught Reyes’ attention because it was intriguing, he said. Reyes said he might use some of Breckenridge’s elements to change the way he listens to music, particularly in terms of lyrics.
Richard Matsumoto, an OLLI member and student in the Great American Songbook class, said he wasn’t sure what the concept of the lecture was until he arrived. Matsumoto still thoroughly enjoyed the event and will be utilizing elements from Breckenridge’s discussion, such as judging songs by their rhythmic progressions, when he listens to music.
Sandra Henry, OLLI member and attendee of the lecture, said it opened her mind to the idea of listening to new music. “I think I will try to appreciate it better because there is a lot of music that I just kind of turn off,” Henry said. “This probably would broaden my horizon so that I possibly could connect better with music that my children listen to and my grandchildren listen to.”