Philosophy for Children: Introduction to 20th Century Music

By: Angie Mullins


During Grade 10, music students study the four main eras of music history: Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Twentieth Century.

The musical set works we study during the first three eras are relatively accessible, but the Twentieth Century set works are incredibly challenging on a conceptual basis. These set works range from pieces of absolute serialism to a piece consisting entirely of silence.

I have found, in the past, that the students find these works far more accessible if they have an understanding of the social climate at the time of composition.

This year I chose to incorporate the P4C methodology into this section of work. I assigned each of my five students one of the following topics:

  • Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity
  • Pablo Picasso and the Reinvention of Perspective
  • Sigmund Freud and Psychoanalysis
  • Friedrich Nietzsche and Nihilism
  • 38 Million Corpses and World War I

Students were asked to comment on how these topics caused a sense of instability in the early 1900s.

Each student did a 10 to 15 minute presentation on their topic which served as the stimulus for a philosophical enquiry. The questions that were formulated and selected from these stimuli were:

  • Does time really exist?
  • How green is that tree?
  • If more people were crazy would sane people be institutionalized?
  • To what extent is religion constructed through culture and society?
  • How many lives are ‘too many’ to sacrifice for the greater good?

While this method has meant that I was not able to spend as much time analyzing the actual music as I have in previous years, I feel that my students have gained an in depth understanding of the climate of instability that was present at this time and are thus able to approach all of the music of this era with a greater sense of appreciation and discernment.