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Interdisciplinary inspirations: Using visual images to enhance your teaching

Meaningful connections

Successful teachers always try to make connections for students— creating and demonstrating meaningful relationships among various activities and concepts. They strive to show students how a good technique enables them to play their repertoire with greater ease; how understanding music theory makes reading and memorization easier; how the written notation represents sound and not just keys to press.

When exploring concepts related to form and style, we often stay within the confines of our own pianistic discipline. We look at the form represented in the piece being studied and see that it has a rondo form. We look at phrase structure in a Mozart minuet and discuss the Classical style. We see the complexity of contrapuntal writing in a Bach invention as an example of Baroque style. Although it is absolutely essential for students to discover elements of form and style in their own music, we could certainly broaden the student's artistic awareness if we branched out to include other disciplines in our teaching. I know from my own experience as a college student that I learned more about Romanticism via a German literature course than in my music history classes. It wasn't that what I was taught in music classes was shallow—it simply lacked perspective.

The following article by Susan Osborn gives many wonderful examples of how we can bring other disciplines into our piano lessons. I believe this is something which we should do, not just because it is necessary to our teaching, but because it so greatly enhances the students' under- standing of the broader world of artistic creation. In this article we see how students can learn through their visual sense, applying pictures and architecture to the music they are studying. I believe the best learning can happen through these types of meaningful connections.

Interdisciplinary inspirations: Using visual images to enhance your teaching

by Susan R. Osborn

I  am a pianist and teacher—this is my first artistic passion. But I have always loved exploring other artistic subjects. Consequently, I have developed interests in both photography and architecture. I began loving photography in my high school and college years; spending hours driving up and down the Jersey Shore, I photographed ocean scenes and historic homes. When I moved to Chicago, car trips were exchanged for "El" rides into the city, allowing me to observe the magnificence of skyscraper architecture. Subsequently, I became a docent for the Chicago Architecture Foundation and currently give river boat architecture tours on the Chicago River.

The heart of who I am as an artist is interdisciplinary. I believe that each artistic discipline is only made better by the study of another. Having developed an interdisciplinary workshop called "Teaching: What We Can Learn from the Actor," I've begun to think about how visual images could enhance our teaching as well. I have discovered that using photographic images and architecture in a lesson can enlighten my students' understanding in many ways.

Advanced musicians and great thinkers rely on these kinds of interdisciplinary inspirations on a routine basis. We can translate this kind of process into everyday lessons for our students growing in their art through the use of imagery. Like anything else that enhances our teaching, using imagery in a lesson takes thought and planning. Over time, a well-developed collection of photos and images can work well with certain genres or standard pieces. And there is much room for creativity in how you use them.

Points of comparison between photography/architecture and music

In my opinion, the use of photographs lends itself to slightly different purposes from that of architecture. While I like to use photographs (including anything from people scenes to landscape shots) to convey some of the more expressive qualities of music, I find that the use of architecture lends itself better to discussions of style and structure. Let's look at the two genres. 

Using photographs

"A great photograph is full of expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is thereby a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety." 1 -Ansel Adams

Photographs inspire us to wonder about the narrative behind the images. Let's consider some aspects common to photography and music: composition, story, style, and form. 


Photo composition

In a good photo, details serve to support a main subject in the photo. These details, or "characters," may include people, animals, or even inanimate objects such as buildings, trees, landscapes, or still-life objects. Enhanced by balance, form, symmetry, and view- point, the result is a storyline one can interpret. In contrast, a poorly composed photograph has several details with no focus, balance, or form, resulting in confusion and meaninglessness.

"Misty Walk Under Columbus Avenue Bridge" portrays a misty day under Columbus Avenue Bridge in Chicago (see Example 1). Our eyes are drawn to the woman with the umbrella, and the perspective of the bridge leads up across the photo's details, such as the river and the lights across the way. The  balance and symmetry reinforce the composition . And we wonder where she is going, and if there is another soul around. 

Music Composition

As with a photo, things such as balance, form, symmetry, and viewpoint are important in music. The "characters" of key, meter, theme, motive, rhythm, and harmony support a main character or "binding force" of the composition; this is usually a theme, but it can also be something else, like a dominating rhythm. Like a poorly composed photograph, an unorganized piece of music becomes like a sentence of jumbled words; the meaning gets lost, resulting in chaos.

The balance and beauty of "From Foreign Lands and People," from Kinderscenen, Op. 15, No. 1, by Robert Schumann, are highlighted by its "main character"—the rhythmic thematic pattern (see Excerpt 2). This motive repeats itself in two short phrases until finishing with a longer answering phrase. The rounded binary form gives balance, allowing the B section to display a variation of this rhythmic theme, now in the left hand. Both the inner voice and the countering bass line highlight the beauty of this simple theme.

Therefore, good composition results in telling...

The story

Photo story

This has to do with how the main subject interacts with the details of the photo. We don't always know what the story was behind that photograph. News stories use supporting photos, and, in these cases, we can read about what is going on. But often, we see a photo out of context. What we see in the photos sparks our imaginations to interpret what that story might be. And this is highly influenced by our own knowledge and experience.

Music story

Music, too, tells a story. While the photo is "still action," music tells the story over time. Opera and musicals are the most obvious examples of musical stories. But the solo piano repertoire rarely has words to guide us. Therefore, we are guided by the elements of composition listed above that create that story. A good deal of the story comes from lending our imaginations to the interpretation of the music. We make our own visuals, or in this case, we can find images that will help our imaginations.

Like the photo of the man clutching his head in his hands (see Example 3), Chopin's Prelude in E Minor (Op. 28, No. 4) seems to be a piece chronicling despair (see Excerpt 4). Its simple melody, often alternating just two notes, is supported by the constancy of subtle, chromatically shifting chords. A brief reprieve at measure 12, and the despairing climax from measures 16-18 are followed by ultimate resignation—the end of a downward melodic journey from B down to E. Using the photo "Despair," one can imagine this hopeless character, fighting his feelings of grief until he can fight no more. How did he get here? What is his story, and how can it be expressed through this piece?

Using architecture and photos of architecture 

There is a famous quotation by Goethe that architecture is "music frozen in time."2 The grandeur and structure of architecture can be full of drama and expression. But I find that architecture is particularly good when conveying issues of style, form, rhythm, or materials of a piece—the building blocks of composition.


There is a historical category for almost every architectural structure. Beaux-Arts, Art Deco, Modern, and Post-Modern are the main categories I discuss on my boat tours, but there are many more. Often architectural styles can be compared to musical styles in their content, although these styles are not necessarily encased in the same time periods. For example, one might compare the classical structure of the Parthenon, which was completed in 432 BC, with a classical work by Mozart completed in the late 1700s. Here, there are similar structural features, but the dates are far apart. Nevertheless, it is still possible to discuss like characteristics of these two genres.

Here is an example of how characteristics of three architectural styles compare to musical styles. 

Baroque building style 

This style dates back to seventeenth-century Italy and France, glorifying the power of popes and kings. While the order and symmetry of Renaissance architecture remained, the new opulence of highly decorative ornaments, intricate detail, curved shapes, twisted columns, grand staircases, high towers, and domes reigned supreme.

Baroque musical style

Similarly, Baroque music has a solid structure and plan and consistency of mood. At the same time, it emphasizes polyphony, complexity, imitation, ornamentation, detail, and grandeur of style similar to buildings in that era.

G. F. Handel's "Passacaglia" from the Suite No. 7 in G Minor (1720 collection) opens with a very stately theme in thirds and sixths (see Excerpt 5). Each variation expands upon the presented harmonies with increasing intricacy in passagework, rhythm, and ornamentation. Layer upon layer of glorious sound decorates the harmonic frame. Compare this to the complexity of Versailles (see Example 6), each floor stating the main theme in a slightly different way, capped off by a magnificently ornamented rooftop.

Classical building style 

Proportion, order, and symmetry are three key descriptions of this style, whose details originated from strict mathematical rules. Soaring columns—Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian— dominated many of the buildings. Triangular features called "pediments" hovered over entryways, and grand central staircases welcomed every guest into the building's interior.

In the photo of the Art Institute of Chicago (see Example 7), note the symmetry of the exterior—the entire building meets at the entrance. The triangular pediment, decorated by three ornaments called "acroteria," frames the entryway; through arched doorways, one is greeted by a grand central staircase inside the building. Everything about it is symmetry, balance, and focus.

Classical music style 

Although the building style originates much earlier than the musical style, symmetry, proportion, order, and clear phrasing gave classical music its sound. New forms such as sonata-allegro encompassed these principles. In contrast to the polyphony of Baroque music, focus on melody through homophonic textures became the important compositional tool.

The third movement of Clementi's Sonatina in C Major, Op. 36, No. 1, has the perfect kind of balance and symmetry for which Classical style is known (see Excerpt 8). Its form is ABA, phrases are divided in eight-measure phrases of 4 + 4, and the melody is accompanied by a very regular broken chord pattern. Compare this to the regularity, balance, and three-part form of the Art Institute.

Modern building style 

As with musical style, the term "modern" can be quite broad. Its essence is displayed by architects such as Mies van der Rohe, whose stripped-down, glass and steel box disregards ornamentation in deference to volume, proportion, line, and man-made materials. Other Modern categories include Minimalism, Deconstructivism, and Organic architecture. All of these reject any quotation of traditional style. On the other hand, Post-Modernism is a contemporary style that brings back quotation of the past. Perhaps one could compare this particular architecture style to a piece such as the Ravel Sonatine—modern, yet encased in Classical form.

Modern music style

Obviously, modern musical comparison is full of possibility. Debussy, the "Father of Modern Music," broke down the traditional rules of primary harmonic relationships, ushering in a host of composers subsequently free to write by their own rules. Take, for example, the twelve-tone row, which sets up new relationships among previously unrelated notes and harmonies. In that sense, it might be compared to a kind of Deconstructivism in architecture.

Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone "Piece No. 1," from Six Little Piano Pieces, could be used in a few ways (see Excerpt 9). What should be highlighted first and foremost is the "new language" of the twelve-tone row. Completely free from previous rules, relationships are different, creating a new expressive effect. Compare this to the Pritzker Pavillion, whose sculptural lines break free from the traditional building "box," producing a piece of art from whose interior we hear glorious music (see Example 10).

A final word about style

Often aspects match up when the building and music styles fall under the same name. In other cases, one must be creative in these comparisons. For instance, we have "Romantic" music, but not "Romantic" architecture—although there are many architectural styles that are truly romantic. In this case, one might simply compare the attributes of a building during the same time period as the piece and see the similarities. For example, the color, complexity, and asymmetry of a beautiful Queen Anne Victorian home might be compared to a piece of Liszt, whose romantic color and ash made way for larger, more modern forms (see Example 11).


The category of form grows out of style. For example, Classical buildings have an emphasis on symmetry; classical columns are tri-partite (three-part). Likewise, Classical music emphasizes symmetry. Consider these architectural/ musical comparisons:

Binary (two-part) compared to a duplex home (see Example 12).

Ternary (three-part) compared to a tripartite building such as the Art Insti- tute of Chicago, a classical column, or a Chicago window (see Example 13).

A theme and variations can be compared to a building such as the Auditorium Theater, in which every level expresses its window rhythm in a different way (see Example 14). This example could be used for anything from an elementary version of Pachelbel's Canon to the above-mentioned Handel "Passacaglia."

Finally, one may also speak of things such as:

Building rhythm and building materials

Not only is the Auditorium Theater a great example of this, but also the building of Robert Morris College, in which you have window rhythm groupings of two, three, and four (see Example 15).

Regarding materials, one could also speak of the materials in architecture and music—concrete, steel, glass, limestone, marble, brick, wood, cast iron, paint translate into musical staff, clef, notes, motives, themes, etc.

Practical implementation of images in our piano teaching

Now that I have elaborated on the possible comparisons, here are some scenarios in which we can incorporate imagery into a lesson.

Scenario 1: Introduction of a new piece using a photograph

Let's go back to the Chopin Prelude in E Minor and the photo "Despair." Here, I would ask my student to look only at the photo while I play the piece, and to come up with an idea or feeling behind the piece. After playing the piece, we would discuss the "story." What is going on in this photo? Why is this person sad? What aspects of the music captured the expression of this story? (slow tempo; simple, sad melody; repeated chords; soft dynamic level, etc). What kind of sadness can you relate to yourself? What emotion is implied when the pattern changes in measures 16-18 (perhaps a passionate outburst before final resignation?). After this, discuss various structural aspects that create the "characters" of the piece that tie into its story (melody, rhythm, harmonic and melodic motion), as well as practice strategies and specific goals.

Scenario 2: Introduction of a new piece, having the student find a photograph

As with Scenario 1, one can play the piece, having the student listen specifically for what it could be about. But this time, ask the student to go home and find a photo she thinks might express the piece. This may require playing the piece more than once to ponder its mood. Since the piece is in the beginning stages of note-learning, the student may not completely understand its character; therefore, the process of picking an image may extend over a series of weeks as the piece becomes more familiar. One could hasten the process by suggesting a recording, although not on a regular basis, as not to hinder the student's own interpretive, creative process. This picture with the boat under the romantic moonlight could be perfect for a piece such as Debussy's Claire de lune (see Example 16).

Scenario 3: Introduction of a piece and discussion of style

Before playing the new piece, one can talk about the composer and specific style characteristics. For example, I want to introduce Invention #8 in F Major by J. S. Bach. I would discuss various aspects of Baroque style such as polyphony, terraced dynamics, ornamentation, and imitation (which I would map out before playing). Then I would play the piece, having the student watch and listen for these qualities. Comparing the qualities of a Baroque structure to the music (imitation of patterns, terraced levels, ornamentation), I would play it a second time, asking him to look at  the photo of the Cesky Krumlov Castle Theater (see Example 17). Essentially, the student has had two lessons in one—the histories of musical and architectural style. And in relating the two, I enhance the artistic goal.

Scenario 4: Introduction of a piece and discussion of form

Another idea involves introducing a piece, discussing the form, and then having the student find a photo or draw a picture that exemplifies that form. In this example, I introduced Leopold Mozart's Burlesque, with its A A B A form, to my student, Mulan (see Excerpt 18). The B material is taken from A, which is one aspect my student picked up on right away. I asked her to draw a picture representing this form; I suggested that she could draw a building, but I also told her that if her imagination lead her to another kind of image, that would be fine. It did: she drew four hot air balloons, three of them identical, and one of them similar, but with a different order of colors. I could not have imagined a better image for this piece (see Example 19). It is amazing what our students will come up with once we present these concepts.


These are just a few examples to get started in thinking about creatively incorporating images into our teaching. If you don't feel knowledgeable about architectural styles and history, there are plenty of online resources that give easy-to-understand synopses, along with visual examples. One I have discovered recently is But the bottom line is this—be creative and observant! If you see a building that has the artistic features of a piece you want to introduce, use it. The visual aspect is the most important connection.

Photographs are plentiful—in the newspaper, online, from your own camera—there are endless expressive photographs available. With photographs, one need only have appreciation to use them. I have made a Facebook Page of images available to all teachers in order to provide a way to get started. Click here to visit this page.

Like anything else, this approach should be used with thoughtfulness. It's a wonderful way to get students thinking creatively and expressively, and to know that all of life's arts are linked by common bonds. A trip to a museum or an architectural tour can now become musical inspirations. And this can be the beginning of a learning journey for us as teachers.

1. Goldberg, Vicki. (Ed.). (1988). Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
2. von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang, Eckermann, Johann Peter, & Fuller, Margaret. (1839). Conversations with Goethe in the Last Years of His Life. (Margaret Fuller, Trans.). Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Company, p. 282.
3. Retrieved from wiki/File:Versailles_Palace.jpg.This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
4.  Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/File:Ceskystage.jpg; released into Public Domain.

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