Tiering Musical Motifs like Vocabulary Words for Common Core

ImageIn the district where I teach music, the leaders have decided to roll out Common Core with an emphasis on building vocabulary. They have devised three categories for words. The first tier is for words that are learned early on. These are small words that would be known by any native speaker, and words that would be used in verbal communication. The second tier is for words that are mainly found in texts, and have specific but different meanings across two or more content areas. For example, the word blue is a tier-1 word when learned as a color, but becomes a tier-2 word when it describes a mood conveyed in art or music. The third tier is for words that are specific to only one content area, as arpeggio belongs strictly to the content area of music. The leaders also made it very clear that “text” refers not only to documents written in a language, but also to an artistic work, such as a painting or a music score.

As I considered all this, I remembered that music and language are both processed in similar locations in the human brain, especially in Broca’s region. If the intellect were being developed through linguistic vocabulary acquisition, why would it not also be developed in much the same way through acquiring musical vocabulary? I began to see the possibility of musical melody also being categorized into those same three tiers. We learn motifs, and then come across them in different contexts, where they have different meanings. For example, Brahms 4th symphony begins with a descending major third. As long as that is the only use of the descending major third I know, then it is a tier-1 motif. When I hear an orchestra play those first two notes, I immediately know I’m about to experience that masterwork. But when I visit someone’s home and I ring the doorbell, I may hear the chimes play a descending minor third. I recognize the motif, do not hear Brahms 4th symphony continue, and the timbre is very different. I learn that the descending minor third is now announcing my arrival to the homeowner, and has nothing whatsoever to do with a symphony composed in the 19th century. Because the descending minor third has two different meanings in two contexts, it is a tier 2 motif. There are a few motifs that are tier-3. One that comes to mind is the repeated perfect fourth of an emergency vehicle siren. That motif can only mean one thing, so it is a tier-3 motif. It has no meaning in any other context.

Other motifs have taken on iconic status. The opening three notes of Bach’s Toccata in d minor have become ghoulish, and the first four notes of “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” from Wagner’s Lohengrin bring thoughts of weddings. Both of these motifs have meaning associated with them just as surely as if they were a words. As we find meaning in these short note sequences, and in dozens of others I’m sure, we are building a music vocabulary so that certain ideas or images bring to mind specific musical motifs. This is very much like having a word called to mind by an idea or visual image. This is not to say that music is a language in the same way that English or German are languages, because music cannot represent specific concepts. But the brain does handle them all similarly, and they all do represent something to our minds.

I am not advocating abandoning teaching our students music words. The jargon of music is necessary in order for us to be able to evaluate, analyze, describe, interpret and think about music that we experience, and clarifying the inevitable confusion that arises from a single word having different meanings in different classes is vitally important. But I am suggesting that alongside our word walls, we might also keep a motif wall. Learning, recognizing, and finding meaning in many motifs will deepen our knowledge about and experience of music, and occupying our students minds with thinking in music to augment mathematical and linguistic thinking seems to me to be a really good idea. And handling motifs as if they were words strengthens our position with those who prowl our schools insisting that music education pull it’s share of the load in meeting Common Core objectives. I for one am convinced that we at least pull our share of load, and probably more of it than most realize.


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