Building Vocabulary in Music Class: A Common Core and Music Friendly Approach

2011Symposium_1_2When teachers build vocabulary, often the word is introduced alone, and in the context of a sentence or paragraph, so that the meaning can be inferred. Once the word meaning is known, the entire sentence in which it is located can be understood. Language communicates explicit meaning. Music, on the other hand does not mean something in the same way a sentence does. Musical meaning is either structural or referential. It is implicit, but never explicit. We cannot have a conversation with musical phrases as we can with linguistic ones. What meaning music does have is found in its syntax. For this reason, words that identify musical events or aspects are used to analyze music or to describe it, but the words never become part of the music itself, as words become part of a sentence; therefore, when we teach our students music vocabulary, we are teaching them either how to talk and write about music or how to describe an experience with music.

With this in mind, let us imagine that we have a music class, and that we present the students in that class with a vocabulary list. Let’s say the list includes the following words: melody, background, rhythm, beat, pitch, timbre, tempo, meter, texture, dynamics, and phrase. How would we go about teaching this vocabulary to the class? We can assume that most students will know some of the words, a few will know all of the words, and a few might even know none of them. As the students enter the classroom, we will have them pick up a handout on which all of the words are printed, with space to write about each one. The directions at the top of the page are to “write a definition of each word. If you do not know the definition, write the word “guess” next to the word, and then write down your best guess as to what it means.” Knowing which definitions the students knew, and which ones they guessed at will help you lead the discussion that will follow, and having them write down their guess assures that they will think about and write a response for each word, avoiding responses like “I don’t know” or just leaving the space blank. We’ll tell them before they begin that they have 10 minutes to write. As they work, we’ll circulate around the room, reading their responses, and reminding them not to spend too much time on one word, so that they get as many responses written down as possible. We may have to remind them to write down their guess if they don’t know a definition.

When time is up, we’ll tell them to put their pencils down, and look up. We’ll then begin calling on students to give their definitions of each word. If the student knew the definition, we will tell him or her if the answer is right or music_words_largewrong. If it is wrong, we will call on other students to provide a correct definition. Although there may be more than one correct answer, not all answers will be right. If the student guessed at an answer, we’ll offer encouragement, and work from any kernel of correctness in the definition to discuss it and refine it until it is accurate. Over the course of discussing and thinking about definitions for these words, the students will gain a deeper understanding of each one than they would if only straight-forward definitions were memorized.

When all of the words have been discussed and defined, we’ll move onto part 2 of this lesson: the application of the vocabulary. For this, let’s use the Finale from The Firebird by Stravinsky. We’ll tell our class what’s happening at the end of the story, and then tell them to explain in writing how Stravinsky uses each of the musical elements they have just defined to represent what is happening in the story. It is one thing to know the definition of a musical element, it is quite another to recognize it aurally, and understand how it is used to accomplish the composer’s intent. Writing about this not only demonstrates the students’ understanding of the vocabulary words, but it also teaches them something about the creative process of composing music; a lesson that can be used in a future lesson when the student will compose music with an expressive or descriptive intent. This lesson also is aligned with the principles of Common Core, because it requires a student to examine a text and find evidence in the text to support claims.


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