Defining Some Words in the New Standards for Creating Music

2011Symposium_1_2The new music standards are published, and there are some interesting choices of words in them that tell us a great deal both about music and how it is to be taught. The first series of words that caught my attention were the verbs describing what students will be doing when they create music. In early childhood they will explore, experience and generate. The emphasis is clearly on taking music in, and building what Gordon has called a music vocabulary. This vocabulary will be put to use as the child begins to originate music. The word for this througout is generate, used in the phrase, “generate musical ideas.” Beginning in first grade, explore and experience becomes create, while generating continues. This begs the question, what is the difference between creating and generating? From the limited context of the standards, it appears that creating refers to orginating music off of a prompt, as when a child hears the beginning of a phrase and then creates an ending. Generateing, on the other hand, appears to refer to making a musical idea that is wholly made by the student. A generated idea is not the continuation or completion of someone else’s idea, but completely original to the student. In this context, generating is more advanced than creating.

A third verb for creating used in the standards is improvise. This word first ismusic_words_large seen for second grade. Improvising presumes a musical vocabulary has been established from which the child can draw material for an improvisation, and it implies that the child is able to do so in real time, spontaneously, not after considered thought. It would seem that to create is to give thought to a solution, as with creating a musical answer to a musical question, whereas improvising within the standards is only constrained by connections to “a specific purpose and context (such as personal and social).” An improvisation need only have a creator’s intent, but need not be, musically speaking, grammatically correct. That sort of correctness is achieved after creating, making creating more akin to what is often thought of as composing, compared to improvisation.

A second set of words that needs to be considered consists of patterns and ideas. For second grade, students are to “improvise rhythmic and melodic patterns and musical ideas” and “generate musical patterns and ideas.” Given the inclusion of both patterns and ideas, there must be a difference between them, but what is that difference? Again, reading from the context of the standards document, it appears that patterns are short motifs, analagous to words in language. Patterns are the building blocks of music, built one upon another into an idea which are longer. Ideas are made of multiple patterns. Ideas are melodies that have cultural and personal contexts, and are suitable for expression. Patterns are more limited. A single pattern has no or very little expressive potential.

What can we learn about music and music teaching from this examination of the new standards for creating music? The foundation for creating music is listening. Three and four-year-olds experience and explore music through listening to music placed in their environments, and experimenting with the sounds they discover they can make with their voices and objects. There is always the imperative that a music creator is born out of music that others have created before him or her, and out of new combinations of musical sounds, the idea for which springs forth from those expereiences with other creators’ music. We humans always create something out of something, never out of nothing. New music isn’t really new at all; it’s something new installed into something that already existed. That is true for generating, improvising and creating. As experiences grow, so does the material with which to create generate and improvise. Experiencing music as a creator gives us a view of music works from the inside out. This insight spills over into performing with more expression and listening with more emotional investment and enjoyment.


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