Thinking In Music is the Key to Music Literacy

2011Symposium_1_2One of the reasons teaching music reading and writing is so challenging for students and music teachers is that music is not used nearly as often as a basis for thought and actions. Every action begins with a thought, and thoughts are generally pictures or words; images or descriptions. Music for most people is something we hear and even understand in a musical sense, but not the form in which our thoughts are made. This condition is reinforced often, even in a music classroom. For example, to respond to music, students are often asked to write about music that is played for them in class. Regardless of the specifics of the assignment, the students are responding to music with words, not in kind with music. If students are going to excel at reading and writing music, they must get to the point where they are thinking in music—what Gordon calls audiation.

One example of how this can be done is finishing musical thoughts. The teacher plays the beginning of a musical phrase (called antecedent) and then asks a student to complete the phrase (called consequent) by improvising it on a barred instrument. If the student’s response is restricted to notes of the major pentatonic scale, to the same rhythm as the antecedent, and to starting on sol and ending on do, students who have been taught to sing a pentatonic scale with solfege can think of consequent sub-phrases at the same time the one student is actually playing one.  They can be cold-called to sing or play their idea before or the performing child to assure they are all actually thinking of ideas, and to prevent the other students from copying the performing child’s consequent sub-phrase.

Other opportunities for questioning and answering can further engage students in thinking music.  When the class is singing a song, an individual can be called on to sing the next phrase. A child can be asked to sing the first phrase of a song they remember singing last class. After hearing a familiar phrase with an intentional error, a student can be asked to locate the error and perform the phrase correctly. Improvising variations, and even playing “name that tune” are all activities that engage students of thinking in music instead of words. Unrestricted improvisation is another tool. The teacher sings a short musical phrase on a neutral syllable, and the student sings back a different phrase of the same length. At first, students will repeat what the teacher has sung, which isn’t all bad, because doing so requires audiation as well. But even if the child only changes one note, that one note is an original musical idea, being connected to another idea that the teacher generated. Playing or singing anything from memory is also a good use for thinking in music.

So far, I have only discussed melodic thinking in music, but thinking in music can also take place rhythmically. The Feed Your Brain Musicteacher can play an antecedent sub-phrase on a drum, and the student answers with a consequent sub-phrase, also on a drum. Devising complementary rhythms is another worthwhile activity. Students often find it challenging to play a rhythm on a drum with any “windows” in it. Their tendency is to play through without breath or pause. Learning to leave musical space and imagining what might fill that space from another player is powerful thinking in music, and another student, in filling that window and then creating space elsewhere is equally beneficial. These strategies are addressed excellently in Will Schmid’s World Music Drumming.

I have saved the most obvious activity for thinking in music until last, because it is the most obvious: composing. Students think in music when they write down original musical ideas. Not all composing done by students in music classes is thinking in music. Anytime note or rhythm selection is arbitrary, the student is doing nothing more than making a piece of visual art on a music staff. But when the student writes down a note and knows what it sounds like, and what groups of notes he or she has written down sound like without having it played or sung for them, or without playing or singing it themselves, then that music that is written down on that paper is the product of thinking in music.  Students should only compose what they can audiate. For this reason, they should not be allowed to compose before they can sight sing, because without sight singing skills, it is impossible for them to know what they are writing down.

Music teacher should take every opportunity to get their students thinking in music. Handling music like language (though not necessarily considering it to be a language) through questioning and answering in music, teaching sight singing, and guiding students through audiated composition projects should be done at every opportunity.


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