Improvising With Tonal Patterns

2011Symposium_1_2Music is constructed with patterns of pitches and rhythms. As we have seen over the last two weeks, we begin to learn these patterns aurally from birth and even before. Aural learning continues into the school age years, and is necessary before music reading and writing can be taught effectively. Not only are the raw pitches and rhythms learned, but also the meters and tonalities resulting from those patterns. As  a person learns patterns, tonalities, and meters, he or she can begin using them in improvisation. Improvisation can only be done with patterns, meters and tonalities that have been learned.; we do not improvise from nothing, but from ideas that are essentially original orderings and variations on things we have already heard and are familiar with.

At its beginning stages, original musical thought may be slight alterations to a pattern the student has just heard. When I sing a pattern to a student, and ask that student to sing back to me something different from what I just sang, my youngest students sometimes have trouble thinking of something to sing. I then guide them with suggestions. I may point out that in what I just sang the pitches went down, so he or she could try singing something that goes up. Or I might suggest that the child sing what I did, but add or remove one or more notes. Another idea is to sing the rhythm of the child’s name. All of these strategies coax the child to begin generating musical ideas from musical thoughts. All of it is aurally based, without even a reference to notation.

When notation is brought in, it is only of patterns that the children have already learned aurally. Early on, I will write several tonal patterns on the board, sing one of them, have the class or an individual repeat the same pattern, and then tell me which pattern of those on the board we just sang. This strengthens the connection between what is heard and what is seen. Again, strategies may be needed to shore up this learning. For example, one of the patterns might be “do, mi.” After correctly singing and identifying that pattern, I might move on to “do, mi, so.” I have already made sure that only these two patterns begin with “do,mi,” so I can say to the unsure student, ” what are the first two pitches in the pattern I just sang?” I the sing “do, mi, so” again, and wait for the student’s answer. After finding them to be “do, mi” I then say, “pattern 1 was ‘do, mi,’ can you find another pattern that begins with the same pitches?” Using this question as a guide, the student can then find the pattern that is “do, mi, so.” All of this gives students practice in locating notes on the staff, and thinking in 101terms of patterns or combinations of pitches, instead of individual pitches.

After building proficiency at singing and reading patterns, students can move on to improvising with these same patterns. Students can repeat patterns, sequence several patterns, and alter one or more notes in a pattern to create improvised music. Until rhythm is added, there is no meter, but students are already hearing a tonality form the patterns they are improvising, because the patterns I have taught them for this activity are all in a single tonality. Do, mi can become do, mi, mi; so, fa, re can become so, fa, re, so; so, mi, do can become so, do, and so forth. I can use the same approach with rhythms, beginning with rhythm patterns aurally, then going into notation, and leading into improvisation. After using rhythm patterns in this way, I then reinsert pitches, and have students play with both tonal and rhythm patterns at the same time; that is, they can now change pitch, rhythm, or both as they improvise.

Although improvisation is not usually thought of as including notation, I find that including notation in these improvisation activities helps students strengthen their audiation and reading skills. By seeing what they are improvising off of in the small segments of tonal and rhythm patterns, they are connecting what they see to the changes they are making to it. It is also a kind of readiness exercise for improvising off of a lead sheet, where musicians have entire melodies notated. Learning to read in patterns first transfers to reading whole melodies, preparing students to see patterns in notated melodies, and isolate them as materials for fruitful improvisation. It also takes some of the mystery out of improvisation for inexperienced improvisers, because it feels less like they are making music out of thin air, and more of what it really is: making music out of patterns they already know.


2 thoughts on “Improvising With Tonal Patterns

    • Thanks for the link. He is right on in what he says about improvisation and language. How wonderful when a musician has enough mastery of music to be conversant in it, as in a language.

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