Asking students to describe music you play for them has several benefits. Most obviously, descriptions tell us what the student though about and experienced from listening. We may learn how the music affected his or her emotions, what musical elements were noticed, or what and when certain musical events occurred. For the most part, when we give students a response to music writing assignment, we are trying to ascertain what they are hearing and understanding in the music to which they are listening.
In the course of writing about music, students have the opportunity to use music vocabulary. The way in which this vocabulary is used tells us a great deal about the understanding students have of the words themselves. It is not uncommon for students to misuse musical terms, or to fail to recognize cultural differences in the meaning of certain words. For example, when my students are talking about the beat, they often mean the rhythm. While the two words mean very different things in Western art music culture, in contemporary popular music, especially hip-hop culture, “beats” are the rhythmic patterns to which the rapper performs. Sequencing software allows the user to choose “beats” by dragging them into the compositions and looping them any number of time. We can no longer simply correct students when they use “beats” in this way, we must acknowledge that this is now a legitimate use and meaning of the word. There is nothing wrong with students understanding both meanings of “beat,” and also with teachers including both meanings in their instruction. It is a term that must be defined, if not implicitly in context, then explicitly, to avoid confusion.
Today, second grade students I taught were asked to write down musical elements that they heard change while listening to Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” Three of the children wrote down “up and down.” I asked them what went up and down, and one said that the rhythm went up and down. I said I didn’t think rhythm could go up down, but that pitch and dynamics could. I asked if they meant either of those, and she replied no. Eventually we determined that she meant tempo, which in fact had slowed at places and sped up in places. Tempo and dynamics go up and down in the way numbers increase and decrease. They don’t go up and down in space the way pitch does. This shows that even the words “up” and “down” can mean very different things depending on which musical element we are describing.
In the same second grade class, I began by showing the children the ways a conductor indicates changes in dynamics, tempo, meter, and articulation, and then I mentioned that a conductor cannot change pitch or rhythm–those are written by the composer. After each child conducted the class singing “Skip to My Lou” while changing one or more of the musical elements of their choice, I then had the class move to the music while I played variations on “Skip to My Lou” on the piano. After each variation, I asked them to identify which element I had changed. There were some good teaching moments in this, as when they began to move faster when I played louder but at the same tempo. We talked about the difference between loud and fast, and how movements can get bigger without getting faster. Putting that into motions in addition to words is a good way to gain understanding. Then I went from major to minor. They identified the element I had changed as pitch. I then said, should your movements change if I change pitch? They thought about their conducting and then decided no, it shouldn’t change. Conductors don’t change what they’re doing when the pitch changes. But then I said that movement could change if the change in pitch caused them to notice different feelings being expressed in the music. Did the change in pitch change the mood or emotions of the music, I asked. Yes, it did. They said minor made it sound scarey. So although they wouldn’t change their movement because the pitch changed, they would change their movement because of what was being expressed changing. This changes the conversation from one of musical elements, to one of interpretation. When students move to music in this way, they are interpreting the music, and how we interpret the music, whether as performer or listener, leads how we describe the music we are performing or hearing. When we pay close attention to how our students describe music, we can learn a great deal more about music and our relationship to it.