What’s In A Word? The Importance of Music Vocabulary

2011 Symposium2

Only in recent years have I come to realize how important naming a thing is to teaching children. We all use a lot of words when we are teaching. Between introducing new content and concepts, redirecting students, reviewing, guiding, facilitating, asking leading questions and so forth, we use hundreds, maybe thousands of words every day just in the course of our teaching. In the midst of all these words coming from us, it is easy to loose track of how what we say sounds to the young people to whom we are speaking. We speak of music with the familiarity and expertise of people who have made music a major part of our lives, and for many of us we’ve been doing that for a good number of years. So when we use words like “meter,” “beat,” or “tempo” do our students know what these concepts are, and do they connect the concepts to what they are doing?

For example, it is easy to say “the music has to go a little faster,” but why not say music_words_large“we need to increase the tempo. Do you know what tempo is? It is how fast the beat is going.” This alone will often initiate a learning sub-sequence that would otherwise have been bypassed. Some students will think you are talking about the groove. They are perhaps accustomed to going onto a loop-based music sequencer and choosing “beats” to drag into their song. This use of the word “beat” is entirely different from that which is the pulse or heartbeat of the music.  We measure the later in beats per minute, just like we measure how fast a car is going in miles per hour. We measure the beat dragged in a sequencer in seconds or measures, and this type of beat is independent of the tempo. From there, the sub-sequence can direct students to look at the top of the music and find the tempo marking. Let’s assume that we find the word “allegretto.”  It means to play faster than a walking pace, but a little slower than running. You might get out a metronome and explore at what tempo you or a student walks, how fast you or a student runs, and then pick a metronome marking somewhere in between. “This tempo in between walking and running is good for this piece, it is good for allegretto.”

Music Word WallDo you see how music vocabulary just pops out of what we do everyday? One word leads to another, and each one identifies a concept. This is an important point, because concepts like beat and tempo are not song-specific. They aren’t just referring to special circumstances or directions that apply only to the musical work at hand. They are applicable to all musical works, and all creators and performers of music use them to convey their expressive intent. Just telling students that a work is supposed  to go at a particular tempo is not enough. It is more important for students to understand why the work is supposed to go at that tempo, and how a tempo is selected as part of the process of preparing an interpretation. You see, here are more words that need to be understood.

It is important that we be on the lookout for phrases we use that have single-word equivalents, and to teach those words at every opportunity. We must consciously link the phrases to the word so the meaning is clear, and eventually replace the phrase with the word when the later is well understood and has entered the working vocabulary of our students. Each time you pair a phrase with a musical term, you are equipping your students to interact with their music with more precision. For example, as the students develop a solid understanding of crescendo or timbre, they are also developing a more musical representation of the music they are performing or to which they are listening. Thinking about timbre enables the student to imagine several alternatives and apply the one most appropriate to the piece or the conductor’s request. Working from the concept of timbre, students are given all the possible timbres for their instrument and of combinations of their instrument with others to consider, explore, and manipulate. Just telling a student to blend their sound, or play with a fuller tone does not open up the same learning potential. Words should be actively in use as a natural and organic part of a students learning and a teacher’s instruction.


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