Common Core Words in Music

2011 Symposium2

Lately, I’ve noticed an increase in web searches related to curriculum writing and common core. I’m supposing this is because many school districts engage in curriculum writing or revision during the summer, and educators preparing to do this kind of work are looking for resources to draw upon. Music educators are increasingly aware of common core standards for math and language arts, and of the critical vocabulary used to articulate those standards. Often, music educators are believe it is necessary to fit music curriculum into common core as a way of bolstering the perceived legitimacy or status of music as a core subject. The truth is, it isn’t a stretch at all to see that the common core critical vocabulary applies to music at least as easily as it does to math and language arts, without any finagling whatsoever. Let us take a look at some of this vocabulary and see how this is so.

Here is a list of common core critical verbs used in the standards:

Analyze,articulate, cite, compare, comprehend, contrast, delineate, demonstrate,  describe, determine, develop, distinguish, draw, evaluate, explain, identify, infer,  integrate, interpret, locate, organize, paraphrase, refer, retell, suggest, support,  summarize, synthesize, and trace.

A few of these verbs immediately suggest an application in music teaching that most music educators will immediately recognize. Analyze has a prominent place in the core arts standards, and is presented there as a three-fold method of inquiry that includes “I notice,” “I think,” and “I wonder.” Among the many things a student can notice about a musical passage is phrase structure, melodic contour, rhythm patterns, metrical patterns, repetitions, contrasts, instrumentation, composer, genre or time period in which the music was written, and so forth. Just in making these observations, the student has already begun to do other things indicated by other verbs in our list. In order to observe repetitions and contrasts, he or she is comparing, contrasting and describing a passage of music and in so doing is comprehending at least part of the musical structure and/or compositional technique the composer employed. Interpreting is also prominent in the core arts standards. A student interprets by answering the questions “what is the expressive intent,” and “how will you convey (or how did the performers you heard convey) the intent with your (their) performance? Just as every writer attempts to communicate something to readers, every composer attempts to express something to listeners. Expressive intent in music cannot be the literal kind of meaning that words communicate, but it can convey feelings, representations of things (as in Pictures at an Exhibition) or actions (as in ballet or the flight of Don Quixote in Strauss’ tone poem/variations of that name. These ideas or representations must be performed in certain ways in order to be successfully conveyed, and so both the performer and audience become interpreters of the composer’s music.

To the extent that a performer succeeds at conveying the composer’s expressive intent, and perhaps their own intent as well, a performance can be evaluated. Musical performances are not only evaluated on technical merit, but on interpretive merit as well. Students can evaluate how successful performers were in conveying the composer’s expressive intent once they have discerned it themselves. Such evaluations are subject to explanation, citing evidence from the text, which is to say a recorded performance, and even inferring ways in which the performers could have been more successful.When the student is also to be the performer, he or she builds an interpretation based on expressive intent and cites evidence to support artistic decisions from the text, which in this case is the printed score. Students cite expressive markings, melodic contour, patterns of tension and relaxation, and other musical elements and structures to support their idea of what the composer intended, and then add expressive markings of their own that are in keeping with the composer’s intent and that support the student’s interpretation which is designed to convey the composer’s expressive intent, developed by the performer’s expressive intent as well. Because we cannot know for sure what a composer intended, the student infers that intent from evidence left by the composer in the score.

A students work through the process of interpreting, they will try out alternative interpretations, evaluating which one comes closest to the intent. When students work in groups, they have the opportunity to demonstrate alternative interpretations to their recite-16bit5ppeers, who then evaluate each version in a collaboration in which the goal is to find the best interpretation to convey expressive intents from all of those tried. As students work through this, they develop an interpretation using the ideas that flow out of the collaboration. In this way, students develop each others ideas as a pathway to forming an interpretation.

There is also another sense in which develop is used in music; that of developing a musical idea, extending it out to form a completed composition. Students often learn how composers have done this through listening and studying specific musical works, and learn to do this through a well sequenced unit on composition where musical ideas are first generated, and then methodically at first developed through devices such as repetition, transposition, inversion, modulation, and so forth. With these techniques in hand, students become more expressive and artistic in using these devices, just as a writer becomes more skilled in developing an idea in a way that maintains the reader’s interest and is also artistic.

I have only scratched the surface of how naturally the critical common core words apply to music. Music is a cognitively all-encompassing thing in which the human mind and spirit envelops itself. Although learning about music, including note names, symbols and so forth, can be rather low level learning, engaging with music quickly becomes a higher order thought activity. Delineating those cognitive activities easily places music in a prestigious position, shoulder to shoulder with math, language arts, science, or any other discipline one would care to name.

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