Language in Music Teaching

Learning is a process of inquiry, thought, and discovery. A person is faced with an unknown, which begins a line of questioning and searching. Thoughts, ideas, and hypotheses are formed from thinking through the questions, and further searching and thinking leads to discovering new knowledge. The searching and thinking includes exploring similarities and differences between what is already known and what is being explored. Current knowledge informs new knowledge which in turn leads to the capacity to apply learning, new and old, to familiar and unfamiliar situations. All of this requires the use of language regardless of the subject or discipline in which the learning is taking place.

At present, I would like to discuss two kinds of language as they relate to learning. The first is language that is common to all disciplines and to daily life. Words like chair, run, and yellow are such words. Though each has multiple meanings, none are specific only to a particular discipline. I can sit in a chair, or I can chair a committee, but the chair or the committee can be related to any setting in which a chair or a committee is found. These words, common to everyday language, are often referred to in language arts as tier 1 vocabulary. The second is language that is specific to a discipline or subject area. In language arts, they are often referred to as tier 3 vocabulary. Words like melody, appoggiatura, and tritone are of this second kind. They apply solely to music, and furthermore, they are associated with aspects of how music works, much like and arc, shadow, or vanishing point refer specifically to elements of visual art. For convenience, I will follow Klipp in referring to the first kind as language of learning, and the second kind as language for learning (Klipp, A, 2019).

Language of learning brings a student’s everyday experience into music. A child responds to music by saying that the music was exciting, or scary, or sad, or when they say they hear a violin or a trumpet, or a drum, they are using language of learning. It enables the student to draw similarities between life experience and the music to which they are listening. It describes what the student is hearing in the context of personal experience, but does not describe how the creator of the music to which they are listening formed what is being described. In the National Core Arts Standards, the use of language of learning is found in responding/select. “Demonstrate and explain how selected music connects to and is influenced by specific interests, experiences, purposes, or contexts.” The child uses language to contextualize music to his or her own life. This use of language is used to describe what is in the music and how it relates to self. In describing what is in the music, general observations are made, but analysis or evaluation, the latter of which requires criteria, are not made.

Questions eliciting responses using language of learning include, “what did you hear?” “what feelings did the music elicit?” “Of what did the music remind you?” “have you heard this music before? where?” “how did the beginning go? Sing the beginning.” “What rhythm did you hear repeatedly? Tap the rhythm.” These questions do not require that the student use music-specific or technical language. Students can answer all of them with everyday language, or in the performance questions, everyday singing or drumming skill. Relatively little of the National Core Arts Standards asks for language of learning, presumably because the authors were attempting to ramp up arts standards to the expectations embedded in common core. This should not be misconstrued as a statement of unimportance. Indeed, one must observe before one can explain, analyze or evaluate. One can conclude that having students observe with language of learning must precede much standards-based learning activities.

If language of learning describes what, Language for learning describes how. It is used to explain how the composer made what has been observed. It is the gateway to analysis, which is explaining how it works, and interpretation, which is demonstrating how it works for me. Language of learning is needed for analysis. It is used to demonstrate knowledge of musical concepts such as tonality and meter, elements of music such as pitch and rhythm, and structure, such as chordal patterns of tensing and relaxing and grouping/phrasing. In the National Core Arts Standards, language for learning is widely found in the enduring understandings and performance objectives. For example, in the performing creative content under “Analyze,” the enduring understanding is, “Analyzing creators’ context and how they manipulate elements of music provides insight into their intent and informs performance.”

Notice that students are not identifying what musical elements they hear, but are explaining how they are used. For example, “the composer created variety of melodic contour by beginning with primarily stepwise motions, and then gradually increasing the intervals between notes until the contour became quite jagged. Then, suddenly, the contour once again became smooth with the use of stepwise motion, as at the beginning.” Words and phrases that are examples of language for learning include “melodic contour,” “stepwise motion,” and “intervals between notes.” This response not only includes this language, but also explains how what is described with the language was utilized to fashion the music.

Another area that is heavily dependent on using language for learning is evaluation. In the standards, for the responding artistic process under evaluate, the enduring understanding is, “The personal evaluation of musical work(s) and performance(s) is informed by analysis, interpretation, and established criteria. You may recall that evaluate is the highest level of thinking on Bloom’s taxonomy. Just as students need to have observed before they can analyze, they must have analyzed, and thereby gained fluency and understanding of concepts and elements and their use, before they are ready to evaluate. If students are asked to evaluate before they have successfully analyzed, then the evaluation is likely to deteriorate into a review, voicing preferences and not evaluative responses. Notice the depth of learning needed to achieve this objective, taken from the standards. “Evaluate musical works and performances, applying established criteria, and explain appropriateness to the context, citing evidence from the elements of music.”

First, we need criteria. With middle school students, they should establish criteria themselves based on what they learned analyzing. Essentially, they are taking concepts and elements and examining how effectively the composer used them and how appropriate that use was to the context of the work. They must not only be able to rate the quality of this utilization, but then be able to cite evidence to support their evaluation. I have found that I sometimes need to work at getting the depth of response I am looking for. Students naturally retreat to what they like being the basis for a high evaluation, and what they dislike being the basis for a low evaluation. But that is not what is called for, so I will probe further. “What did the composer do that you liked or disliked? How did the composer create what you liked? How is this music similar to other music you like or dislike? If you dislike both, which one do you dislike less? Why?” This whole line of inquiry is based on the premise that music can be evaluated highly but still be disliked. Quality music is not necessarily the same as preferred music. Students with sufficient experience and success analyzing will be able to make that jump, and evaluate music in a new light.

Using music of learning and music for learning in the proper sequence and systematically through virtually every lesson taught is essential to good teaching. Thinking of delivering music instruction through the approach of our language arts colleagues is not only to understand and make full use of our Arts Standards, it is also to increase the depth of learning and scope of relevancy we bring to our students. That the National Core Arts Standards have in many cases pushed us in this direction, one that we may not otherwise have moved, must be seen as a good outcome.

Klipp, A. (2019). The art of conversation: CLIL and art. Retrieved on August 21, 2019 from


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