Playing With Sound

When we think of playing with something, usually it is an object or an activity. We play with a toy, or we play tennis. We say we play a piano or a clarinet, but we rarely hear someone say we play with a piano or a clarinet. Even more unlikely is to hear someone say we play with sound. That is an abstract idea: to play with something we cannot see or touch. But we can do all of the other things we can do with toys, sporting equipment or musical instruments (which of course produce sound). We can manipulate sounds like we manipulate a set of legos to create an airplane or a robot or whatever our imagination chooses.

When we play with things, we move them, shape them, arrange them and group them. We make our lego airplane fly, we make our lump of clay into a snake, we group our blocks together so that they make tall tower or a long train. All of these manipulations–shaping, arranging, moving, and grouping, are things we can do with sound. And what’s more, our brains process sounds as movement, even when we ourselves are not moving. So if we can play with legos, blocks, and clay, then we can also play with sounds, all kinds of sounds, which we generate, group into motifs, themes, melodies and so forth, and out of which we create sonic things.

Now that we agree that sounds can be toys, let’s discuss how we can use sound-toys with our students. These activities are equally effective in a school or home classroom. These are all activities that I have used successfully with my own students. For the first one, get some index cards, and on each one write an action, preferably with an emotion tied to it. For example, one action might be sobbing, and the emotion tied to it is sadness. In a group, one student picks an index card, and acts out the action for the others. In a one-on-one setting, take turns acting a card and guessing. The group (or individual) has to guess the action the student is acting out. Once it is guessed, a second student makes musical sounds that represent the action and express the emotion. By musical, I mean the sounds have at least pitch and rhythm, and they are not the actual sounds a person would make or hear, but a musical representation of them. So the student could not make sobbing sounds, but could imitate sobbing with musical tones and rhythms.

As the activity progresses, patterns can be noted of what kinds of sounds are generated for sadness, happiness, fear, and so on. Students observe for which cards high sounds, low sounds, fast sounds, slow sounds, loud sounds, and soft sounds are generated and selected. During the process, students begin to shape an understanding of how music expresses or represents different actions and emotions. This concept can be illustrated with the famous “Can-can” by Offenbach. Played in its original version, it is lively and likely to produce joy, excitement, lots of movement in students; however, as played in “The Elephant” from Carnival of the Animals by Saint Saens, the same melody, played lower and slower, is anything but joyful and exciting. It is now lumbering, heavy, and burdensome. Students will move to this version very differently than with the original. This is an excellent example of Saint Saens playing with sound.

The activity with the cards is then repeated, but this second time through it is done differently. This time, the student who picks the card makes the sounds, and the other student acts out what s/he thinks the activity and emotion are. Played in this way, the activity now gets into interpretation. What do the sounds the first student is generating mean to me? What do I think is the first student’s expressive intent? If the second student matches the first student’s intent, fine. If not, the first student explains his or her interpretation of what they did. In either case, all get practice in interpreting and understanding another’s interpretation.

The musical sound generation can be done with voices or instruments. Instruments are sometimes more expedient with students who are reluctant to sing in front of others, and playing instruments guarantees that the sounds will be representational (of, for example sobbing) and not literal (actual sobbing). If you are working with a group of students, you may want to extend the activity into a group composition activity, where a small group of students collaborate with 2 or 3 instruments to create a short musical work that represents what is on one of the cards. The group can then perform their work for the parent, teacher and/or class present.

A logical next step, or follow-up, is to have students listen to musical works that are intended to represent the sorts of things they have encountered on the cards. For example, for musical trains, you might have them listen to Honneger’s Pacific 231 or Robert W. Smith’s The Great Train Record. Then ask the students, how did each composer use musical instruments and elements to make the music sound like a train? Did you find the same emotions in each work, or did each piece cause you to feel a different emotion? How would you imitate a train with musical sounds?

As a last step, students write their own card. This card can have an activity and an emotion, or just an emotion. This is essentially the difference between program and absolute music, so either intent for a composer is good. The important thing at this stage is for the student to write the card first, then create the music, and finally to be able to explain and demonstrate how they used musical sounds, musical elements really, to convey the intent they stated on the card. This will keep the composing focused, and avoid random sounds being thrown together. Students must thoughtfully and intentionally generate, select, and organize their sounds in order to succeed at conveying their chosen intent. In a home setting where the parent is teaching his or her child or children, it is fun for everyone to create a musical work, and then put on a concert for each other performing the works they have created. Have fun with this.

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