Why Teaching Pitches Is So Difficult and What To Do About It

I am one who easily looses things. Where did I put that sweater? I can’t find my water bottle. I need that wrench to fix the shower but I don’t know where it is. This is more of my life than I care to admit, unless I employ one priceless strategy. Always put things away immediately, and in the same place. So if I’m looking for that wrench, it can only be in one place. Same with the sweater, the water bottle, and everything else I own. That’s not to say I can’t find these things if I don’t put them in their place, but it takes longer, and gets frustrating and confusing when I simply don’t know where to look. 

This is how musical tones are too. When I’m learning a new piece of music, I find it’s best to start with the rhythm. Every tone has a place where it belongs, just like my wrench. Every tone has a beat where it belongs, and within that beat it has a division where it can be found. Singers and instrumentalists who try to learn pitches first, have a difficult time because they don’t quite know where any given tone is. Where is the place the composer put it? If we don’t know, then we could try singing or playing a tone anywhere. It’s just guess work. And when there is that much uncertainty, confidence sags, anxiety rises, and pitch accuracy all but disappears, not for want of  knowing what pitch to sing, but of not knowing when to sing it. 

Famed choral director Robert Shaw used what he called “count-singing” to teach music to his ensemble. Essentially, this was replacing the lyrics with a counting system such as “one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and” for eighth notes. The use of rhythm syllables such as those use by Kerwin (the “Kodaly” system), and Gordon (Du, du-de) are examples of how this technique is applied to teaching music. Shaw explained that count-singing removes all doubt when sounds should begin and end, clarifies exactly which pitches should be sung and reveals harmonic progressions. This last point is interesting because when notes are even slightly early or late, it can obscure the harmony by introducing unintended dissonance at the onset or offset of a chord. 

Shaw’s method does differ in one important way from the way rhythm is usually taught by Orff or Kodaly specialists. In both of those methodologies, rhythm is taught separately from pitch. The rhythm syllables are chanted with a speaking voice, then they are replaced by either a neutral syllable or tonal syllables or the lyrics. This is consistent with Gordon’s research that recommends teaching rhythm and pitch separately. But Shaw taught them simultaneously, and Feierabend also allows for singing rhythm syllables with pitch. 

The important point here is that pitch is never taught before rhythm when teaching repertoire; it is rhythm that is taught before (or with) pitch. This is because pitches only make sense when they are given rhythmic context. In other words, you can have rhythm without pitch, but you cannot, in a musical sense, have pitch without rhythm. No matter how esoteric or avant garde  a musical work may be, every pitch has a duration, whether pre-determined or by chance operations. The more undefined the rhythm becomes, the more difficult the pitches are to accurately perform. 

So thinking about how music is taught to groups, whether in a general music setting or in an ensemble, how often has the strategy been to rote teach pitches from the piano, and then work on rhythm afterwards? This has been the procedure for countless community choruses I have observed or sung for. In every case, the task of teaching pitches was laborious, when it needn’t have been. When a director starts by teaching rhythm, then adds pitches to that rhythm, the learning process goes much quicker, and is more enjoyable for all. 

Any discussion of rhythm must include mention of beat, or pulse. Rhythm is a pattern of audible durations. We group sounds into patterns, and perceive in the regularity of those patterns a pulse. The pulse cannot waver from the pattern, and the pattern cannot waver from the pulse. We music educators are very good at keeping the pattern aligned with the pulse, but too often do not give enough attention to keeping the pulse aligned to the pattern. We bend the pulse, trying to accommodate it to our student’s attempts in order to encourage them. But that bending only makes it harder for the student to succeed. Music is much easier and more successful when pulse and tone align as intended. When a pulse becomes unclear, so does the pattern. And since the pattern is at the very core of what rhythm is, as the pulse and pattern becomes less clear, the rhythm becomes less recognizable as rhythm. It starts to become merely durations. Whereas rhythm is a pattern of audible durations, durations that cannot be organized into patterns are not rhythm; they are just durations. 

If I sustain a single tone, soloing on that one held tone, that tone has duration but is not a rhythm, because no pattern and no pulse has been established. If I then layer other held tones over and under that first one in such a way that their entrances cannot reveal a pulse, the sounds will continue to be only an array of durations with no rhythm. Many avant garde musical works of the 1970s and 1980s were written this way. They represent the way students hear traditional music when they are unable to clearly discern the pulse and patterns of durations in the music they are trying to learn. This is why it is recommended to teach rhythm, and strictly insist that it be done to a consistent, reliable pulse first, or at least very early in the learning sequence for teaching repertoire. For further information on teaching rhythm, see my articles on rhythm syllables and counting systems. 

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