My Approach To Composing

Version 2One of the things I enjoy about summer break is the opportunity to do musical things I don’t have time for during the school year. Since my high school days I have enjoyed composing. I was encouraged in this by a high school band director who allowed me to try out my band composition on the high school band. It was a fun experience for me and my classmates, and one from which I learned a great deal not only about composing for winds (just because a note is technically in range doesn’t mean it will sound good) and about preparing parts (prefer flats over sharps for winds, and be meticulously clear and neat). I continued to compose during college, and had two clarinet quartets and a piece for wind ensemble played by ensembles there. After that, other works were performed by other school and community ensembles.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am still at it, and enjoying it more than ever this summer. I have never taken a music composition class or studied composition with a composer, as I suspect most of you have not. So I hope my perspective as a music educator and unschooled composer will be of help and encouragement to those of you who would like to try composing, or would like to teach composing but don’t quite know how to go about it.

A good knowledge of harmony, melody and counterpoint is essential. This is not to say that one should compose from music theory. Remember, music theory is a description of past practice, not a prescription for current practice. Nevertheless, one must know how to combine tones to form harmonies, how to use harmonies, consonance, dissonance, rhythm, contour and instrumentation to craft an effective musical work. You don’t need to have an advanced degree in music theory, but you do need to have a working knowledge of it so that you can properly handle the musical elements you’ll be working with.

Given all of that, composing for me is like playing with blocks. With a block set, a child has objects that can be stacked or laid out to form bridges, castles, towers, or whatever one desires. As long as the blocks are stacked in such a way that what is being built is structurally sound, it will stand and not be pulled down by gravity. Likewise, a composer has musical objects, tones that have pitch (blocks that are laid out melodically or stacked harmonically) and rhythm (the space between the blocks that are laid out). The composer lays out and stacks notes in various ways using certain patterns and structures (such as the structure of a castle or the pattern of one less block in each level to form a pyramid), until he or she arrives at a product that pleases and that can be deemed completed. In this context, composing is playing with notes the way a child plays with blocks; arranging them in various combinations until something satisfying is made.

I tend to start with laying out pitches melodically first. I have for a long as I can Feed Your Brain Musicremember loved to hum melodies to myself, just idly making tunes up. I used to do this on the school bus instead of talking to whoever was sitting next to me. I admire how Richard Rodgers would craft a melody out of just a few notes, frequently returning to one before venturing away once more, so I often start with just two or three pitches, playing with them in different rhythmic patterns. I have learned that I must keep this penchant for rhythmic play in check or else I am apt to ramble on in my music, too rarely stopping for phrase closures or cadences.

I also enjoy counterpoint, so after finding a melody through play, I will more intentionally (less playfully) write a second melody that maintains good voice leading and forms consonant intervals with the first melody, or dissonances that resolve properly. This is where music theory becomes important. I keep in mind to avoid parallel or direct perfect fifths and octaves, and use dissonance for interest but make sure to resolve dissonances as appagiaturas or suspensions. I work in eight measure phrases to keep myself from, as I said before, running on in unending counterpoint. Short stretches of such music is okay, but too much of it suffocates music, making it too busy to be enjoyable. Music must breathe with clear phrasing, so I make sure mine does so.

I also want to make sure I don’t just keep stringing one new idea onto another. It may be  easier to think of many ideas than to settle with one or two and develop them, but the best composers develop a little material into an excellent musical architecture. For this, I listen to my melody and select from it one motif that catches my attention. It may be the one that has a catchy rhythm, or one that begins or ends the phrase or theme. It must be something that the listener will have noticed so that when I develop it, the motif will be recognizable. Once I’ve selected that motif, it is time to be creative and inventive. If the motif is rhythmically catchy, then I will play with that rhythm further, displacing it on different beats, or lengthening or shortening it to create new syncopations. Or perhaps I will develop it with elongation or diminution, possibly also writing a new melody to go with it.

Melodic sequences are also a favorite device for development, and using sequences is a convenient way to touch on, explore, or modulate to other keys or tonalities. I also like to pass motifs and melodies around to different instruments, creating a variety of timbres and registers with the same material. As long as the motif being developed remains recognizable, the music will have unity. All of the devices used to develop it provides variety, and the balance between the two creates a work that remains interesting throughout without becoming to demanding or even confusing for the listener. I am not a proponent of writing music that a listener cannot make sense of, or that requires a music degree and score study to understand. As a composer, I want to write music that is intended to be enjoyed through listening only, not that requires study to become accessible.

All of what I have discussed here can be heard in my most recent compositions. If you would like to purchase Woodwind Quintet No. 1 in Bb Major or Clarinet Choir No. 1 in Eb Major, both composed this summer, please request your pdf file of score and parts by e-mailing me at


The Thing About Learning

Version 2I am by nature a very thoughtful person. People who know me well frequently accuse me of overthinking many things, and I have to admit that they are right–I do overthink often. As someone almost constantly in conscious thought about something, there are many thought that come and go, forgotten as quickly as they arrived, but others get my attention. Why are some noticed and others not? Because the ones that get noticed connect to something else I have been doing or thinking, and so are of particular interest to me at the time. The thoughts that remain are those that pertain to what I am at that moment most interested in, what I am presently doing or wanting to do.

There is an important lesson in all of this to teaching and learning, and it is this: in order for learning to succeed, it must be helpful in acquiring something the learner wants. We educators often concern ourselves with goals and objectives, both for our students and ourselves; and well we should. But goals and objectives that are only imposed on a learner, and around which a learner cannot contextualize with relevance are likely to meet with resistance, and be at best of limited use in bringing about the learning we desire. That is why connecting objectives for creating, performing and responding to music is so important, and why it should be done early in any teaching sequence, before the students become mired in trying to achieve objectives that have little or no meaning to them personally. Let’s look at how connecting works in a standards based music classroom.

First, we begin with an enduring understanding. “Musicians connect their personal interests, experiences, ideas, and knowledge to creating, performing, and responding.” When we present concepts, ideas, knowledge, and repertoire to our students, one of the first things they ask themselves if it all seems quite new and unfamiliar to them is, “what does this have to do with what I’m interested in?” “What in my experience with music does this sound like? What associations to familiar things does this music or idea or concept bring to mind? What is something I am familiar with that compares to this?” If the students comes up empty on each or even most of these questions, he or she is unlikely to have any desire to proceed with your lesson or instructional unit. You are about to abandon them to an intellectual deserted island, and that’s not a place where anyone (probably you included) want to be. So before “teaching to the objective” can begin, context needs to be established. Familiar signposts need to be pointed out, and the teacher must give a method of exploring something new in the context of something familiar.

Doing so will motivate learners and deepen understandings. Remember, understanding is not obtaining the ability to recall knowledge or repeat a task, it is the ability to apply previous learning to new situations. Application is only possible when connections are clear. A second enduring understanding states this clearly. “Understanding connections to varied contexts and daily life enhances musicians’ creating, performing, and responding.” Notice what we are trying to help our students connect; we want them to connect varied contexts, the variable, with daily life, the constant. Each new context must connect back to the same personal life of each individual student. Not all students will make the same connections, and not all connections will be equally strong for all students. In fact, one student’s strongest connection, may only be a hint at how to form a different connection to another student, but in an environment of shared learning, students’ connection to varied contexts become woven together, as one connection bolsters up or clarifies another.

I recently played the main theme from the film Indiana Jones to which 2nd grade students tapped a steady beat.  When the music stopped, one child pointed out that the music sounded like Star Wars. He had never seen Indiana Jones, but he recognized something in that music that sounded like music in a movie he had seen, namely Star Wars.  This was, of course, a brilliant connection, because both film scores were written by the same composer, John Williams. With the confidence of having made that connection, that child was now eager to find out what made the two themes sound similar, and a mini-lesson on melodic structure, specifically of dotted rhythms and large melodic intervals, was possible. Imagine the different result if I had begun by teaching


Aaron Copland

melodic structure using the unfamiliar movie theme. The context would have been all wrong, and the results would have been disappointing. By the way, John Williams’ film scores (familiar from daily life) are an excellent connector to music by Aaron Copland (a varied context) whose use of perfect fifths has been called “The American Sound” in so far as American symphonic music is concerned.

The connections students make will inform the choices they make when they create, perform, and respond to music. Students who grow up listening to jazz will demonstrate this knowledge, interest, and experience in the rhythms, melodies and harmonies that show up in their musical creations, and in the “flavor” of their interpretation of musical works composed by others. It will also influence to what their ear is drawn when they are listening to music. That jazz-oriented students will likely hear the arpeggiated trombones at the end of Dvorak’s Symphony “from the New World” as a boogie-woogie riff, whereas someone not familiar with jazz will just hear the same passage as part of the exciting buildup at the end of that symphony (which is probably all it was intended to be).

I began this article talking about goals and objectives, and then have been discussing contexts and connections ever since. I would like to conclude by returning to goals and objectives, but now within a better context in which to understand them. There are at least two kinds of goals we should use with our students; these are academic goals and character goals. The specifics of each kind will need to wait for another post, but for our purposes here, I will use an academic goal for an example. There is something compelling about the Rondo known as “Fur Elise” by Beethoven. Middle school students seem to almost universally be drawn to it and many of them will work very hard to be able to at least play the first theme on the piano. It seems it has become a sort of rite of passage to learn this theme, and so it is passed on from student to student as they teach it to each other, or come to me to teach to them in small groups. Clearly, this bit of Beethoven is part of their daily lives and as such can be connected with various contexts which may include dedications (Fur Elise means for Elise, indicating that the piece was dedicated to someone named Elise, though exactly who is unclear). Fur Elise could then be part of a unit that included other works, perhaps in varied genres, that were also known to be dedicated to individuals. Such a unit would establish one of the purposes for which music is sometimes written. The student may begin with a straight forward performance objective. “I want to be able to play the first theme from ‘Fur Elise’ by Beethoven.”  Doing so may involve reading music, especially if the music teacher is teaching the student to play the theme. If so, another objective might be, “I want to improve my music reading so that I can play the first 32 measures of ‘Moonlight’ sonata by Beethoven in time for my sister’s birthday in November.” Notice now the objective has a something in which the student will demonstrate growth (improve my music reading,” something the student will be able to do as a result of instruction and which will demonstrate the desired growth (play the first 32 measures of “Moonlight Sonata” and a time in which the objective will be completed (“in time for my sister’s birthday in November”). This instruction will be packed with relevance and connections for this student, and so is an excellent example of writing an objective around connections.

Artful Learning

Version 2In this, the centennial anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, all sorts of things that this American musical icon did are being brought out into the public consciousness. Of course, most know of Bernstein’s work as a conductor, composer and teacher, what with his numerous recordings, lectures, young peoples concerts and musical compositions. Of all that he accomplished, he once said that he was most proud of those young peoples concerts. He was so devoted to teaching, that he developed what he hoped would become a school reform method called Artful Learning. This is a method I have just begun to look at, but it intrigues me enough to want to share with you, and to begin using at least its principles to benefit my students.

Bernstein often referred to “universality” in reference to music. He believed that the expressiveness and enjoyment of music was universal, but he also understood that teaching was necessary in order to enable people to fully enjoy and fully appreciate the music he so loved to conduct, talk about, and perform on the piano. Out of this belief system came Artful Learning. In a nutshell, the method is to begin with a concept; not a musical concept but a universal one (there’s that word again). For example, let’s take the concept of enculturation–the familiarizing of a population of people with cultural norms–theirs or another. Let’s propose an essential question regarding our concept of enculturation. How does enculturation make life more meaningful? That question will guide our entire instructional unit.

Now that we have a concept and an essential question, we need a masterwork that is relevant to them both and that will serve as the basis for student inquiry. Let’s select “The One And Only Cereal” from A Quiet Place by Leonard Bernstein. The masterwork doesn’t have to be a Bernstein work, nor does it have to be a musical work, but in our example we will use music. The students, with the essential question in mind, listen to the masterwork, and then respond to it. In this masterwork, there are at least three cultures represented–jazz with its prominently African American roots, Western European 19th century art music, with its prominently Anglo and European roots,  and serial music, with its prominently academic roots. Most listeners will not only hear the different cultures represented, but will be confused by some while easily taking in others. This is because listeners will have been enculturated in one or two but not in the others. The students can experience the differences in listening to music that makes sense compared to music that does not make sense due to either being enculturated into that musical culture or not. The students experience the masterwork in a multi sensory way, through not only listening to the music, but moving (or trying to move) to the music,  through drawing, interacting physically with objects, like tossing a scarf gracefully or wringing a towel aggressively, through making facial expressions to any number of other visual, auditory, or kinesthetic responses they or the teacher might propose. All of this is the first phase in the Artful Learning Sequence, and that stage is called Experience.

Throughout the experience stage, the students will collect observations and questions from their experience of the masterwork. These observations and questions will be the basis for the next phase, which is inquire. The essential question focuses the students inquiry. Students research the essential question in light of their experience of the masterwork,  and engage in hands-on learning tasks to test, probe, demonstrate and explain the concept, which you will recall presently is enculturation. Students research the concept not only from a musical standpoint, but also using the interdisciplinary content to investigate the subject matter even more deeply. This is key to the method. It is designed to be interdisciplinary. One of Bernstein’s favorite mantras was that  “the best way to know a thing is in the context of another discipline.” What was it like to arrive in aBernstein_Harvard new country with no experience with that country’s culture, practices, language, or just general way of doing things? Students can then connect being a new immigrant in unfamiliar surroundings with being a new music listener experiencing unfamiliar musical surroundings. It takes time to learn your way around. What are some things a person new to our country would want to know right away to feel more comfortable and at home? What are some things you’d like to know to make you feel more comfortable with serial music, or jazz, or classical music? What musical idiom are you most familiar with and how would you help someone who had never heard your music before come to understand it and enjoy it? You see how the inquiry builds momentum as it goes along?

The third phase is create. Students use their learning and creative ideas to create an original work that manifests their understanding of the concept, which in our example is enculturation. This could be a play, ballet, song, poem, or whatever students and teacher can come up with. Students consider several possible mediums for their project to determine  how best to represent the academic content from their unit of study in an original artistic work. They first construct a rough draft of the work,  then continue to evaluate and revise their it until they determine that it is ready for presentation.

Once the original artistic work is ready for presentation, students are ready for the fourth and final phase, reflect. Students consider the process they have worked through metacognitively, asking themselves how they learned, and cognitively, asking themselves what they learned. They document these reflections with detailed narratives. Students discover connections consider practical applications of their new knowledge. All of this strengthens students as more self-directed as learners.

Much of what I have described here is not new to many music educators. We routinely teach about repertoire, creating cultural and purpose contexts for the musical works we teach, and we often bring ideas and concepts from other disciplines into our music lessons. Social studies (historical context), science (the science of sound), math (ratios of sound durations and beat groups) and Language Arts (dramatic form) all have been integrated into our music teaching for quite some time. What makes this method different is that it places artistic works front and center. It showcases not only the artistic excellence with which they were born, but of the universality of harmony, emotions, collaboration (of sounds in music and of performers in presenting it). It also makes the arts desirable and accessible to teacher other than of the arts; in fact, Artful Learning is intended to be a school-wide practice wherein teachers of all subjects use the arts to teach their discipline in this arts-centered interdisciplinary approach. I will be using this method initially to teach a unit on Latin American Music this coming school year. I will be writing periodically on my progress.

A New Vision for Music Appreciation

Version 2In my post, “Essential Questions that Matter to Students,” I placed a great deal of importance on building value and relevance for students through the use of essential questions. Today, I would like to extend that conversation into the area of music appreciation. Music appreciation has been, by and large, a concept whereby those with little or no musical training are taught through a mix of music history, theory, and aural examples, the signposts of musical works composed by Western European composers from the Middle Ages up to the present time. These courses tend to privilege so called “classical” music, promoting the idea that the “classics” are, like Shakespeare, Milton and others, something every well-educated person should understand and come to enjoy if they don’t already.

In the twenty-first century, this conceptualization with its narrow focus on Western European art music, has become archaic and in need of a new vision. Just today, I cam across a writer who articulated as well as I have encountered such a vision and I would like to share his thought with you here.

In his essay, “Why Music: Music Appreciation for the 21st Century,” Frank Fitzpatrick proposed some essential questions of his own that quite aptly can drive our re-envisioning of music appreciation. Fitzpatrick asked, “how we can better use music to improve the quality of our lives and wellbeing, to enhance performance in other academics or careers, to improve our relationships, or to help us stay balanced during life’s more challenging times?” To render his point more useful, I have broken this question down into several more focused ones. How do people use music to improve the quality of their lives? How does the study of music enhance performance in other areas of our lives, including other academic subjects and careers? How does music help improve our relationships with others? How does music help us cope with life’s challenges?

I have found that many of my students are already aware of using music for mood modification, and to enhance their relationship with their friends by listening, dancing, singing and talking about their mutually favorite songs. They are less apt to be aware of benefits of music in other academic classes or as an aid in coping with life’s challenges. Fitzpatrick directs our attention to research that supports the multidisciplinary benefits of music. “Science has already shown, and continues to demonstrate, how music can improve human development in countless ways. It is a megavitamin for the brain, the ultimate mood enhancer for emotional balance, a golden key for unlocking creativity, the secret code behind health and longevity, and the connective fiber between human beings of all races, nationalities and generations” Mindlin et al (2012).  Anthems such as “We Shall Overcome” or works such as John Adams “On The Transmigration of Souls” are examples of the latter. Probing these questions builds both value of music in their lives, and raises awareness of roles and contributions that music could play in their lives if it isn’t already. Fitzpatrick wrote, “shouldn’t the first level of understanding a subject matter, especially such a powerful form of intelligence, be an insight into why it has value? If we knew the ‘why’ of music, and recognized the value and potential benefits already available to us, wouldn’t it naturally increase our desire to learn more?”

This whole idea of the value of music to each of us cannot be enacted from only one cultural perspective and context. To presume that gaining an understanding of one musical idiom suffices to elevate music to relevance and worth in anyone’s life is an illusion. The fact is, music inhabits every culture on earth, and the essence of humanity and humanness is embedded in all those musical cultures, articulated in different ways according to the life and times of the people who are products and purveyors of those cultures.

To appreciate music cannot be limited to understanding sonata form, tonality, or even 12-tone systems. No, to appreciate music must mean to gain entry into the musical existence of people everywhere; not to become so immersed in all musics of the world that we are as one from all cultures, for that is impossible, but to acquire sufficient familiarity with many if not all musics of the world to an extent whereby we can appreciate each within their own cultural context; to understand why the music sounds the way it does, what purpose the music serves to those for whom it is intended, and how, within its own vocabulary of common practices, it communicates the ideas and emotions of the people of that culture. Relevancy depends on usefulness. No music can be relevant unless it shares cultural attributes with the person to whom it might be relevant. The more we know about world cultures, the more we can understand the relevance of their music to them, which in turn allows us to appreciate, that is to understand the value of, their music.

Why is drumming so prevalent in Western African countries? Why are some non-Western rhythmic structures so much more complex than those of Western art music? What musical element(s) are favored in American popular music? In Western classical music? In West African folk music? The different answers to these questions helps illuminate the purposes and differences between these idioms, and sheds light on the cultures from which they come. Its is likely that for some or even many students, the dance music of Latin America will be more relevant than the symphonies of Beethoven. It is also more likely that the classical music of George Gershwin will be more relevant to many students than the classical music of Bach or Mozart simply because the musical world of Gershwin, with its blues and jazz influences, is closer to the students’ own musical worlds than those of seventeenth or eighteenth century European composers. Amid a desire to “teach the classics” we must not forget to educate our students in the musics being created, enjoyed, and culturally embraced right now, in our own lifetime. As with other disciplines, the past can shed light on the present and inform the future, and so there is value in studying them all, but the importance of  appreciating music of our own lifetime cannot be overstated.

Fitzgerald finishes his essay by stating this eloquently, and I will leave you with his words. “We are desperately in need of a new kind of music appreciation program — one that offers everyone the “why” of music, impresses upon us its deeper values, and helps people better understand how we can most effectively harness its tremendous benefits and better integrate those into our daily lives.” I believe that ought to be the goal of music appreciation.

Mindlin, G., DuRousseau, D., & Cardillo, J. (2012). Your playlist can change your life: Ten proven ways your favorite music can revolutionize your health, memory, organization, alertness, and more. Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, Inc.

Essential Questions that Matter to Students

Version 2One of the foundations for the design of the National Core Arts Standards is “Understanding by Design,” and foundational to that method of planning and delivering instruction is the use of essential questions. Essential questions are open-ended, though provoking questions that reveal important, transferrable ideas. Because they are open-ended, they must be supported with evidence, and in searching out that evidence, they lead to deeper understandings. Any question that has one correct answer cannot be an essential question. For example, “what process did you follow to compose your musical work?” is not an essential question, even though the process one student followed may be different from the one another student followed. For the student answering the question, there is only one answer–the process he or she followed. There is no need to collect evidence to support the evidence, anymore than one needs to provide evidence that they walked a certain line to go to the pencil sharpener and then return to their seat.  Only one route was taken, so only one answer is possible to the question, “what route did you take to go to and from the pencil sharpener?”

The real power of essential questions comes when they draw a learner into a unit of study. Essential questions are effective in answering questions disengaged students are likely to ask at the outset of a class they have quickly judged will not interest them. For example, before beginning a unit on composing music,  students might wonder why they must learn to compose music, because most of them do not plan on becoming composers or studying music composition in college. There are worthwhile essential questions waiting on the doorstep of this doubt. Why do composers create music? How does music communicate ideas and emotions? What influences the musical works a composer creates? Why does our culture place so much importance on music? What ideas or emotions of yours do you wish others understood? How could writing music help you be better understood by your friends?

As students discuss and probe these essential questions, they will realize that creating music is not something that is only of benefit to professional composers–that there are ways in which composing music improves the quality of life of people who simply use it as an outlet for personal expression. Working through these questions prepares students to create music with purpose and personal meaning. On the other hand, brushing aside students perceptions of composing as irrelevant to them only maintains barriers to both fulfillment and rich learning for the students.

Instruction driven by essential questions continues beyond these preliminary yet essential inquiries. Having learned why they will be creating music, they must next learn how composers and eventually they compose music. Once again, we could simply present them a list of musical elements and show them that composers use elements like tempo, rhythm, dynamics, and tonality to express ideas and emotions, or we could ask students to draw on their own musical experiences to observe how composers make the music mean what it does to them. How do creators of music use musical elements to convey meaning? What kinds of responsibilities does a creator of music have to an audience? What kinds of responsibilities does an audience have to a creator of music? How does a creator of music know when a musical work is ready to present to an audience? How do creators of music decide what they will express in a musical work? Use of these and similar essential questions keeps the learning grounded in what is of personal interest to individual students, and keeps the purpose of music composition, that is, to convey meaning through expressing ideas and emotions, at the forefront of the task. I have used composition as an example here, but essential questions work equally well with the other musical processes of performing, responding and connecting.

It is important to understand that using essential questions to drive instruction should not be seen as a way to disguise what the teacher wants students to do as if it were relevant to students. Essential questions should not trick them into doing what the teacher wants, but rather should help them uncover in what ways they can self-direct their learning to make it interesting and relevant for them.

Up to now, I have not mentioned one important aspect of instruction, and that is assessment. After all the deep thinking and performance tasks the students have done, they must demonstrate what they have learned, and what they can now do as a result of the instruction. Although this is the last step in the instructional cycle (if a cycle can be said to have a start and end point), it must be the first thing that is designed when planning the instructional unit. What will students do and what will they know as a result of the learning activities they will have done. Though using essential questions for this stage of instruction is perhaps not so self-evident as at other stages, their use has tremendous benefits. With the use of essential questions at the assessment stage, student feedback can be gathered and used give students the method of assessment that most accurately represents what they know and can do. For this, we can simply ask, “how do audiences evaluate musical works they hear?” “What are some ways that composers receive feedback about their musical works?” What are some things about music we can tell composers know by listening to their musical works?”

These questions teach students the dynamic assessment practices that are built into any musical performance situation. Once learning on this has taken place, we can ask a question that is not essential but is critical at this stage, and that is, “how would you like to show me what you can do and what you have learned from composing music?” The student can then design his or her own assessment plan with guidance form the teacher so that the stated objective of the unit is fulfilled. For example, if the student proposes only to tell the class about the work, then that is not acceptable because it doesn’t demonstrate the objective of, for example, composing a melody that uses musical elements to convey a stated meaning being met.  Once assessment plans, the designing of which is part of the unit, are complete, students demonstrate their learning and the unit comes to a conclusion.

Essential questions bring the learning experience to a deeper level than just performing the learning task itself, and then being tested on learning. They also clarify what students should be focused on, and motivates them to stay engaged because so much of the learning activities are tailored to individual interests and knowledge. information on essential questions, In addition to the brief video below, for further information I recommend Understanding by Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2008).


Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2008). Understanding by design. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Iconic Notation and Music Literacy

Version 2Honestly, for years I considered iconic notation a cheap substitute for “real” music notation. I thought it was something music teachers used as a last resort when they had thrown in the towel at successfully teaching their students to read and write in standard music notation. Because of this view of iconic notation, I avoided it, thinking that I was somehow taking the higher ground. Of course, this was faulty thinking on my part. Iconic notation has been employed by respected composers for decades when standard notation was inadequate for representing what they wanted performers of their music to do, and far from being a poor substitute, iconic notation is an excellent way of teaching the concept of notation in general; that is, the written representation of a specific sound and specific direction for producing that sound. Music is written down, in whatever form, so that it can be shared with other musicians who can use it to perform a musical work, thereby sharing it aurally with an audience. It does not have to be done through written notation, but notation is a sufficiently important media to warrant its teaching in music education. The key is getting music passed from creator to performer. For a musically literate person, learning music from notation is an efficient method.

As with any written system, the key is to first have a sound in mind, then to associate that sound with a particular written symbol. When many different sounds are involved as they are in music, it helps to have a verbal name for each sound which then is attached to the written symbol along with the actual sound. In iconic notation, I might want to write down a symbol that will tell the performer to oscillate between two tones, so I make the sound of my voice going back and forth between two pitches that are approximately a minor third apart. I call this sound a squiggle. My students then perform a squiggle, so they all know what it sounds like, and they all know what it is called. Once that is in place, I draw a squiggle on the board, and tell them that is what a squiggle looks like. Whenever they see that symbol, they are to sing a squiggle. I can control the rhythm of the squiggle by making the drawn squiggle tighter or more drawn out for faster or slower, respectively, and I can control the distance between the tones by the height of the squiggle. All of this is somewhat subjective, because I cannot indicate precisely what tones to produce, or how quickly to move between them, but I am leaving iconic directions on what and how to produce my sound; how to perform my music.  If I were to publish this work, I would not be able to teach about my squiggle to a class, so I would do what many composers have done–I would include written directions in the first pages of the score. This is necessary because, unlike standard music notation, iconic notation is not necessarily universal. In other words, my written squiggle might not mean the same thing to as many musicians as say an E-flat on a treble clef would.

Now back the the music classroom. Once I have taught my class about the squiggle and allowed them to practice performing a short musical work made out of squiggles of various speeds and sizes, I will have them create their own sounds and symbols, and teach them to each other. This can be done first in a whole-class setting, where one student at a time creates a sound and symbol and teaches it to the class, and then later in small groups, where the students create sounds and symbols, compose a work using them, and then performs the work for the class from their iconic notation. A variant of that is for each group to teach the class how to use their iconic notation, or to write clear directions, and then have another groups perform the work from the iconic notation. In this case, the composing groups can see how clear their directions are, and how closely others will capture their intent by reading their iconic score. This opens the possibility for valuable dialog between composers and performers, and makes the composers aware of their responsibility to make every effort to realize other composers’ intent when they perform other music.

Here is an example of a music composing project using iconic notation. In it, pitch is indicated by the vertical placement of the symbols, while duration is indicated by the size of the symbol–larger shapes are longer, while smaller shapes are shorter. There are also instances where beaming is borrowed from standard notation to group tones together that are to be performed in especially fast succession. Rests are notated with double vertical squiggles. Though it is unclear without speaking to the composers, the faces drawn on the larger symbols introduces the possibility of notating a desired emotion to individual tones, where some tones would be “happy notes” while others would be “sad notes.” Happy and sad might then be worked out by the performer by manipulating the tone to be darker or brighter depending on the desired emotion.

Here is an ingenious musical work that is written in iconic notation. Different instrument timbres are represented by different shapes, and durations are represented by relative distances between symbols. The timing of each sound onset is controlled by the dial which rotates through the performance. Dynamics are indicated by the size and color of the symbols. While this method lends itself to the computerized presentation shown here, it could also be used by live performers, where a “conductor” moved the dial and the performers played “notes” when the dial passed over the symbol associated with their instrument.

It is worth mentioning that this particular work is much better suited for iconic notation than standard music notation. Imagine trying to notate and then read the rhythm of all those dotes.

There is no doubt that iconic notation is useful in introducing music notation to young or novice music students, and it is sure to be of value in early music education. Its use should not be abandoned with older students. Iconic notation can release students to compose creatively without being restricted by what they can notate using standard music notation. In some cases, composing in iconic notation will be a gateway to discussing how to notate the same work using standard music notation. In other instances, as in the example above, it will be best to leave the work in iconic notation. Either way, iconic notation is a valuable tool in teaching our students music literacy.

What Does Music Mean?

Version 2One of the more perplexing questions of the ages concerning music is the question, what does music mean? Philosophers from Aristotle to Bernstein have tried to answer this question, but none have done so in a way that once and for all settles the matter. Bernstein devoted much of his lecturing life to tackling the question, and most often insisted that music had no semantic, or literal meaning, but instead had metaphorical meaning. You can say music makes you feel this way or that way, or that music means one thing or another to you because it is like something else that means that to you, but music can never communicate a precise bit of information or thought such as “today is Tuesday,” or “the sky looks blue today.”

Music educators have by and large been content with maintaining that music expresses feelings and emotions, and have left the debate as to whether or not it communicates anything else, or if it is or is not a language, to scholars and philosophers. All of that changed, though, when the National Core Arts Standards were released in 2014. Those standards changed the conversation, because something the authors called “expressive intent” is embedded throughout the standards.  The standards force us to come down on the side that music does have meaning, and that it is every listener’s task to comprehend what it is. One of the “artistic” processes is responding, which is defined as “understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.” To support that definition, Anchor Standard number 8 is to “interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.” 

If we are to require students to understand and evaluate how the arts convey meaning, then we are assuming that the arts do convey meaning. Such an assumption makes it possible for a listener to construct an interpretation of a musical work that reveals a meaning that the composer intended to communicate to listeners through that musical work. But how can we know for sure from listening to a musical work that we got it right? How can we know for sure what meaning the composer intended to convey? The writers of the standards skirt that crucial question by stating that composers leave clues by their use of musical elements. The authors of the standards state that, “through their use of elements and structures of music, creators and performers provide clues to their expressive intent.” That’s a start, but clues can only lead to guesses, not evidence-based conclusions; and if music can only convey metaphoric meaning as Bernstein insisted, it would seem that we are left with know way of knowing beyond a doubt. What’s more, do composers really consciously implant their music with “clues” or are they believing that they are expressing things much more succinctly than creating a musical mystery to be solved by detective-like listeners? How precise can those musical metaphors be?

We are used to performers offering an interpretation of a musical work but we are perhaps new to the idea of responders to music interpreting what they hear. Remember, we are talking about what the composer intended the music to mean, not what personal meaning an individual might find through association or experience, a process that is called connecting, or “relating artistic ideas and works with personal meaning and external context.” The authors of the standards defined expressive intent as “The emotions, thoughts, and ideas that a performer or composer seeks to convey by manipulating the elements of music That definition implies something more than metaphor. The claim is that composers of music can, through their music, express thoughts and ideas. What thoughts and what ideas? Are there some thoughts or ideas that can be expressed through music, while others cannot? Can the musical metaphor as described by Bernstein be precise enough to express an idea or thought?

That depends on what a composer is trying to express. If I say “I have a burning desire to Bernsteinplay the piano,” I am expressing an inner experience (the desire) that drives me to an action (play the piano). The word “burning” here cannot precisely be explained so that someone else exactly experiences what I am experiencing. It can only generally describe my experience to that a person can relate to it, but not share or duplicate it within themselves. I could perhaps better express what it feels like to have this burning desire through music, symbolically representing my feeling through music that causes another person to also have a burning desire, if not for playing the piano, than equally for something else. When I have a burning desire, I am obsessed with the thought of doing something, and I have an overwhelming desire to do it. The thought of it all excites, and if I am not able to immediately go do the think, there are also feelings of restlessness, frustration, or despair. I could make music that sounds restless through active rhythms and oscillating dynamics, or I could use dissonance and dynamics to express frustration, or surging phrases to convey despair. The idea being expressed is that of doing something, of following the irresistible urge to do something and the emotional state I experience in the time preceding my opportunity to do so. The thought expressed is expected pleasure of doing the thing. I cannot communicate through the music that the thing is to play the piano, but I can convey the idea and the thought of doing something the anticipation of which causes me to think and feel what I can express with music. 

Getting back to the standards, we find the essential question, “How do we discern the musical creators’ and performers’ expressive intent?” If we trace the progression of standards from kindergarten through 8th grade, we find that those clues begin with dynamics and tempo, then continue with knowledge of concepts (meter, rhythm, pitch, form, etc), timbre, articulation, musical genres, culture, and historical context. We can see form this sequence that expressive intent is conveyed in its simplest form by manipulating the non-hierarchical structures of music, namely dynamics and tempo. Music that is loud and fast is likely to convey something akin to excitement, fear, or joy—the more active emotions that raise the heart rate and motivate us to physically move, while music that is soft and slow is likely to convey something akin to calm, restful, contented, peaceful respite, or melancholy repose. Later, when a child’s musical understanding has become more conceptual, more complex expressions can succeed that include the hierarchical structures of meter, phrasing, and patterns of tension and release. With these concepts intact, those ideas and thoughts can now be understood, because to convey them they must be apprehended over the course of extended musical time-spans rather than from momentary samplings of tempo and dynamics.

Music can mean anything for which a symbol can be made from sound. The extent of what can be symbolically represented with music depends on the familiarity the listener has with the musical genre being listened to, and with the composer’s ability to evoke in a listener a physical and/or emotional response that is recognizably associated with the thought, idea or feeling being expressed. The listener can successfully find the composer’s intent by observing what thought, idea or feeling is stimulated by the music quite apart from any personal associations or connections. 


Using Student Feedback to Plan Music Instruction

Version 2When it comes to teaching, I’m a pretty old school kind of guy. Many teachers, and I count myself among them, tend to teach the way we were taught, especially if we were generally successful in school. For me and I would guess most others of my generation, we accepted what the teacher told us to do, and did things their way. If we didn’t, we either got bad grades, got in trouble, or both, and we could count on negative consequences as a result when we got home. A lot of research and reforms have come to education since then, many of them good. Among the positive change is the recognition that not all students learn the same, and even more importantly, teachers can be guided by their students on the best ways to instruct individual in a class.

The issue isn’t just whether a student is a visual, aural, or kinesthetic learner, nor is it just which of the multiple intelligences is a student’s strength or weakness. No, the issue also must include how a student responds, manages and utilizes his or her internal world of emotions, physical health, language, cognition, relationships with others, and self-worth. These all affect achievement in school and are separate from learning style. Many if not most times, the condition of any of these can only be known by soliciting student feedback. Often times, this kind of feedback will only be offered to a teacher with whom the student has developed and trusting relationship, so relationship building must precede the effect use of student feedback to effectively improve teaching and learning.

It is important to understand that the type of feedback I am writing about is focused on making the learning situation for the student better. I am not referring to student reflections on negative behavior. While such reflections may have their place and helping a student realize that he or she could have handled a situation in a more positive way, and learning what they way might be for next time, improving the learning environment for that student probably will remove the reason the student acted negatively in the first place. For example, if a student is struggling to stay focused and is becoming distracted and engaging in off-task behavior, and if usual strategies for redirection have been ineffective through the class, feedback from that student could be a successful tact.

The teacher might slip the student a note that in effect says, “Today I was pleased to notice that you tried to complete your work. I also noticed that even so, you became distracted from your work and ended up not finishing. How can I help you overcome the distractions so you can finish your work?” A note like this is personal because it is about something specific to that one student, it shows that you noticed that child, and that you care about his or her success enough to seek them out and work for a solution that will bring better results. It is positive because it acknowledges a success (effort), and offers support in making improvement. It avoids negative consequences for being distracted and off-task, and replaces them with positive action to replace the off-task behavior with something more productive and ultimately rewarding.

There are also times, perhaps once every six weeks or so, when seeking feedback from an entire class can be effective and helpful. Mendler  (2000) suggests that “questions like the following can lead to helpful information.

  1. What can I do to be a better teacher for you?
  2. How can I help you be successful?
  3. Two things I say or do that you think I should continue doing are ________________.
  4. Two things I say or do that you wish I would do less of are _______________________.

If students answer these questions anonymously, the results can be analyzed as data, with the most frequently given answers driving changes or reinforcing current practice in instruction. If students answer these questions and put their names on their papers, then the results can be used to differentiate instruction for individuals. Students will be willing to put their names to their answers if a relationship of trust has been established between students and teacher.

There is also much good that can come from just observing groups of students at work. For example, there may be a small group of students in a class who typically are less engaged than the others, who tend to want to socialize rather than stay on-task, or who simply refuse to do assigned tasks. By observing these students over several class meetings during which they are asked to do different types of learning activities, it is possible to observe them becoming more engaged in certain types of activities than others. In a music classroom, some students may work diligently at a response to music activity that is primarily writing, where as those same students may be reticent to play or sing music. From this observation, it may be possible to replace one kind of response (demonstrate by performing) with another kind of response (explain in writing) as the means by which those student demonstrate learning. Then, during subsequent lessons, the teacher continues to build on the strength (writing) while gradually building confidence and competence in the weakness (performing) until the latter also becomes a viable kind of response.

Typically, with a group of students who tend to talk too much to each other, the teacher would respond by separating those students. However, if that is the group that prefers verbal responding to performance responding, it may be more effective to put them together and give them the opportunity to use their preference (talking) to verbally respond and then perhaps record their responses in writing. This is not to say that unwanted talking should be encouraged, only that it is often possible to channel it into a more productive purpose.

It really all comes back to building relationships. The longer one teaches, the more difficult it can become to put ourselves in our students place. But we were all elementary, middle and high school students at one time. When we felt unsure of ourselves, how did we get helpful encouragement from others? What did they say to us or do that put us at ease and freed us up to proceed with confidence and to succeed? When we walk into a room of peers, even peers who are familiar to us or friends, what do other people do to make us feel accepted and comfortable? Are students doing those things for each other in our classroom? Do our students feel that our classroom is a socially safe place for them to be and in which to learn and even take risks such as volunteering an answer, or even singing for the class? We can obtain answers to these questions and more by gathering student feedback from students who are convinced they can trust us with their struggles and obstacles. That is the necessity of building trusting relationships, and the payoff that student feedback from trusting students offers.

Mendler, A. N. (2000). Motivating students who don’t care: Successful techniques for educators. Bloomington: Solution Tree.


21st Century Skills and Music Education

Version 2The phrase “21st century skills” has been in use for almost twenty years, yet educators still can find it difficult to find clarity in just how these skills differ from what they and their students were doing in the 20th century. Certainly technology, high level thinking, and authentic performance tasks were nothing new to educators at the dawn of the current century. So what exactly are 21st century skills, and how should implementing them have changed the way we approach teaching music? Which 21st century skills, when developed and utilized, most strengthen music educators task and music students’ success?

Of the thirteen 21st century skills, four of them are especially relatable to music education. These four skills are communication, collaboration, creativity, and innovation. These four skills, more than any others, have whether consciously or unconsciously formed the backbone of both the 1994 national standards, and more recently the 2014 national core arts standards. Results reported in Arts Education Standards and 21st Century Skills (2011, College Board for the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards) indicate that communication aligns with all of the 1994 standards except reading music for grades K-12, creativity aligns with performing and creating standards, while collaboration, aligns with performing standards. Because of the emphasis given to expressive intent, interpretation, and generating musical ideas, one would expect the alignment to be greater between the 2014 standards for creating and performing and the skills of collaboration and creativity. In this article, I will discuss communication through music.

The 21st century skill of communication in the context of music education is the conveyance of ideas, emotions, and feelings through artistic activity and work. While the possibility of conveying specific ideas through music is problematic given the abstract nature of music compared to language, conveying emotions and feelings with music is the very heart and soul of music, and all the more so when the National Core Arts Standards of 2014 are considered. In fact, one of the anchor standards for creating artistic work is to “convey meaning through the presentation of artistic work.” I should note that an anchor standard is a general statement of purpose that applies to all thesinger arts; hence the use of the phrase “artistic work” rather than “musical work.” But here I am considering only music. One of the core reasons for performing music is to convey meaning, and the 21st century skill of communication informs us that the meaning that is to be conveyed through music is emotions and feelings. So one of the main tasks a student musician has is to determine what emotions and what feelings was the composer intending to convey when he or she wrote the work, by what means did the composer make the work expressive of those feelings and emotions, and how should the music be interpreted so that those feelings and emotions are communicated to an audience. An approach to music performance grounded in the 21st century skill of communication will pursue answers to those questions to inform the preparation of the musical work for presentation.

If communication figures so prominently in music performance, how much more so must it figure in musical composition. Creating music is communicating through music in its purest form. Whether a musician is composing a symphonic work, a pop song, or improvising a jazz solo, he or she is by the very act of creating music expressing something. Creators of music express things intentionally, as we have discussed, and also unintentionally when a hearer of the music finds meaning that the composer was unaware of when creating the work. Musicians generate musical ideas as writers generate ideas in words. A writer puts down words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and so forth, not at random, but in an attempt to express an idea that has come to mind before the act of writing it down has commenced. Likewise, a musician who is expressing something thought music, has an expressive intent in mind which precedes writing the notes down, or improvising them into the ear of a listener.

Composers and songwriters (but not improvisers) will generate many more ideas than they will eventually retain in the final work; therefore the act of selecting from all the generated ideas is also informed by the expressive intent. “Of all the musical ideas written down, which ones best convey what I want to express?” The more clearly the creator of music acts on a specific intent, the more decisive an eventual performer can be in determining that intent and fashioning an appropriate interpretation. That interpretation leads to the performance, which is the last part of the musical communication process: Create, interpret, perform, respond, the last of which is done by the hearer.

I will now look at the activity of the hearer in the communication process. The hearer is the object of the communication, and the communication may occur amidst other hearers in an audience at a live performance, among other hearers at a recorded performance, or by a single hearer listening alone. In each case, the musical performance makes an impression on the hearer, both with meaning as we have discussed, and with other factors such as the quality of the performance, the setting and context in which the music was heard, and the people with whom the music was heard. The hearer will take away from the performance the feelings and emotions expressed, the overall impression of the music, the venue, the audience and anything else that was part of the experience, and then the hearer will likely discuss the music that was heard with others, both those who also heard the same performance, and with those who did not. Those discussions will clarify for the hearer the meaning, and will influence others to either seek out the musical work if they have not heard it, or if they have perhaps to hear it again, or to avoid the musical work if what was said about it was unappealing. The collective responses to a musical performance that are communicated to fellow or potential hearers adds to the meaning that the musical work is expected to convey by those who have been part of the discussion. In this way, meaning may be created as a result of responding to music. Communication, more than any other skill, is pervasive in the artistic processes of creating, performing and responding.