A Fable from the Land of Music Notes

2011 Symposium2

Children love stories. Sometimes stories can be used to teach difficult concepts. I remember a story that a music teacher used to tell to explain dotted quarter notes, and some 58 years later, I still remember it. Here’s is another story about note values. I hope you enjoy it.

There once was a land where all who lived there were musical notes. They were not wealthy, but they had all they needed. They lived in common time, and followed all the rules of governor measure. As many are wont to do, they would at times enjoy the company of only others like themselves; quarter notes stayed together, half notes stayed in their own groups, and so forth. This pleased them for a time, but eventually they became quite board with themselves, and decided to try meeting with notes that were different from them. Quarter notes spent time with half notes, and even the sixteenth notes, though they were always in a hurry and didn’t stay anywhere very long, began to accept invitations to spend time with some eighth note acquaintances. The notes realized that they could do things and make things with notes that were different from them that they could not make with only those of their own kind.

The notes became excited about their new friends and what they could do with them. They began to become adventurous and tried new things. Then one day, a quarter note named Willy asked another quarter note whose name was Fred if he could spare him some time. His fellow quarter notes gasped at the thought. How dare Willy ask Fred to give him part of himself? What would happen to Willy? Then they were even more astonished when Willy said yes. He broke off part of himself and gave to Fred. Fred placed the part of Willy right next to him, and suddenly Fred was half of a beat longer. Meanwhile, Fred grew a funny looking curvy line out of the top of him that kind of flowed down his right side. Fred stood in front of Willy, and they were surrounded by curious quarter notes wondering what would happen. They were all delighted to learn that Willy and Fred now made a pretty cool rhythm.

A whole note who happened to be watching the whole time called allchoosing-beautiful-music the other notes around him so that he could speak to them. Whole notes often did this; they always had something wise to say because they always had so much time to think before they had to move no. “I have observed a valuable lesson from what just happened” he said. “In order for Fred to get more, Willy had to give up part of what he had. We can’t grow longer unless someone else pays the price for us by getting shorter. No one can have more unless someone else has less.” One of the whole note’s twin half note sons chimed in, “but by giving to Willy, Fred and Willy together became better.” “Very good, my half note son” replied the whole note. That is how it is sometimes. It is sometimes better to give what you can do without to someone who needs it more than you do. The result is that both are the better for it, and are connected in a new a wonderful way.

Once the notes had let this profound truth sink in, they began looking for ways to make all of them sound better by giving and receiving time from each other. Of course, it wasn’t always harmonious. Fights broke out about who got more time, and there were from time to time thieves who stole time and gave it to others or kept it for themselves. But eventually these criminals were caught when they exceeded their measure’s allotment of beats, or came up short. When this happened everyone knew there had been a theft, and the criminal was usually caught and brought to justice. In spite of this, music became ever more interesting as all kinds of combinations of note lengths began mixing with each other. Over time, the measures relaxed their laws somewhat and an occasional five or even seven beats was allowed to stand. The whole notes made sure things didn’t get too far out of hand, and they always hoped that humans would someday see what good could come of being generous and kind to others.

Props for Musical Play

Creating a musical environment for very young children is crucial. Among the many things adults can do is to provide children with suitable musical toys with which they can interact, exploring the sounds they can make with the toys. Here is an excellent article on this important stage of musical development in early childhood.

Make Music Everyday

There are a wide variety of musical instruments and toys that are available for children of all ages. Some help children’s musicality, and some are very annoying, like the guitar pictured below (trust me, I know from experience.) 20140125_083143

While you can buy all sorts of props, and I suggest that you do, here are some ideas for the Do-It-Yourselfers out there. Dancing ribbons and scarves are great ways to encourage musical movement in young children. They are fun and colorful. I suggest these over the streamers on sticks for young children because children running around with sticks is never a good idea. These are more durable, too. However, you may not need the dozen or twenty-something that come with the sets sold by music education retailers. If you DIY, you can make scarves or dancing ribbons in you or your child’s favorite colors, which may encourage them to use it…

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Tannhäuser – Pilgrim’s Chorus by Wagner

If music runs in your blood now, it probably got there at an early age. It was that way with me. Here’s a story of how music comes to mean so much to us.

ms. espressivo

I love choral music. The first time music shook my soul was when I was just under ten years old listening to Sound of Music’s choral finale of “Climb Every Mountain.” I was never the same girl since then, for I have been entranced under a spell that makes me fall in love with music time and time again. I love that nearly one hundred voices come together to create such beautiful harmony, which transcends my heart into an intriguing and unfamiliar dimension.

I recall learning extensively about Richard Wagner and his opera Tannhäuser during my studies in college. My professor would spend weeks on going over the story line, the symbolism behind each character, many different arias, the musical form of certain orchestral selections, and how the music relates to the sentiments of the characters. While all the lectures were informative, I was not amused. However, when he played a recording of the end of the opera when…

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How Can Students’ Practice Be Improved?

2011Symposium_1_2Regardless of how successful a private music lesson is, a large measure of the student’s eventual success depends on regular and effective practice at home. Often, attention is given to how to get students to practice more, but not enough attention is given to what students should be doing when they are practicing. I have found that often a student who isn’t practicing much is unclear what they are to do once they leave the lesson, and as a result do not notice enough improvement from what practicing they do to motivate them to continue. Today, I would like to describe what has worked for me in addressing the issues of student practice.

In my lessons, I establish a routine that models what I expect the student to do on his or her own when they practice. I begin with the chromatic scale and a major or minor scale. I guide the student through practicing slowly and playing evenly. I may have them use several different articulation patterns, and I will address any hand position and (for wind players) embouchure issues that need correction. Some debate the need for practicing scales, but I believe that scales are the indispensible foundation of every instrumentalist’s technique. When practice sessions are started with scales, the player is afforded the opportunity to hone in on aspects of his or her playing that are in need of improvement, including tone, articulation, hand position, fingerings, evenness, and even  familiarity with keys not often encountered in repertoire. Scales should not be a “one and done” activity, but a purposeful and focused one.

The next part of practice is an etude. This is material I have assigned with a particular purpose in mind. It might be any of the things I listed for scales, and is a part of the student’s technique that I am focusing on at that time. The student has already begun to address the issue in the scales, and now practices using it in the context of a piece. The combination of scales followed by a thoughtfully selected etude is a powerful one, and will lead the student to greater gains in proficiency than spending most of the practicepractice time on repertoire. The tangible improvement that the student will notice motivates further practice, and makes repeated pleas for more practice unnecessary. Students like to succeed and like to see that the work they are putting in is gaining them noticeable benefit. One word of caution is this: teachers should not be too hasty in checking off an etude as finished the first week it is played well. More velocity, better articulation, improved tone are always possible with further work on a familiar etude. It is never enough to practice until skill is gained; it is also necessary to practice those things the student does well, so that they get better at them. We send a damaging message to students when we settle for “good enough” when they could do better.

Teachers should write all of what the student should do on a practice lesson plan. Have sheets pre-printed with the categories of work: scales, etudes, articulation, tone, repertoire. Fill out the plan as you go through the lesson, tailoring the material in each section to the student’s needs. There should be a space on the form at the bottom for comments. There, the teacher can write specific directions on how a scale or etude is to be practiced, including articulations to be used, and tempo, and  reminders of areas of particular focus.

At this point, if you are a vocalist, you probably think I am writing only to instrumental teachers. If so, I want to challenge you to take the same approach to teaching voice. There is no reason why vocalists cannot practice etudes, even those written for another instrument. Students can sing instrumental etudes on neutral syllables or solfege, as long as they are contained within the range of the human voice. The goals of a singer are the same as for an instrumentalist: good tone, evenness of tone, accurate intonation, velocity, and expressiveness. Student singers will learn vocal repertoire with much stronger technique and more confidence if they are prepared with the thoroughness that etude practice makes possible.

After scales and etudes, repertoire can be practiced as needed. Honestly, if the scales and etudes are properly practiced, all but the most challenging repertoire will be easily played by the student. Solo and contest material needs more attention, but even there, much of what has been learned in scales and etudes will enable this repertoire to fall into place with minimal technical practice. This leaves ample time for interpretive practice: the discovering and bringing out of the composer’s and the student’s expressive intents. This is what music making is all about, and this is where it gets fun. If a student only practices for correct notes and fingerings, and then moves on to something else, there has been little or no payoff, and the essence of musicianship and fun of making music has been missed. If the teacher is only or even mostly interested in the student learning notes, is it any wonder that the students of that teacher loose interest in practicing and their lessons.

Responding to Music in the Core Arts Standards and Beyond

2011Symposium_1_2Responding to music has been among our music standards from the beginning of the first standards. In its original context, responding was primarily a standard for non-performing students, and was most utilized in music appreciation classes, or listening units in general music sections. As it is now presented in the Core Arts Standards for music, responding is more all-inclusive. Student composers, performers, and listeners are all expected to respond to music through analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. I will look at each of these types of responses to music, and connect them to the common core state standards (CCSS) environment in which we work.

The Enduring Understanding (EU) for responding with analysis is, “Response to music is informed by analyzing context (social, cultural, and historical) and how creators and performers manipulate the elements of music.” For this type of response to music, students look at how music concepts are used, how music concepts support a purpose, how students respond to structure, and how students respond to context, including social, cultural and historical. For example, meter might be used to support a purpose that the music be a certain type of dance, such as a landler, or gavotte; or rhythm might be used to prepare and execute a cadence according to cultural norms of the Baroque period, or timbre might be used to support the purpose of representing a battle and commemorating a military campaign, as with Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slav.

The EU for responding with interpretation is, “Through their use of elements and structures of music, creators and performers provide clues to their expressive intent.” Here, students show awareness of expressive qualities such as dynamics, tempo, timbre and articulation, and demonstrate and describe how performers use these to reflect the composer’s and performers’ expressive intent. Through the demonstrations, students perform with the expression they have found the composer to have intended, and may add some of their own expressive intent. In demonstrating expressive intent through the manipulation and use of expressive qualities, students gain a practical knowledge and experience of the expressive qualities and potential of music from the perspective of both composer and performer.

The EU for responding with evaluation is, “The personal evaluation of musical works and performances is informed by Musical-Balanceanalysis, interpretation and established criteria.” Evaluation begins with personal and expressive preferences in music that are applied to the evaluation. The evaluation is then focused on a specific purpose, and then expanded to both musical works and performances to which established criteria are applied. In addition, the appropriateness to the performance context is discussed, with evidence from the elements of music. For example, ensemble size and dynamics might be evaluated in terms of the performance space. A very small and quiet ensemble performing in an open outdoor space would be found to be an inappropriate use of dynamics and timbre for the context.

Where demonstrations are given, data is collected and can be used for assessment. Where descriptions are made, writing can be collected and evaluated, vocabulary can be taught and assessed, and many of the CCSS requirements can be supported without compromising the integrity of music education. Throughout the response process, ample opportunities are present for learning and applying vocabulary to authentic learning tasks, including music criticism and commentary. All aspects of responding to music are equally useful to composers, performers and listeners. Student composers respond to their own creative work by explaining their expressive intent and how they attempted to express it through specific elements. Performers respond to their own performance, explaining both the intent of the composer that they found in the music, and the expressive intent they have found for themselves through the music, and how they attempted to express it through specific elements and performance decisions. Listeners respond to both composer and performer’s expressive intent through analysis to ascertain the composer’s intent, and interpretation and comparisons of multiple performances of the same work to determine the performer’s expressive intent. Where student composers, performers and listeners are present in the same class, a worthwhile dialogue and discussion can take place between the three groups, members of each group learning from the other about the musical works they experience together.

How To Ease Musical Transitions

2011Symposium_1_2I expect that all of us have found from our own performance and from directing our performance ensembles that transitions always need extra practice; those measures in a musical work where the composer moves from one section to the next, or one theme to the next. Everything is going well, and then we arrive at something different and there is that hesitation when we can’t quite keep the music going. So we practice that transition over and over until we can play or sing through it smoothly and seamlessly. Why are musical transitions so difficult? What is going on in our brain that suddenly makes it so hard to go on and continue to play correctly?

Musical perception is a lot like visual perception. We organize what we hear into groups that consist of things that our brains perceive belong together. Examples of rules by which our brain organizes music include close pitch proximity, continuance of the same articulation, dynamic, or rhythm pattern, similar or same timbres, and organizing a group of notes the same as a parallel group we have already heard. In between these groups, there are boundaries. Boundaries can be rests, relatively long durations, or a highly stable chord, among others.

The difficulty in transitions is that they occur at a boundary. At that point we are trying to force two groups together that our brain has decided belong separated. There is momentary conflict between what we want to do and what our brain has prepared us to do. That is why we can play or sing after the transition and before the transition, but not through the transition. Our brain is happy to keep the two groups separate, because that is how it has represented the music in memory. We want to go, our brain wants to pause. Fortunately, musical structure as it is understood by the human brain is hierarchical. That means that those two groups we are trying to put together are two halves of, and subordinate to, a larger group comprised of the two subordinate halves. By widening our view and thinking of the two groups as one, we can change the way our brain describes the transition to our consciousness. This takes some analysis during which the musician finds a stronger boundary at the end of the two smaller groups, and that stronger boundary then becomes the end-point of the group. This larger group then can likewise be thought of as half of a still larger group. The process theoretically continues on to the end of the work or movement, although most of us will find it too difficult to maintain a single group over such a long time span. The larger the group, the more difficult keeping it mentally intact becomes, but even succeeding at two or three of these transitions by understanding the music’s hierarchy at a deeper level is helpful in that it eliminates one or two troublesome transitions.

Now, let’s briefly see how this works. Here is the opening of Mozart’s Sonata in C major, K. 545.

K. 545


I can easily perceive each measure as a group. The first measure is all C major, the second measure starts on a dominant chord, then returns to the tonic, and there is a relatively large leap between the G an the B in the melody, suggesting a group boundary. The next two measures are parallel to the first, and so also can be divided into two groups, one for each measure. With the melodic leap and the bass note change, going from one measure to the next can easily feel like a transition. But the third beat of the second measure is much more stable than the fourth beat of the first measure, and the second measure ends with a rest, which is a much stronger group boundary. Together, the first two measures make a complete sub phrase, and so makes a stronger group than the one measure arrangement. Now, with the goal of the full cadence on beat three (and four) of the second measure, I can more easily connect the two measures. Likewise with the third and fourth measures; measures 5-8 look like they could each be a group, but there is a descending progression that doesn’t conclude until the end of measure eight, where there is an elision that both completes the melodic descent to D and begins the cadential sequence that brings the piece to a half cadence in measure 12. At this point, we find that the first 12 measures are one group, made of three subordinate groups of four measures each, which are each made of two subordinate groups of two measures, which are made of two subordinate groups of one measure, taking us back to where we started, confronted with the urge to pause at the end of each measure. By seeing the larger groups, and thereby organizing the music in such a way that it has fewer group boundaries and therefore transitions, we have an easier time keeping the music going. Our technique is urged forward by our structural understanding and audiation of the work.

Reflections on a New School Year

2011Symposium_1_2As the new school year begins, it seems fitting to call to mind the things teachers do to get themselves and their students off to a good start. Students need five things from teachers to succeed in school, and they are never more receptive to them than at the beginning of the year. Those five things are clear behavior expectations, classroom procedures, clear academic goals, interest, and confidence.

The last two things, interest and confidence, are arguably two of the greatest gifts a teacher can give a student. Not all material covered in a class is naturally of interest to everyone, but teachers who make the uninteresting interesting, and the unexciting exciting can motivate students to try things, do things and accomplish things they would not otherwise. Teachers who do this love their content, love learning, and love teaching. They get others excited about what they are excited about; be it grammar, geometry, Gymnopedies or George Washington. Good teachers can make all of this fun without watering it down. The beginning of the school year is a great time to infuse this kind of fun into learning. For music classes, playing singing, rhythm or movement games is a great way to begin. It gets every student in a class doing something active together while providing review and practice of basic musical concepts and skills. Middle school students appreciate the chance to move around while learning, and younger children enjoy the sheer fun of playing a game.

The first three things, clear behavior expectations, procedures, and clear academic goals make the others possible. Theysinging-kids are not always observable to the untrained eye, but are in constant use. They are as important to learning as a good cinematographer and director are to a movie. They work off-camera but provide the direction and structure that keep actors in the right place at the right time, providing them with an opportunity to flourish practicing their art. Expectations, procedures, and goals do the same thing. They let everybody know what is expected, what to work for, how to know what is left to be done in order to succeed, and what success will look like.

Some students will have difficulty meeting behavioral expectations, and will need constant reminders. Giving these students logical reasons why you are expecting what you are expecting can help. No student wants to do badly, but many also don’t want to change their plan of doing what they want no matter what. The teacher must connect meeting behavior expectations and academic goals with student success, and make that success something the student wants. In this way, all five things work together as students desire to do well at what has been made interesting, and in order to do so are willing to meet expectations and goals. When my students say “I want to be able to do that,” then they have the reason they need to meet your expectations because they are now a means to getting what they want, which is what you want. When all of that aligns, it is a beautiful thing.

Procedures include how to enter the room, how to get to seating assignments, and how to pass papers out and how to collect papers. Also included are when to sharpen pencils, how to leave the classroom for the lavatory and then how to re-enter. Another is how to move from one seating plan to another; for example, from rows to group clusters for collaborative work. All of this needs to be practiced until the class can do it right repeatedly. A few minutes of time saved every day by efficient procedures saves hours of time for instruction and learning over the course of an academic year. Procedures also teach students how to be organized and efficient, both skills needed throughout life, particularly in the workplace and in managing a home. When a class moves through procedures rightly, there is time and structure for doing those fun learning activities like playing the rhythm, singing, and moving games mentioned earlier. Building these good habits into the beginning of the year will help keep things running well all year.

Academic goals are now clearly articulated in our Core Arts Standards. Anchor goals and essential questions for each of the four artistic processes provide clear direction for music teachers and their students. As a result of music classes, students will be able to select, analyze, interpret, rehearse, evaluate, and perform. They will be able to generate, develop, evaluate, revise and perform original musical works, respond to music they hear, and connect music and musical experiences.

Memorising Beyond the Notes

Much of what we love about music are things we hear that the composer wrote in the score; directions that the performer followed. Other great things about music we hear are elements that cannot be written down, but are made part of the performance and the musical surface which we as listeners interpret and enjoy. This post reminds us of how important both of these are–that going beyond the pitches and rhythms is when music really gets good.

Memorising Music

notationsMost of the time when we think about memorising music, we think about learning the notes. This is perfectly natural of course – without the notes, of which there can be a great many, there would be no music, no melody, no harmony. However, getting the notes right is only part of the story, and how the notes are played is just as important. Dynamics, tempo, attack, articulation, phrasing, voicing – these extra notations are crucial to making music and can change a mediocre rendition into a brilliantly insightful interpretation. However, memorising these markings can be just as big a task as learning the notes.

Unlike the notes themselves, in general there are two different types of additional notations to memorise: those written on the score as prescribed by the composer, and those decided by the performer who is interpreting the work. Depending on the composer (and the performer!)…

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More on “What Is A Melody?”

2011Symposium_1_2Yesterday, I discussed a balanced definition of melody; one that was broad enough to include all music that contains melody, regardless of cultural difference, and one that was specific enough to exclude sequences of sound that by common consent are not musical. The fundamental way that humans learn what a thing is or what it is not, is by observing and testing alternatives. The full moon appears round, and the plate I eat my meals off of is also round, but my plate is not the moon. There are other factors that allow me to know that my plate, even though it is round like the full moon, is not the full moon. I can touch my plate, but not the moon. The moon stays in the sky, but my plate stays wherever I place it. I can touch my plate, but I cannot touch the moon.

In the same way, melodies have certain characteristics that other sequences of sound do not have. Melodies have tones that are mostly close together in frequency, which causes humans to group them together into a unified aural entity. Melodies tend to be centered around a mean frequency—that is, all of the tones in a melody tend to regress to the mean, and that mean frequency tends to be in the middle range of both human hearing capacity, and the ranges of the human voice and of musical instruments.

Melodies also tend to keep a balance between fulfilled and unfulfilled expectations. We derive pleasure from this balance, and so seek it out in our music. Mozart2The interesting thing here is that sometimes we expect things that are not really there, but we continue to expect them anyway. For example, Huron pointed out that the occurrence of a large melodic interval being followed by a smaller interval in the opposite direction only happens 70% of the time in music. Regression to the mean is what is actually occurring. But because nothing upon which our survival depends is at stake, our brains do not attempt the herculean task of calculating the mean and approaches to it in the music, but instead inductively approximate what regression to the mean would be as small interval in the opposite direction of a large interval. This demonstrates that we experience what we perceive or understand, which is not necessarily what is physically present.

Narmour observed that listeners expect small intervals to be followed by another small interval in the same direction. Research has shown that listeners indeed do expect this to happen, even though if often does not. Narmour defines small interval as a third or less. I am reminded of the Richard Rodgers song, “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music.


Figure 1

The beginning of the melody of Do Re Mi by Richard Rodgers, notated with my system described in my post, What is a Convenient Shorthand for Music Notation Within Word Processing Software?


Do5. re4 mi5. do4 | mi5 do mi5 – | re5. mi4 fa4 fa4 mi4 re4 | fa7 etc.


After the third note, a descending third, and then three consecutive thirds follow two consecutive seconds, each in the opposite direction of the previous one. Clearly, the music does not continue in the same direction where small intervals are employed.

Another characteristic of melodies from both Western and non-Western cultures is the tendency to fall in pitch toward the end. For example, this can be observed in most Shenkerian analyses, in Native American songs, and in the Tanzanian song I linked to in my post yesterday.

The next time you hear a sequence of tones, ask yourself if it qualifies as a melody. This is a good activity for students. Is the motor and tire sounds of several cars driving by, a melody? Are the sounds of singing birds a melody? Many would say the birdsong is melody, but some would say it is not music. And this brings us to another interesting question: is all melody music? That one will have to wait for another day.