Music Teaching and Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy

Version 2When I learned Bloom’s taxonomy as an undergraduate, I always thought that the arts were short changed. Sure, there was the affective domain, but it just didn’t have the depth  to it that the cognitive domain had, and the affective domain was often presented as a sort of afterthought. When the taxonomy was revised, this changed. Bloom’s revised taxonomy is a more inclusive and complete model of how  intellectual processes work for all subjects, including music. Because of this, Bloom’s revised taxonomy is useful for writing lesson and unit objectives. In this post, I’ll examine music tasks in relation to this taxonomy.

The revised Bloom’s taxonomy  has 6 levels: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and applying. blooms-image-1

The levels increase in complexity from bottom to top. A major shortcoming of traditional teaching practice has been that too much attention was given to remembering and understanding, while students were asked to do relatively little at the upper four levels. The third level, applying, is really the gateway to relevant, meaningful, and lasting learning, because it is at this level that learning transitions from being abstract to practical; students can not only remember and explain, but they can also demonstrate and transfer learning to new situations and immediate needs.

Many teachers don’t realize how much of their teacher is at the remembering level. For music teachers, songs, tonal and rhythm patterns, instrument fingerings, and defining musical terms are all remembering level tasks. Questions like, “what is the name of the whole note in the first measure?” or “what does crescendo mean?” are remembering questions. If a music teacher plays or sings  a phrase of music and then asks the student to play it back the same way, that is also a remembering question as is practicing a passage over and over. These remembering tasks constitute a good deal of what students in music ensembles are asked to do. It is all remembering of fingerings, and repeating of a task until a level of competency is reached. Math teachers who give students pages of addition problems are also just asking students to remember. It is practicing something that has already been learned in order to get better at it. There is increased competency, but no new meaning is being learned, and no application of what is being practiced to a new situation is being attempted. If an objective for a lesson plan is that students will be able to play or sing a given passage of music with correct notes and rhythms, this is nothing more than a remembering objective.

So does this mean we shouldn’t ask our students to practice? Certainly not. It does mean that we need to change what we expect them to do when they practice.  I have written elsewhere about the importance of telling students why they are being asked to do a task; of students understanding the end to which a task is the means. Our subject here is different. Here we are interested in going beyond skill to reach meaning. The two phrases used in the understanding level that are of particular interest are “construct meaning” and “interpret.” In a structural sense, we construct meaning out of the patterns and groupings we perceive when we listen to music. We generally have no trouble moving to the pulse of music, of grouping a sequence of musical notes into a rhythm pattern or melodic phrase, or of perceiving the difference between a waltz and a tango.  In forming mental images of rhythmic, metric, and grouping structures, we are literally constructing meaning out of sounds. We are ascribing to what we hear an organization that enables us to make musical sense of the sounds by sorting them spatially and temporally. A student who is constructing meaning from music he or she is practicing might answer questions like, “what pulse do I perceive in the music?” “How many notes are contained within each pulse?” “How many beats or measures of music seem to go together before there is a natural break or pause, or before the pattern repeats? “At what tempo within the parameters of any tempo markings do I most enjoy playing this music?” “What can I do to bring out the qualities in this music that I enjoy so that others will notice them and enjoy the music as I do?” Answering these questions naturally leads into interpreting, which is taking meaning and performing in such a way that it is communicated or shared with listeners.

When a student has learned to answer questions like these, and to make constructing meaning and interpreting a priority for practice sessions, that student is then ready to operate at the application level. For example, once a student has learned to determine where the phrases and phrase boundaries are in one musical work by answering the question, “How many beats or measures of music seem to go together before there is a natural break or pause, or before the pattern repeats,” they can answer the same question, looking for the same things in another piece of music. They can also use prior learning to solve problems that show up in new works. Perhaps the first work had a repeated or parallel phrase, as in the “Ode to Joy” melody, so finding the phrase boundary was a matter of finding where the repetition began. Now the new work doesn’t have a repeated or parallel phrase, but instead it has a note longer than surrounding notes so that the music rhythmically pauses between phrases. Or perhaps the phrase ends on a cadence, or begins in a new register or at a contrasting dynamic. The student is still finding patterns, but the patterns are defined differently in the new work, so s/he must answer the question, “where is the boundary between phrases” by looking for different evidence.

Application has already led us somewhat into analyzing; finding the phrase structure and cadential points is surely analysis.  In analysis, the student goes further, finding out how the various parts relate to each other. We find where the antecedent and where the consequent phrases are. We find where the tension builds and where it relaxes, and what rhythmic and tonal relationships make it so. We find parallel passages and learn in what ways they are similar, and we find contrasting themes and in what ways they are different. The results of all of this analysis get folded back into interpretation, as the performer makes phrases, contrasts and similarities clear to the audience, and brings the whole practice experience to a higher, deeper, more meaningful level as the student directs his or her attention and purpose to matters far beyond the learning of notes and rhythms.

Evaluation is part of the practice process. As music is practiced, what has just been done must be evaluated so that the next action is apparent. Interpretation as well as accuracy must be practiced, and so each attempt is evaluated for how well the intended interpretation was done, and how accurately the pitches and rhythms were performed.

At the top of the pyramid is creating. I think it’s significant that creating is the highest level. We sometimes discount the creative process by throwing students into composing tasks without giving them substantial learning opportunities at applying, analyzing, and evaluating. If students spend most of their music time singing and playing instruments, then we must find ways for them to transfer what they have learned performing to creating. Taking melodies they are learning and asking them to change a rhythm or change  the last note of the phrase so that the effect or intent changes are possible activities to this end. Evaluating music others have written, and then writing similar music is also a time-honored technique. Trying out alternative interpretations is still another. It is not realistic to expect students to create music “out of thin air.” They must have the intellectual grounding from which the creative process can operate.

The top three levels of Bloom’s revised taxonomy can easily be a challenge for students and teachers alike. The new national core arts standards are helpful, because much of the standards found therein push students to those higher taxonomy levels. Pushing our students there creates a surge of challenge and motivation that students and teachers who have been stuck at the lowest levels of the taxonomy need.

If you would like to read more on this subject, please follow this link to another article.

My two latest compositions, Woodwind Quintet No. 1 in Bb Major, and Clarinet Choir No. 1 in Eb major are now available. If you are interested in purchasing either or both for your ensemble or your students, please use my contact page to request your copy.

Musical Intelligence, Three Systems, and the Creative Processes


Among the nine intelligences identified by Howard Gardner in his Multiple Intelligences Theory, is musical intelligence. An intelligence is a way of knowing, and different people have different ways of knowing and learning. Someone who has a prevalent musical intelligence is able to use rhythms and patterns to assist learning. Such a person will learn well using rhythm or music, and may study better with music playing in the background. This individual will enjoy listening to and creating music, and will become emotionally invested in and moved by music. Because of an affinity with rhythm, this person will tend to enjoy poetry.

In his book The Arts and Human Development, Gardner proposed three systems by which a person develops musically. These three systems initially appear in sequence, and then, as the child approaches pre-kindergarten age, they increasingly interact. The three systems are making, perceiving, and feeling. Making deals primarily with physical responses to music, and can be seen in newborn children, as they kick and wiggle in response to a musical stimulus. As musical ability grows, making actions include movement that conforms to a beat or that is an intentional layout-classroomexpressive gesture. Perceiving involves discriminant listening, having thoughts and ideas about the music, and placing the music into the context of the child’s external world. Feeling is at work when the child responds affectively to the music.

The creative processes described in the core arts standards complement Gardner’s three systems well. The making system describes the activity of a student improvising movement to music, or using the body to understand or express his or her own or the composer’s expressive intent. Making also includes conducting, and performance gestures including phrasing and finger work on an instrument. We can see that Gardner’s “making” crosses over from improvisatory creating to performance. Perceiving is very closely akin to the creative process of responding. It is through this system (Gardner) or artistic process (core arts standards) that a student analyzes, evaluates, and learns the composer’s expressive intent. These are actions that rely heavily on the cognitive domain (Bloom) or cognitive pathway (Comer), a trait Gardner attributes to the perceiving system.

Feeling also aligns with the artistic process of responding, and also with that of connecting. Connecting includes finding relevancy not only to the external world, but also to the student’s own personal world, including inner feelings, experiences, interests, abilities, context, and preferences. The feeling system, like the connecting process, requires a level of self-awareness and other-awareness that makes connection to self and others possible. As the child experiences emotional responses to situations and other people, he or she is able to connect with those emotions when they are evoked by music and at that moment recognizable as also having been evoked by someone or something else. Early on, these responses are broad, including “happy,” “sad,” “scary,” or “funny.” Later, with more life experience, they become deeper and more varied, and may include shades of happy, sad, scary or funny, including melancholy, blue, whimsical, suspenseful, rhapsodic, or jovial.

One final thought on musical intelligence. As proposed by Gardner, and as explained by Gordon, musical intelligence is not so much something that is taught as it is something that is possessed, as one possesses fingers, hair, or interests. No one’s fingers, hair or interest remain the same from birth to death. They all grow and change over one’s lifetime, and can be affected by what experiences we have. Fingers may become strong or weak, may remain healthy or arthritic. Interests certainly grow and change throughout life. So it is with intelligence. Music educators enrich intelligence, but they don’t make it from scratch, and they don’t cause it to be the same in everyone. Through training, a person’s musical intelligence can grow, especially during the early years, but in truth a person applies their native musical intelligences to their learning, and the results are affected in part by the nature of that musical intelligence.

A Closer Look At The Four Artistic Processes: Connecting

2011Symposium_1_2In the conceptual framework for the national core arts standards, the artistic process of connecting is defined as “relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.” This definition delineates the process of connecting to do entities: one’s personal life, and the lives of others. The others may be contemporaries or historical, a concert venue or a practice room, an audience of family or of strangers, of an art music composer or a hip-hop songwriter. There are intact dozens of contexts with which an artistic idea and work can be connected. As we have seen with the other artistic processes, the possibilities create opportunities for students to choose which context they connect with, which one they have an interest in, which one they have knowledge of, and which one they pursue further learning about, Similar choices exist in how connections are made with personal meaning. A student can find personal meaning by connecting with their own interests, knowledge and abilities, with the artistic culture of their peer group, with the artistic culture of their family, or even with the artistic culture of people who they are studying in history or have encountered in a novel, poem,play or non-fiction piece they may have read in another class and with which they have already related in a personal way. In this sense, personal meaning can be a sort of higher level of external context once the external context has been related to and internalized so that it is now a personal or internal context.

It is within the connecting process that students will find relevance of content, and motivation to learn.  When the process of connecting is done successfully, learning does not become boring, but has an immediacy, freshness, and even excitement that leads to higher achievement. Connecting is also, of all the processes, the most dependent on personal relationships. Whereas with creating and performing, though interactions with others are certainly present and necessary, the focus was on the musical idea and work, with connecting the focus is on people through whom the music was created, performed, and experienced and through whom contexts were established. The process of connecting will fail if only connections with ideas and works are attempted. Connections with the peopled what they expressed through the ideas and works is absolutely necessary for connecting to occur.

As we look at the anchor standards for connecting, we see words that indicate high levels of reasoning and critical thinking. ExpectationsWe have already seen evaluation and analysis in the process of performing. Now we find synthesis, completing the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy learning domains. The anchor standards for connecting are, “synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art,” and “relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.” The first of these two anchor standards is interesting, because it specifies a reason for synthesizing and relating knowledge and personal experiences. The reason, according to the writers of the standards, is to make art (music). A cycle is set up whereby a student, having an understanding of how all the parts that constitute a musical work fit and work together to make a musical whole, will use that understanding to manipulate those parts in a similar way to make music of their own. This is consistent with the meaning of synthesize in the context of Bloom’s original taxonomy. There, the word was used to indicate that the student at that level of cognition would put the parts learned through analysis back together through synthesis for the purpose of creating new meaning. In the new Bloom’s taxonomy, “synthesis” was replaced with “creating.” The writers of the anchor standard embraced “creating” and interpreted it to mean making art (music).  In this way, connecting reaches back to creating and performing, and draws on knowledge and understandings gained through responding.

Using Core Arts Standards To Teach Students How To Analyze Repertoire

2011Symposium_1_2Once a musical work has been selected (see my post for yesterday on selecting repertoire) the next step in the process of preparing it for performance is to analyze. The focus of the analysis should be constrained to what will be useful to the student, and to what interests the student in the work. Students should be aware of all the musical qualities the composer used, that they can be properly interpreted and performed. Included should be use of dynamics, tempo, articulation, phrasing, rhythm, and melodic contour.

I have been writing lately about the methods of Jaques-Dalcroze, and so I shall draw upon his writings again here. Jaques-Dalcroze wrote thirteen rules of nuance and phrasing. In as much as we are considering dynamics, tempo, articulation, phrasing, rhythm, pitch and melodic contour, they will serve our purpose well here, and provide a clear framework for students to follow for their analyses. The students should look for the condition described in each rule, and then apply the method of nuance or phrasing prescribed.

  1. All ascending melodies (with exceptions) must be sung with a crescendo and all descending melodies (with exceptions) must be sung with a diminuendo.
  2. Not all melodies are nuanced with the same intensity. When a passage contains very accented rhythms, the nuances of crescendo and decrescendo should be weaker than if the rhythm were less accented.
  3. If a note in an ascending line is prolonged, it should be part of the overall crescendo.
  4. When a note is repeated several times in a row, it must be accompanied by a crescendo.
  5. When a note is repeated several times in a row, preceding the original melody, the crescendo should be accompanied by a rallentando.
  6. Whenever a rhythmic and melodic group is repeated two times in a row, you must breathe between the two and perform the repetition with a different nuance than the first was performed.
  7. Any melodic reprise which is prepared must be accompanied by a rallentatndo.
  8. When a melody ends by a series of stepwise notes of the same duration, thse last notes should be slightly staccato. If these preceded the return of the melody, they should be accompanied by a rallentando.
  9. Whenever a link (“a link is a series of notes of the same duration”) leads to the reprise of a melody, where the first notes are twice as long, the rallentando of the last notes of the link must be large enough that these notes become twice their original length. Whenever a theme is reprised by a link made up of shorter notes than the theme itself, do not breathe until after the first or second notes of the theme.
  10. Whenever a ascending series of equal-duration notes is encountered amid notes of unequal values, these ascending notes must be strongly accented. Whenever a link leads to the reprise of a powerful theme, sing the link with a crescendo, even if the link is descending! (Exception to first rule of nuance.)
  11. Whenever a link leads to the reprise of a gentle theme, sing the link with a descrescendo, even if the link is ascending! (Exception to first rule of nuance.)
  12. Any series of notes isolated in measures containing silences that end a piece must be interpreted with a rallentando of the silences.
  13. When two notes of the same duration but different scale degrees are tied together, the notes are always performed STRONG-weak, even if the second note falls on a strong (or stronger) beat than the first. (This rule derives from the second rule of phrasing: that the last note of a phrase should be performed more softly.) When the second note falls on a stronger beat (a), it should be performed more softly. When the second note falls on a weaker beat (b), the first note should instead be performed louder with a natural relaxation into the second note.


Jaques-Dalcroze (1906). Les Gammes et Les Tonalites, Le Phrase et Les Nuances, volume 1, translated by Gregory Ristow.