The Difference Between Visual Meter and Aural Meter in Music

2011 Symposium2

Of all the structures and elements of music, meter is arguably one the most confusing. This is due at least in part to the fact that unlike rhythm and pitch, and to a lesser extent unlike dynamics and tempo, our Western system of music notation is often vague or imprecise when it comes to representing meter. To illustrate this, consider Beethoven’s famous “Ode To Joy” melody. For a person hearing this for the first time, or for a person hearing this without ever having seen it written down, the meter for this melody sounds like it is organized into alternating strong and weak beats, or what we would call two-four time. Every indication from listening alone supports this analysis. The music proceeds in patterns of strong, weak, strong, weak beats, and strong, weak measures. For us who have seen the melody written out, we know that Beethoven notated it in four-four time. So which is the correct meter, the one we hear, or the one we see? For most people, it is by necessity the one they hear, because most concert goers have never and will never read the printed music. I dare say that a great many classical music lovers don’t read music at all. To all of them, it matters not at all how Beethoven in his score, or Pearson, Sueta, Kinyon, or anyone else who has ever transcribed “Ode to Joy” for band, chose to write it down. All that matters to a member of a concert audience is what he or she hears, and how he or she interprets and understands what is being heard.

Before going on, it will be helpful to define meter. Meter is the grouping of beats into patterns of strong beats and weak beats. If every other beat is strong, then we call that duple meter. If every third beat is strong, we call that triple meter. The problem comes in the fact that any note duration can be heard as a beat. An eighth note can be a beat, or a quarter note, half note, dotted quarter, dotted half, and so forth. Any of these can be considered the beat of a given piece of music. Not only that, but several of these durations can be heard as the beat at the same time. In Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, we commonly consider the quarter note as the beat, but the half note  or even whole note could also be heard as the beat. The designation of a quarter note as the beat is subjective and even somewhat arbitrary, because an equally strong case can be made for any of the other durations. We can choose to insist that the time signature is four-four so therefore the quarter note gets one beat, but of all the choices, that is probably the least musical of them all–it discourages the beautiful flow and friendliness we all love and associate with this tune.

The truth is, we give far too much importance to measures and far too little importance to meter. We can hear and experience meter, we can neither hear nor experience measures–they are a notational convenience that is at best an unreliable indicator of meter.  What we really should be concerned with is how parts beats are divided into throughout the course of the music. No matter which of the durations we choose for “Ode to Joy,” when one beat is divided, it is always divided into two equal parts, and never into three equal parts; therefore, this melody is in duple meter, no matter what kind of note we decide gets one beat, an no matter how many beats we think are in each measure. The quarter note is divided into two eighth notes, the half note is divided into two quarter notes, and therecite-budvjj whole note is divided into two half notes, which is divided into two quarter notes, which is divided into two eighth notes. We see from this that metrical structure is hierarchical, but not in a mathematical sense as implied by those rhythm hierarchy charts found in instrumental method books, but in a cognitive sense in that our human brains intuitively organize rhythm into the very sorts of hierarchies I just described. It is a perceptual hierarchy, not a visual one.

To explain this further, we need to recognize there are two kinds of beats. These were described by Gordon as tempo beats and meter beats. If you suppose that the half note is equal to the beat in “Ode to Joy,” then the half note duration is the tempo beat, sometimes also referred to as the ictus. The duration which is the equal division of the half note, as we have seen, determines what the listener perceives as the meter. In our Beethoven example, this was the quarter note duration, because two quarter notes divide the half note beat into two equal parts. The quarter notes, then, are the meter beats, because they determine the meter. There are two meter beats (in this case quarter notes) for every tempo beat ( in this case half notes), and so the meter is duple.

The difference between tempo beats and meter beats is most evident in the so called compound time signatures. Consider six-eight time, which is often referred to as compound duple. It is duple because there are two tempo beats per measure, and it is compound because each tempo beat is divided into  three meter beats. The word “compound” is meant to point out that there are elements of both duple and triple meter present simultaneously. This is in contrast to “simple” duple, in which there are only elements of duple meter–two tempo beats per measure and two meter beats per tempo beat. But all of this brings us back to talking about measures instead of what the listener hears. No one really perceives the meter of “Barcarolle” from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman and the meter of Strauss’ On The Beautiful Blue Danube to be different, yet the former is written in six eight (compound duple) while the latter is written in  three four time (simple triple). The number of meter beats in relation to one tempo beat is all that matters. The music can be notated in any number of ways, and it will sound exactly the same. The most sensible and uncomplicated way of understanding meter is to think of it as something we hear, an aural meter, and not something we see in notation.

When Teaching Music Appreciation, Keep It Simple

2011 Symposium2

I’ve always had a love for classical music. I’m not sure why, but for as long as I can remember, and my family tells me it goes back further than that, I have pulled myself away from distractions and settled in to enjoy a symphony, concerto, or sonata. With this background, it is not surprising that I enjoyed a music appreciation class that I took in high school. The class gave me the technical low down on music I already enjoyed, and introduced me to music that added to my listening repertoire. I’m convinced that this all worked for me because the explanations of sonata form, fugues, and so on came after I was an experienced listener and after I had developed a love, or “appreciation” for the music.

I have observed that trying to come at it from the other direction is not nearly so successful. It is very difficult to develop a love for classical music in an inexperienced listener by explaining musical form, history, and theory . In fact, what better way to drive people away than to tell them they have to study all of these things before they can hope to enjoy the music? A great symphonic or chamber work is great because it has been and still can be enjoyed by anyone, even those who are unaware of what technical matters the composer was using to create the musical work.

While it will be fascinating to many to learn how these masterworks are put together, it is essential to realize that the nobility or ferocity or tenderness or anguish or unbridled joy that comes forth out of the music is what brings about enjoyment from music. I or anyone else no more needs to know the composer’s bag of tricks to enjoy his or her music than one needs to be well versed in literary form to enjoy a good play, novel, or poem. Great artistic works speak for themselves, and do not need to be analyzed to reveal that which brings us enjoyment. Analysis brings its own enjoyment to those who choose to pursue it, and as I have said, to those already familiar with a work, but it should never be made an obstacle or gate through which the novice listener must pass as theoretical expertise were required for entrance into the  concert hall. There is nothing wrong with analysis, or

New World Example

Opening of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor

studying music theory or history, but these things must be taught a the right time. Just as reading music cannot successfully precede aural/oral audiation, music theory cannot successfully precede gaining experience listening to music which will afterwards be analyzed.

So where should one begin. Most people naturally enjoy music they are familiar with. This makes introducing them to new music challenging, and to a new musical genre even more so. The more familiar ground we can rest on the better. Many of our students will  know more classical music than they realize. Between hearing classical themes in cartoons, movies, television commercials and video games, the overall sound of a symphony orchestra is likely to be familiar to most. Begin with something they are likely to have heard before, like the toccata from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, or the introduction to Also Sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss. Have a conversation with the students on what they like about these pieces, what emotions they experienced from the music, or just having them try to describe what they heard. We can insert music vocabulary as they respond, but we are not trying to be technical at this point. Once a few pieces have been enjoyed, suggest other pieces that are similar. If they liked Offenbach’s “Infernal Galop,” perhaps they will also like a gallop by Kabelevsky or Shostakovich. If they liked the Allegro form Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, then perhaps they will also enjoy the first movement of Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony.

Many composers wrote variations before they wrote symphonies or sonatas. When you want to introduce form, follow their lead and start with variations. The great advantage in this is that you can select variations on a theme that is familiar to your students, making it fun to travel through the variations. Mozart’s variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman” or Beethoven’s variations on “God Save The King” are good choices. When you are ready to teach sonata form, use a piece you have already had your students listen to and respond to in the ways I discuss above. As with the variations, with a familiar theme they will be better able to understand the developments, and by repeating works, you will also be building greater familiarity. Students seem to universally like the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and Mozart’s symphony no. 40 in g minor, or Dvorak’s “Overture Carnival” are good choices.

Strong Beat and Driving Rhythm Found in Top Classical Pieces

2011 Symposium2

The popularity of classical music is of interest to those who teach music, and to those who run symphony orchestras. One of the things that attracts audiences to concert halls is favorite repertoire being on the program. Contemporary composers of classical music have at times been at odds with audiences, because their music was not what people wanted to hear. Much has been written about the lack of appeal that atonal and aleatoric music has to audiences, but knowing what audiences do like and want to hear is important if orchestras are going to attract and audience outside the tried, true and aging faithful. A list of the top 100 classical music pieces found on kickassclassical provides some interesting food for thought. Let’s look at what is there.Top Ten Classical Pieces

While there are really no surprises on the list, what I find particularly interesting are the keywords associated with each piece. I counted the number of times each keyword shows up in the top 25 pieces; here is what I found. Four pieces or 16% (rank 3, 6, 15, 19) are matched with key words that are or suggestive of life events. Ten of them, or 40% (rank 1, 2, 4, 8, 9, 11, 14, 16, 22, & 23) are matched with key words that are or suggestive of emotions, and half of them are in the top ten. Five, or 20% pieces are associated with the word cartoon. This is born out in my classes. Students will invariably get the most excited and motivated to listen when they hear classical music that they recognize from or that sounds like music they have heard in cartoons.

Another interesting finding from this list is that all of the top five and 8 of the top ten have prominent rhythm in the themes. This produces an overall more driving, active kind of music, and it also results in a more explicit beat. This last point I believe is key. Young people in particular enjoy the heavy rhythm and beat emphasis of popular music. I have observed in my classes that the more rhythm and beat are prominent in a classical work, the more likely it is that they will enjoy that piece. Though not on the list, it is worth mentioning that among contemporary composers, the minimalists, including John Adams and Philip Glass, have been among the most popular, and that minimalist music is much more rhythmic than other styles.

It is also noteworthy that 15 of the top 25 pieces were written in the 19th century, and that the two most popular composers on the list are Beethoven (3) and Tchaikovsky (2). If my students are any indication, it appears likely that Beethoven’s popularity is driven in large part by two works, one of which (surprisingly) did not make the list: the fifth symphony, and Fur Elise. Tchaikovsky gets heavy promotion in the United States every American Independence Day (when the 1812 overture is common fare) and every Christmas season with the innumerable productions of The Nutcracker. 

In general, I could conclude that pieces that have been worked into popular culture are also the most popular in the symphonic concert hall. Between weddings, holiday celebrations and films, many of the pieces on this list are familiar to a large population of people who have rarely or never been to a symphony orchestra concert. That familiarity breeds popularity is a well worn adage in the popular music industry, which relies on heavily promoted concerts and frequent plays on radio stations to popularize its product, and it was well understood by Richard Rodgers, who once explained that he could pick a song from a show and make it popular by placing it in the overture, in the first act, in the n’tract, and reprised in the second act. By the tie the audience left, they had heard the song four times and were humming it on their way home.

Singablility may well be another hallmark of more popular classical pieces. The bottom half of the list also includes many pieces made well known by use in popular media, but many of these have less lyric melodies. These works include Grieg’s Piano Concerto (used in Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film Lolita), Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem (used in a recent DirectTV commercial), Overture to The Magic Flute, “Mars The Bringer of War” from Holst’s The Planets (used often in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and referenced in the opening bars of (Imperial March” from Star Wars), and even “March” from  The Nutcracker, which comes in at only number 75. In conclusion, it may be that the most popular classical pieces strongly appeal to at least one emotion, are already popular to audiences through popular media, and are comprised largely of memorable and singable melodies.

Inside Music Appreciation, Part 2

2011 Symposium2

One of the things we must understand about classical music is that it wasn’t intended to be something people just listened to sitting silently in a concert hall. In an excellent article in the New York Times, the author wrote, “When Chopin played his Variations on “Là ci darem la mano” with orchestra, the audience bestowed its showstopping approval after every variation. As late as 1920, a Berlin audience was applauding Ferruccio Busoni in the middle of ‘La Campanella.’ Liszt, the composer of that piece, was observed in dignified old age, yelling bravos from the audience as Anton Rubinstein played Mozart’s A minor Rondo. Hans von Bülow boasted to his students that his performance in the first-movement cadenza of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto regularly brought down the house, no matter that the movement wasn’t over.” The author also states that “Liszt, Anton Rubinstein and virtuosos like them would have been offended had instruments of the orchlisteners not clapped between movements.” The point is that any pretense of inciting on silent audiences for classical music cannot be justified by claiming that that is how the music was intended to be heard. Silencing an audience has only taken the audience out of active participation in performances, replacing it with dullness and boredom.

This is all the more true for the generations of music lovers who are accustomed to clapping, jumping and singing along at concerts other than classical ones. The good time people have at popular artist concerts is due as much to the active part they can take, and the sense of community they are able to create that is simply not possible in classical music venues where people arrive as strangers and leave as strangers.
scarf tossMy purpose here is not to disrupt concert traditions, though honestly I think they need to be reconsidered, but instead to point out that in order for people to enjoy music, they must have some way to participate in the music making. Whether it is showing approval, or joining in with the performers with dance, singing or clapping, enjoying music must include doing. When deprived of these opportunities, people become detached from and indifferent to music in general. We see this happening all around us. Symphony music is more apt to be heard in the background of a film score than in a concert hall. Students are more apt to listen to music as background to doing homework, talking with friends, or even taking a shower. People don’t know what to do with music, because our demands on audiences have denied music as a verb, as Elliott defines it, and insisted on it being strictly a noun, as the aestheticians would have it.

Music only has been granted its rightful place in a culture when it emotionally affects us, ideologically inspires us, and physically moves us. Therein lies the legitimate justification for true music appreciation. If understanding sonata-allegro form, or rondo, or the beginning of the second theme group in a symphony doesn’t affect, inspire or move, then it is not really helping us appreciate music. Everything we teach under the guise of music appreciation must meet this test. Knowing that Beethoven wrote most of his masterpieces completely deaf inspires admiration at his feat, but even that would be worthless if the music itself did not cause us to marvel at the accomplishment. What matters ultimately is not what the composer put into the music, but what each individual, both musicians and participating audience alike, takes out of the music.

To the extent that knowledge about music helps, it too should rightfully be included in music appreciation education. But there can be no “music for music’s sake” in the sense that just knowing certain works or certain things about works is a worthwhile end in itself. If Beethoven or Wagner, or any musical innovator had been writing music for the purpose of it being used as an encyclopedia of music, to be studied, analyzed and understood from the inside out, I doubt that any of these great composers would have written great music. These musicians wrote what they did because they had something extraordinary to say through their music, and because they wanted people to enjoy their work. To appreciate music is no less than this: to grasp the expressive intent of the composer, connect it with our own passions and emotions and feelings, and to enjoy the meeting of their music with our own humanity. A successful music appreciation class or text will do just this. It will leave people hungering for the next live musical experience in which they know they will be more than onlookers or on hearers; they will be participants, enjoyers, and yes, appreciators.

Musical Contrasts: The Changes People Actually Like

2011 Symposium2

We often hear that people don’t like change. This is especially true of the very young and the very old. The young need the security of routine and unchanging surroundings, and the old fear they will be unable to cope with change. In the context of life changes, I’m convinced that this is true. Change throws many people out of their comfort zone, and so they are unwilling to accept change.

It is also true that we are made to be attracted to a different kind of change than the one I just described–the life changes. Our senses are wired to notice change while ignoring things that stay the same. We may stare out the window with a general awareness of what we are looking at, but the minute a bird flies out of a tree, all of our attention rushes there, where the change in the picture we’re looking at is changing. The same is true of our other senses. We barely notice the many scents that surround us at work or at home, but the instant a new scent is perceived, we immediately divert our attention there. These are good sensibilities because they enable us to pick up quickly on potentially threatening or dangerous things that anticipateenter into our environment. They are also the sensibilities that make music so enjoyable, fun, exciting, and at times even thrilling.

The piece de resistance of a classical music work is the contrast. All of the things that a composer writes into the music and a performer executes to make the music expressive, interesting, and exciting are devices of contrast. Crescendos and decrescendos, accents, staccato, legato, and slurred notes, even tempo, all set up moments of pleasant drama and expression. The great Pablo Casals was famous for insisting on frequent use of diminuendos to set up expressive gestures. Accents, crescendos, and any note that was to be given added importance had to be preceded by a note that was to be given subtracted importance. Diminuendos preceded accents so that the accent would have all the more impact.

4 T


One of the most famous contrasts in symphonic literature is the moment in Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony when the clarinetist is approaching the end of the beautiful solo melody already heard and familiar to audiences. Just as the last note is reached at pianissississimo, the whole orchestra comes crashing in with an accented chord followed by a faster, more aggressive section.

In the great concertos, contrasts are even more pronounced. There is a traditional tension, even battle at times between orchestra and soloist as they trade volleys of powerful and pristine motifs alike. Here, Brahms masterfully builds drama, contrasts it with beauty, and then builds the drama again as piano and orchestra re-engage in musical battle.

Mozart used contrasts extensively in his works, none less than in symphony no. 40

W. A. Mozart

W. A. Mozart

in G minor. Every few seconds, there is change. Change in dynamics, change in articulation, change in timbre, and sometimes, depending on the conductor, change in tempo. The contrasts underscore the expressiveness of the music, and turn the symmetry and balance of the classical style into a passion-filled musical journey.

When it comes to music we not only are wired to embrace change, we routinely enjoy it, crave it, and are highly disappointed if we don’t find it in the classical music to which we listen. Without all of those contrasts and changes, music, even those great works written by the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, would not be so great, and honestly would be outright boring. We need contrasts to make music expressive, and we need music to be expressive if it is to have value and meaning. The whole point of music is for it to be interpreted to convey expressive intents of composers and performers alike. You may want to resist other changes in your life, but I’m quite sure you are happy to encounter change in your classical music.

How Can Video Be Used To Develop A Young Classical Music Audience?

2011 Symposium2

While there are any number of what I would call novelty classical music videos on the internet, these can only peek an interest in classical music. They do nothing to bring a person to a live orchestral concert or even to introduce the novice to a symphony orchestra. The forest xylophone played by a rolling wooden ball I posted yesterday, or other similar videos such as a young man striking tuned glass bottles while passing them on a skateboard are fun and even breathtaking at times, and they do introduce people to the melodies of great musical works. But they are among the first steps to cultivating an appreciation and love for classical art music.

We mustn’t expect people to jump in all at once, so what is a good next step beyond glass bottles and rolling balls striking xylophone keys? One possible answer is illustrated by a traveling show that is quite popular called “Video Games Live.” A live symphony orchestra plays orchestral arrangements of popular video game music while the games are projected on a huge screen above the orchestra. Interactive opportunities are also given to audience members to play the games featured. This is a step closer, because it brings people who haven’t been to an orchestral concert before and probably don’t listen to and don’t think they like classical music, into a symphonic concert hall. They aren’t hearing the great masterworks from composers like Beethoven and Brahms, but they are experiencing live orchestral music, and music that sounds like 19th or 20th century masterworks, and so that is a step in the right direction. Here is a video of part of one of these concerts.

All it takes is a friend to mention video games are involved, and people who wouldn’t otherwise consider coming to the concert hall are willing partakers of this performance.

If my students have just gone to a concert like this, what would be the next step back in the classroom? First, I’d let the students talk about the experience. What they liked, what they didn’t like, what surprised them, what they would like to know more about. This in itself could be a next step; answering questions and discussing what they saw and heard. I’m going to want to connect my next step to where they are, so knowing their reaction to the concert is important to me.

After that, I would introduce them to similar music. Without telling them what it is, I’d play recordings of music by Bartok, Stravinsky, Orff, Kodaly, maybe even some early Ives. I’d ask them to think of video games they have played from which this music could have come. I might even be a little devious and ask them to guess which video game the music came from. When they find out it wasn’t from a video game at all, but from the classical music repertoire, I will have made my point. Classical music isn’t always so different from music they listen to everyday, and there is a good deal of it that they might really like, if they gave it a listen. Of course, it never hurts to through in a piece that you know is from a video game, or “Little Einsteins” or whatever you know they’re listening to or watching often.

By now, it should be apparent that I am using video, not to interpret and not to present narrative, but to draw students in to realize that they already have experience with some classical or classical-like music, and that they can fearlessly explore 20th century classical music knowing that it will have a familiar sound to it, even if they don’t know the specific piece. From there, I can reach backwards. Tchaikovsky wrote battle music too. So did Beethoven. I might show a battle scene from a familiar video game with the game sound turned off while playing the 1812 Overture, or Wellington’s Victory. I could ask them what the difference for them would be playing the game with that music instead of the music that is actually in the game. Now the students are analyzing and evaluating classical music, and comparing it to video game music. Then all I would need next would be an orchestral concert featuring the music of Bartok, Stravinsky and Beethoven, and we’re all on our way to becoming classical music lovers. It’s classical music on the students’ terms, not mine. That is the important difference; one that purveyors of classical music and music educators would do well to remember.

Dispelling the Wrong Note Fallacy

2011Symposium_1_2If you’ve ever written a thesis, book or even a blog post, you probably know that just the right words don’t always just come flowing out of your brain onto the screen or page. Case in point, I have already deleted one word and replaced it with another in just these two opening sentences. The fact is there is very little we get perfect the first time, let alone at all. Good writers don’t worry about getting it down perfectly in the first draft, they just write and then go back later to revise, edit and polish.

When it comes to music, composing works much the same way. Though legends of Mozart composing whole symphonies at a time at one sitting, and without need of revision, this would be an astounding exception to the way most composers have and continue to work. Creating art takes time, requires many attempts and reworking before it finally settles into what the composer will accept as the finished work.

There is another aspect of creating music that lies somewhere in between the alleged perfection of Mozart and the seemingly endless struggles of Beethoven when composing. This aspect is improvisation. Like writing and composing, improvisations probably don’t come out just right most of the time, but unlike writing and composing, there is no opportunity to go back and edit. Once the tone is played or sung, it cannot be taken back. It can only be decontextualized into consequent tones that make the regretted tone sound less out of place or wrong. This is acceptable in improvisation, and the mix of “wrong” notes and “fixes” for them is what gives improvisation its often edgy and thrilling demeanor. In fact, many improvisors don’t consider there is such a thing as wrong notes when improvising.

It does, though, take a great deal of courage to improvise, especially in front of friends and peers. For less experienced music and the brainstudents, the fear of sounding bad is real, and prevents some from even trying. To be fair, most of us wouldn’t feel too good about giving a speech infant of our peers without any notice to prepare what we were going to say. Only a few people, the late Robin Williams among them, can just improvise a coherent, or at least entertaining five or ten or thirty minutes of comedy or poetry or prose. This is the obstacle young student improvisors face. How to play improvised music that sounds good to everyone listening.

Swing is an excellent choice of styles for inexperienced improvisors. The tempo can be held at a comfortable medium tempo, and a major scale has few if any bad sounding notes in it when played over a ii-V-I-vi progression. I like to teach my students the swing feel first by having them sing a couple of swing songs, and listen to a couple of swing charts. The song “To Swing or Not to Swing” from the Music K-8 series is a good tool to teach students what swing is. I then like to use Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Ticket A Tasket” as a song for the students to sing, and Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” for them to listen to. I have them describe what they hear the performers do that makes the music swing. Key is that they acquire an ear for the swing eighth notes, and be able to sing and tap them.

When these materials have been learned successfully, I then use a medium swing backing track for the students to improvise over. I pass a small Orff style xylophone around the class, and give each students 16 beats to improvise with swing rhythm, especially swing eighth notes. The students are quickly amazed at how quickly they sound good with the backing track, and are encouraged by quick success to continue improvising. Many will just play on the beat at first, and then will begin to venture into adding a few swing eighth notes. For the more reluctant students, I encourage them to continue playing on the beat, and every so often just play twice on a bar using a rhythm of two swing eighth notes. I try not to play or model too much at this point, because I want the best music to be made by the students. Once everyone has succeeded, then I take my turn before giving the xylophone back to a student. The important thing is that once the students start playing, they slowly realize that there are no wrong notes, and that a good rhythm anywhere on the diatonic scale will make them sound like a pro. Try this out with your students using this backing track.

The Importance of Early Music Listening Experiences

2011Symposium_1_2With all of the evidence suggesting that listening to classical music early in life has cognitive benefits, an article on early listening experiences could be all about how music promotes brain development. That is not, however the topic of this piece. Instead, I want to write about the importance of early music listening experiences in developing a life-long love of a wider variety of music than many teens and pre-teens even know exists. Most children do not develop a strong preference for music of the popular culture until around age 11 years, or sometime in 6th grade in American schools. Until then, children tend to have an open mind about listening to a wide variety of musical genres, including classical music. The other important thing to remember about musical preferences is that people tend to gravitate toward the familiar. We tend to choose to listen to music we’ve heard before, or that is like music we have heard before and already know we like. The format most radio stations use to drive their playlists is based on this. Managers know that their station will appeal to a population who like the kind of music they play. Variety isn’t good business. People who like top 40 will listen to top 40 stations. Mix in too many oldies or alternative songs, and listeners will start looking for their music elsewhere.

The implications for music educators must not be lost on us. Playing classical and other genres for children while they are in the primary grades in school builds a familiarity and liking for those kinds of music. Even atonal styles of music are more readily accepted by children than by older students or even adults, who have spent a lifetime building on a preference for more conservative musical works and composers. Children have active imaginations, and they are happy and even excited to use it as they listen to new music and music that is new to them. The issue for music educators must not always be form, structure, and thematic development or variation. The value in early listening experiences is in making idioms familiar through experiences of the music. Moving to form and moving for expression are valuable activities, and certainly form can be identified through them as a manifestation of a pattern, even with five-year-old children. But far more important is letting them enjoy listening to and moving to, and imagining with the music as they listen.

Another thing children love is stories. If children know they are going to hear a story, whether spoken or sung, they Feed Your Brain Musicare eager to listen. Songs that tell a story are great for singing to and teaching to children. And, with middle primary students, opera is a natural, because it is really a play where all the lines are sung instead of spoken. That is how I explain opera to my students. Even if it is sung in a different language, with subtitles on an opera video, students enjoy opera more when they are able to focus on the story instead of the strange way the actors are singing. The opening scene of Puccini’s La Boheme is wonderful because it is a simple story of friends with little money and big dreams trying to stay warm on a cold evening in their apartment. Everybody has friends, and here in New England, all of us know the feel of a winter’s chill on a cold, blustery night, so the students easily identify with the characters and the story.

With repeated experiences with classical music, children develop a love for it than can last a lifetime. Certainly, for many classical music will not remain their music of choice throughout their teenage years, but it will be a familiar friend that will be revisited throughout life, and for some quite often. Just as familiarity with the idiom is important, familiarity with certain works is important too, so be sure to return to the same works often. Pieces that are good representatives of a style and are naturally appealing to students are best. I find students often are drawn to Beethoven, and to pieces that have been excerpted in the popular culture, whether in advertisements or film. Building familiarity is the importance of early music listening experiences.

Where Is That Meter?

2011Symposium_1_2Recently, I attended a chamber music concert that included the first of Beethoven’s “Razumofsky” string quartets, the Op. 59, no. 1. The performance was by an ensemble made of advanced musicians from prestigious music conservatories that had gathered to attend a music festival. As the performance got under way, I quickly became unsettled. I couldn’t quite grasp the meter, even though I knew it was in common time. Eventually, the meter sorted itself out in my perception, but wondering what was causing my confusion distracted me. A day later, I have discovered that there are indeed metrical elements in this quartet that pose a challenge to those who perform it, and that this student ensemble did not always meet those challenges.

Looking at the score, It interests me to examine the opening theme, and see why the meter was so illusive.


Through enculturation, we become accustomed to perceiving meter through certain cues composers place in their music. Because meter is a pattern of strong and weak beats, the listener must have some way of knowing which beats are strong. One such cue is that usually, chord changes occur on strong beats. In the opening bars of this Op. 59, no. 1, there is a harmonic ostinato, and when it finally ends in the seventh measure and a chord change occurs it is not on the downbeat, but on beat 3 in common time. It is no coincidence that this is the very spot where my sense of meter began to falter. It was here I began to doubt I was hearing common time, and became persuaded that it was instead two-four meter. To deepen my doubt, at that exact same spot, there is the start of a relatively long duration, which is another cue for strong beats. This happens at the beginning also, but when we get to that same seventh measure, two quarter notes follow four eighth notes. In other words, both a chord change and a longer duration occur on beat three.

Yet another cue for perceiving meter is the onset of a relatively long articulation. At the very beginning, with the second violinist and violist playing the steady eighth-note ostinato, the entire burden of establishing metric structure falls to the cellist. The longest slur, one and a half measures, is in the third and fourth measures, beginning on the third beat of the third measure. Not only that, but this relatively long slur also starts on a harmonically strong pitch, the tonic, giving that third beat even more weight. As a result this third beat, like the one in the seventh measure, can easily be heard as a downbeat. Interestingly, Beethoven does not articulate the parallel occurrence of this theme the same way. When the first violin plays the same melody staring in the ninth measure, the slur has been shortened, so that the new relatively long slur does begin on a downbeat, supporting the perception of quadruple meter. So what is a player to do in order to overcome these ambiguities?

Phrasing and interpretation become essential. The first step is to be aware of the challenges present in the music. Beethoven was moving into his middle period when this quartet was composed, and here, as in the Eroica Symphony, he was experimenting with metric ambiguities. Although I will only be discussing those in the opening bars of Op. 59 no. 1, they are found throughout the work. To be effective, these devices must be set in relief against a well-established metrical structure. The cellist playing this quartet must be certain to inflect the opening phrase so that a tactus at the half-note level is established. The tactus in music is the pulse listeners perceive as the beat of reference. It is the steady beat a conductor indicates and to which a listener is apt to move. If the listener is perceiving the half note as the tactus, then the irregularities of articulation and chord changes will be perceived for what they are meant to be—essentially, syncopations. With a half note tactus, the pattern of strong and weak beats at the whole note level (each measure equaling one beat) comes off as first strong and then weak.

The relatively long notes fall on strong half-note beats, and the longest note of the theme, the whole note in the fourth measure, is rightly heard as the ending note of the phrase. With a quarter-note tactus, the dotted half note that begins the second measure takes on more prominence, and the first measure sounds like a weak measure dominated by the ensuing dotted half-note event. The quarter notes in the first measure must be handled expressively so that the dotted quarter that immediately follows them sounds like closure to the first sub-phrase, and likewise with the two quarter notes in the third measure followed by the whole note. Although this is somewhat counter-intuitive, it is an essential part of Beethoven’s rhythmic structure at this point in the work. Beethoven’s indication of “e dolce” serves not only as an expressive marking, but as a practical matter for helping to establish the meter.

Finally, the cellist must be sure to play the last note of the theme, the whole note in the eighth measure softly, even though it is completing a phrase that has up to this last note been played with a crescendo. The inception of a relatively long dynamic usually occurs on a strong beat, and the piano dynamic at measure nine is an example of this.

During the early moments of the performance I attended, these important points were not observed. The cellist played in a steady tone and dynamic that concealed the metric nuance I needed to grasp the metric structure. My experience with that performance and my subsequent reflections on it highlight the importance of analysis and interpretation to good performance preparation. Though the players competently played the pitches and durations in the score, their weakness was not paying enough attention to analysis and interpretation, and realizing their importance to a successful performance.

This is the lesson for us as we study scores and then teach repertoire to our students. Analysis and interpretation are not just academic exercises; they are integral parts in the performance process and cannot be overlooked. Remember, an audience rarely sees the score, they can only hear the music. Metrical form is more than time signatures and bar lines, for an audience see neither. Metrical form is a musical structure that must be perceived aurally, and therefore placed into the musical surface, beyond what the musicians see in their scores. Meter is not self-evident to an audience or even to the performers. It must be felt, perceived, and communicated.