Student Self-Reflection on Music Compositions

2011Symposium_1_2In my previous two posts, I discussed reflective questions for student composers that dealt with the musical work, and with the performance of the musical work. Today I will discuss questions about musical form and about a composer’s opinion of his or her own work. These questions are from the ctcurriculum website.

The most basic aspect of musical form is the balance of unity and variety. Unity produces in the listener a familiarity and comfort that comes from returning to something familiar. Variety interrupts unity, and provides interest and the excitement of something new. Too much variety creates confusion, and too much unity creates boredom. Achieving the proper balance is essential for every composer, and is the hallmark of great musical works. With this in mind, we begin with questions that probe the student composer’s awareness and knowledge of how he or she commanded unity. We simply ask, how did you create unity in your piece? What musical ideas hold your piece together?

To answer these questions, the composer explains what musical elements were used to create unity, and how those elements were utilized in the work to create unity. The response might include reference to a rhythmic ostinato, a rhythm pattern, a tonal pattern, or even a chord or sonority that recurs such as a leitmotif. The student composer uses music vocabulary to describe the devices and musical ideas that he or she employed to create unity, and cites the measure by number in which the device or musical idea occurs. Because coming up with an effective way to create unity was part of the planning process for the musical work, the student composer can compare what he or she planned to do with what he or she actually did as a kind of self assessment while answering this question. The student composer can also comment on any variance between the plan and the execution, and give reasons for why changes were deemed necessary, and how the changes improved the creation of unity in the work.

We continue with the next question, similar to the first, but related to variety: How did you create variety in yourFeed Your Brain Music piece? What musical ideas did you change to keep your piece interesting? For the first of these two questions, the response is much the same as for unity. The composer explains what musical devices and ideas were written to create variety. The wording of the second question suggests that variations of the unity building ideas is meant, and certainly that is one way to create variety. Making subtle changes to a musical idea and exploring its transformational possibilities is a worthwhile skill for any composer to acquire and practice. But it is also possible to create variety with the composing of entirely new ideas, creating “A” and “B” sections in the overall form. Indeed, much of our music is composed in ABA form. For this reason, these two questions can be treated separately if the student had the liberty to compose two contrasting themes, or the second question can be considered a clarifying question where the student was constrained to only write variations or variants of a single theme.

The self-reflection on a composition ends with the question, what is your favorite part of this piece? What makes it work so well? The second question somewhat constrains the first, suggesting that the chosen favorite part also be the part that works the best. This makes the question a bit sophisticated, because it requires that the student know what works well and what doesn’t, and that the student has some criteria for making that judgment. This in turn implies that prior teaching and learning has prepared the student to have the criteria available, that he or she understand it, and can be ready to use it in this situation. An alternative approach could be to ask, what makes this part your favorite? Or, the class could answer the question, was this your favorite part too, and if so, why? This gets at how well the part worked, and also leaves the option of students giving other reasons for why it is there favorite part, though this method takes us out of the realm of self-reflection and into the area of peer reflection.

By the time a student composer has reflected on and responded to all of the questions I have discussed in this and the previous two posts, he or she will have a solid grasp of what he or she composed, and how he or she arrived at the musical work that was created. When student composers know they will be reflecting on their work in this way, it also reduces the likelihood that they will compose randomly, or give insufficient thought to what they put down on paper. Knowing that reflection is coming is a kind of accountability that sets students up for more thoughtful, meaningful and successful composing.

Reflective Questions for 5th Grade Music Composition–The Performance

2011Symposium_1_2Once a student composer has created a musical work, it is time for the work to be prepared for presentation, and then to be performed for an audience. This can be an extensive learning experience in itself for a young composer; it is one thing to write down musical ideas, but it is another for someone else to read what is written and understand and accurately perform what the composer intended. Sometimes, if the music is handwritten, it is a matter of legibility. At other times, the music just doesn’t sound like the composer thought it would; that is, the written notation does not accurately represent what the composer had in mind. To design a composing project so that this phase of the process will be as beneficial as possible, it is important for the composer to reflect on the performance with these issues in mind.

In order to reflect on and write about any piece of music, it is necessary for the writer to have command of music vocabulary with which he or she can accurately and concisely describe the music. Words that the student should know for this include beat, contrast, dynamics, expression, form, measure, melody, meter, mood, note, pattern, phrase pitch, release, repetition, rhythm, key, contour, style, tension, timbre, unity, and variety. These words all refer to elements the composer should have under his or her control, and be able to use to describe his or her own work.

These questions, again from the Connecticut Curriculum web site, address this need. First, if there were any spots that were different from what you wrote, where (give the measure number) was the performance different? What was different? What should have happened? In order to answer these questions, the student must know exactly what he or she intended, and must know how each of the musical elements was used throughout the work. The student can’t possibly know if the performance was accurate unless they know what it is supposed to sound like. If there are differences, the student must be able to recognize where the performance differed from what he or she wrote. This is the easiest of the questions, but necessary before the next ones can be answered.

Once the discrepancy is located, the composer must then determine what musical element was inaccurately Feed Your Brain Musicperformed (or inaccurately notated.) Was it a rhythm? A pitch? Perhaps these were all correct, but the expressive intent was missing. This gets into contrast, dynamics, expression, tension and release. Where expression is concerned, It may be that the performer did not follow expressive directions in the score, or it may be that the composer used insufficient markings to guide the performer in realizing the expressive intent. It is not uncommon for students to assume everyone will think of what they though of when they read the score. Unless dynamics, articulations, phrase markings and so forth are accurately utilized, there is no way a performer will know exactly what the composer had in mind.

Now that the spots that were different in the performance from in the score have been located, and the musical elements that were involved have been identified, the third step is to indicate what should have occurred at those spots with those musical elements. Do you see how the insight gained in the previous two questions is now needed to answer this third question? Because the composer knows what went wrong, he or she can now explain or demonstrate what it would have sounded like if it had gone right. The composer can also take the opportunity to correct or make clearer the notations and markings in the score, so that the next performance by another musician will be more precise.

In my next post, I will discuss three more questions, this time directed at getting the composer to describe his or her own work, and how various musical elements were used to build form.

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.

Connecting Students to Composing Music

2011Symposium_1_2Given the choice, I’m sure I would learn more about music in a class that featured musical genres I liked and that I was familiar with. It is a solid principle of teaching that new concepts should be taught within a familiar context. Introducing new music and a new concept at the same time is apt to leave students confused and frustrated, because there is simply too much that is new to make sense of and understand. I came upon this realization through teaching my students lessons on creating music. Being, as many of us are, conservatory trained in music, I approached music composition from the perspective of Western European harmony and voice leading. When students followed my plan for composing, they were apt to create music that sounded good in the sense of not sounding random or poorly planned, but it often didn’t sound like anything the students were particularly excited about having written.

There were two major problems with my approach. First, the students were not writing in a musical idiom that interested them, or through which they could find an outlet for expression. Second, the students were writing music that was unlike any other music they were likely to come in contact with in their daily lives. Even though they were connected to the music as the composer, they were not connecting with their own work because it really wasn’t theirs, it was written to my specifications.

To address these problems, I tried a different approach. Instead of crafting a melody based on harmony and voice leading, and one that had to be written down in standard music notation, I tried giving students a text and having them write a setting of the text in any melodic style they chose. Though many of my students prefer rap, I prevented them from writing rap songs because I wanted them to create melodies for the lyrics, not just rhythms. I also gave them  the requirement that they could only use voices, and that the song must somehow build to a climax and then relax to the end. They were to work in groups of three. The initial work was to try out ways of singing phrases of the text, and to come to a consensus on the best melodic fragment for each, working them together into a single melodicthinking music line. It was an exercise in brainstorming with singing. Eventually, the students found beat, tempo, rhythms and meter in how they were singing the text, and began to add ostinati to use in place of the forbidden drum part. As each group worked through the assignment, different musical styles began to emerge out of the students’ prior musical experience. One group began working on a pop song, another a gospel song, still another a quieter anthem or hymn-like song. Often, there was a dominant group member whose idea or willingness to sing his or her ideas drove the early stages of this songwriting. Other group members would add vocal accompaniment, or arrange solo and tutti sections, including harmony or call and response. Students were fully aware of what their work sounded like throughout, because it was all worked on aurally. As ideas were agreed upon within a group, the students would rehearse the song, making changes as they went, but ever reinforcing their memory of their work so that notation, at least for the moment, was unnecessary. As I monitored and encouraged each group, students became eager to finish their songs and share them with the other groups. All musical choices were personal and relevant to the students, so the songs and their performances of them were expressive and meaningful.

Another advantage in this approach, particularly restricting the students to voice only, is that the concepts of harmony and voice leading naturally work themselves into the compositions. Students settle on only those musical ideas that they can sing, which naturally lead to good voice leading. Students also tend to arrive at melodies that imply conventional chord changes, which is the result of good voice leading. This is how all those theoretical rules came about anyway–they were gleaned from common  practice as a description of how composers had written great musical works, not as a prescription of how composers should write great musical works. A fluent speaker doesn’t need to consciously keep grammatical rules in mind in order to speak; a fluent composer need not keep music theory rules in mind in order to compose. If the composer is well-versed in the musical genre in which he or she will write, those rules will be followed intuitively. There is always time for going back and using student compositions to illustrate music theory principles later, just as Beethoven sonatas seem to always find their way into college theory analysis courses.

Rhythm, Beat, and Groove: What’s the Difference?

2011Symposium_1_2It all seems simple in the early grades. Beat is the steady pulse of the music, and rhythm is the changing durations of what is being sung or played. Using movement, students learn the difference between beat and rhythm by walking the beat while clapping the rhythm. Because they are not doing the same thing with their feet and hands, the point that they are not the same is easily made. The issue becomes more complicated when the students get older. Around age eleven, they develop their own musical preferences, and become more attached to the music of popular culture. With this change in how they relate to music and relate music to their peers, students begin talking about the beat in a different way. They use the word to describe the overall rhythmic affect on them that the music has; an understanding more accurately described as groove. Groove is the combined affect of beat and rhythm on the body; it is a word that describes how our body responds to music with movement. Labeling groove as beat glosses over rhythmic structure of music, making it almost certain that understandings of its component parts, that is rhythm, beat and meter, will be overlooked.

As music teachers, we are up against a misunderstanding brought about by common yet misleading usage of the thinking musicword beat. Part of the solution is to be sure our teaching goes beyond vocabulary, and includes application and experience. Defining beat as the steady pulse of the music is only engaging the intellect in learning the concept–it does not develop the deeper understanding that comes from experiencing the beat while being aware of what is being experienced, and manipulating the beat with creative and interpretive actions, which provides relevance and even deeper understanding. Here is how this could play out in a classroom. First, the teacher has taught the students what beat, rhythm and groove are, so that they can define each. This is the intellectual part of learning a concept, and must come first. Then the students might hear the music teacher play a repeated rhythm pattern–one which is easily recognized by the students. Then the teacher plays the same repeated rhythm pattern, but at a different tempo, and asks the students of the three elements, beat, rhythm, and groove, which one or ones have changed? The activity is then repeated, but with the students playing the pattern on body percussion or rhythm instruments. When ever either beat or rhythm changes, groove will be affected. Groove should not be confused with style. Funk is a style, not a groove. The groove of funk is the affect of the characteristic rhythms and beat of the funk style. That affect will always change when either rhythm or beat is changed, so groove can change even when style does not.

When a student says that a song has a beat that they like, it most likely is the groove they are referring to. Redirecting the conversation to groove opens up the opportunity to discover what combination of rhythm and beat created the groove that the student likes, and presents creative opportunities for students to explore tinkering with the rhythm and beat separately to alter the groove. Students tend to be deeply entrenched in a small number of rhythms that repeatedly occur in the music they listen to, so creating new rhythms that result in the same or similar groove helps widen their appreciation of music, and moves them from being music consumers to music creators, an important step in becoming educated musically. Students must come to understand that songwriters and composers have beat, rhythm and beat at their disposal to manipulate however they choose, and that the results of those creative decisions is a particular groove and/or style, and is very much related to the music creator’s expressive intent.

How Are We Doing Preparing Students for Careers in Music?

2011Symposium_1_2Preparing studnets for careers in music is appropriately  done in electives rather than in required general music classes. The latter will typically have a small percentage of students who intend to or are even considering a career in music, so focusing on career preparation in general music quickly results in a relevancy problem for most students in the class. Electives, on the other hand, are the perfect venue for preparing students for music careers. These classes are filled with students who have a specific interest in music, and will either pursue careers in music, or just enjoy learning what is taught as music career preparation. With this in mind, I’d like to look at what careers we should be preparing students for in these specialized elective classes. While the particular interests of the students enrolled should be addressed, music educators teaching these classes should be aware of the employment climate for music careers, and both prepare students for, and make student aware of the music career that are most available and that are high paying.

Forbes reports on twelve high paying music careers. It is important to keep in mind that not everyone will make top dollar in these careers, and that earning potential is in some cases much higher than what one can expect to make at the entry level. With that said, these careers should not surprise anyone, although they may be overlooked too often in school music curriculums and courses of study.

The first career is video game audio. With the expansion of the video game market,thinking music and the ever increasing pace at which new games are being developed, especially by private entrepreneurs, the demand for game soundtracks is a growing field that already affords many opportunities. Some of the success at earning on the high end of the salary range depends on the success of the game for which a composer is writing, and for developing successful working relationships with game authors who are producing consistently successful products. Forbes reports that “Though salaries start low—$18,000 for an assistant engineer who creates rough mixes in the studio—they can rise quickly. Audio directors often earn up to $140,000 per year for overseeing video game projects, while audio tool developers can pull in as much as $150,000 for writing code.” The take away for music teachers here is that top dollar goes to the people who are not only accomplished at the musical tasks involved, but that are also skilled at the non-musical tasks of developing software tools and writing computer language code. Some music educators will be qualified to include code writing in their courses, but many, including me, will not. This is a natural for a cooperative learning environment in which computer code is taught by an engineering or computer science teacher in cooperation with the music teacher teaching the musical end, to create a project that includes music composition, music sound engineering, and computer code writing.

The second career is orchestra musician. This is more in line with the typical conservatory training music teachers have, and with the usual musical offerings found in school music programs that include instrumental ensembles. The salary range is about the same as careers in video game audio, but the variable is location. Starting salary for a musician in the Alabama Symphony is $36,594, while the starting salary for a musician in the Boston Symphony is $132,028. Because music programs probably already include instruction on orchestral instruments, an additional elective is probably not necessary.

small group instructionMusic Therapy is a growing field for the musically trained, and one that does not typically fall within the realm of school music courses. Once again, the most effective way to prepare high school students is to work cooperatively with teachers in other departments. Teachers in psychology and special education can be enlisted in a cooperative learning situation. Students can learn from the psychology teacher, and to a lesser extent from the music teacher,  about how the mind works and how it responds and changes in interaction with music. Students can also learn about mental disabilities and how music can help people with those disabilities from both the psychology and special education teachers. As a further offering, students can take time in their school day to use music to work with special education students under the supervision of the special education teacher.

Other careers include film and television music supervisors, with a salary that goes as high as $500,000 annually, music attorney, conductor, booking agent, with a salary of up to one million dollars, recording engineer, road manager for traveling bands, bioacoustician, session musician, and music communications/publicity. While preparing students for some of these careers are difficult in a public high school where resources can be limited, and is more effectively done in college degree programs, just having the knowledge and awareness of what students will need to learn in these college programs should inform the curriculum decisions music teachers make that affect their own programs.

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 Use The Core Arts Standards To Teach Students to Interpret, Evaluate, and Rehearse

2011Symposium_1_2Over the last two days, we have looked at teaching students to select and analyze musical works they intend to perform. Through selecting, students learn about the music and reflect on their own interests and skills. Through analyzing, students learn how the music is put together; how it works. With this information in hand, the student must then determine what the composer or songwriter’s expressive intent was. Some of the information needed to do this was gathered during the analysis stage. Emotional and otherwise expressive moments and effects would have been noticed and accounted for, and the sum of those moments and effects is a helpful indicator of the composer’s intent. An overly dark sounding, somber work was probably meant to express lamentation or unhappiness, and the means by which the composer accomplished making the music sound dark and somber would have been revealed in the analysis. Further reflecting on the message of the lyrics if there are any, and the perceived emotional meaning will make the expressive intent more conclusive. Sometimes, the context can also be helpful. For example, if the music was written for a scene in a film, the story and action at that point will shed considerable light on the meaning the music was meant to have.

Notice the last phrase; meaning the music was meant to have. It is important to that students not be allowed to subjectively say what they think the music means to them, for that is not the point. The objective is to determine what the music means to the composer so that the students can give an interpretation of the work that expresses the composer or songwriter’s intent. There may and should be some further room for personal expression in the performance, but always with the composer’s intentions in clearly in mind.

By this point in the process, with the knowledge that selecting, analyzing and interpreting has brought, the student hasSummer Sun Music a clearly delineated framework on which to build rehearsals, refinements, and evaluations. The student now knows what he or she is trying to accomplish, what the music is about, how it is put together, what challenges can be expected in learning it, and what the final performance should express. The student then begins rehearsing. The structure (analysis) can be heard through the phrases, rhythm, pitch relations, articulations, and dynamics. Of those, some will need adjusting in order to clarify the structure, or produce an interpretation closer to what is being attempted. Remembering some of the rules from yesterday, returns to the original melody are led into with rallentandos, and phrases are nuanced according to pitch direction. If there are lyrics, the meaning of them is expressed more fully with musical devices until the words exceed the bounds of poetry to express. Pitches are practiced to gain accuracy and good singing or instrumental voicing and tone. Most if not all of the musical vocabulary the students have learned ought to be brought to life in full application during the rehearsal.

When the student thinks they have progressed beyond where they started, a trial performance should be given and recorded. Once this is done, the student then evaluates his or her own performance from the recording, taking notes while listening. These notes and reflections are then put to immediate application as the rehearsal resumes, and the student puts into practice what was learned from evaluating their recording. This continues through many cycles, until at last a trial performance is given and recorded that clearly articulates the structure and form, faithfully expresses the composer’s intent and secondarily reflects the performers intent, and in which the rhythms and pitches are accurately rendered. At that point, it is appropriate to regard the performance as being ready to be given publicly.

The logistics of recording trial performances can be as simple as students recording themselves on their smart phones, or approaching recording stations set up in practice rooms. Alternatively, and perhaps more desirable, is for students to perform their trials in front of the class, which quietly listens to each trial performer in turn. For the final performance, the room must be quiet, and the recording must be made under the best of conditions, so that it can be valid for assessment.

Building Vocabulary in Music Class: A Common Core and Music Friendly Approach

2011Symposium_1_2When teachers build vocabulary, often the word is introduced alone, and in the context of a sentence or paragraph, so that the meaning can be inferred. Once the word meaning is known, the entire sentence in which it is located can be understood. Language communicates explicit meaning. Music, on the other hand does not mean something in the same way a sentence does. Musical meaning is either structural or referential. It is implicit, but never explicit. We cannot have a conversation with musical phrases as we can with linguistic ones. What meaning music does have is found in its syntax. For this reason, words that identify musical events or aspects are used to analyze music or to describe it, but the words never become part of the music itself, as words become part of a sentence; therefore, when we teach our students music vocabulary, we are teaching them either how to talk and write about music or how to describe an experience with music.

With this in mind, let us imagine that we have a music class, and that we present the students in that class with a vocabulary list. Let’s say the list includes the following words: melody, background, rhythm, beat, pitch, timbre, tempo, meter, texture, dynamics, and phrase. How would we go about teaching this vocabulary to the class? We can assume that most students will know some of the words, a few will know all of the words, and a few might even know none of them. As the students enter the classroom, we will have them pick up a handout on which all of the words are printed, with space to write about each one. The directions at the top of the page are to “write a definition of each word. If you do not know the definition, write the word “guess” next to the word, and then write down your best guess as to what it means.” Knowing which definitions the students knew, and which ones they guessed at will help you lead the discussion that will follow, and having them write down their guess assures that they will think about and write a response for each word, avoiding responses like “I don’t know” or just leaving the space blank. We’ll tell them before they begin that they have 10 minutes to write. As they work, we’ll circulate around the room, reading their responses, and reminding them not to spend too much time on one word, so that they get as many responses written down as possible. We may have to remind them to write down their guess if they don’t know a definition.

When time is up, we’ll tell them to put their pencils down, and look up. We’ll then begin calling on students to give their definitions of each word. If the student knew the definition, we will tell him or her if the answer is right or music_words_largewrong. If it is wrong, we will call on other students to provide a correct definition. Although there may be more than one correct answer, not all answers will be right. If the student guessed at an answer, we’ll offer encouragement, and work from any kernel of correctness in the definition to discuss it and refine it until it is accurate. Over the course of discussing and thinking about definitions for these words, the students will gain a deeper understanding of each one than they would if only straight-forward definitions were memorized.

When all of the words have been discussed and defined, we’ll move onto part 2 of this lesson: the application of the vocabulary. For this, let’s use the Finale from The Firebird by Stravinsky. We’ll tell our class what’s happening at the end of the story, and then tell them to explain in writing how Stravinsky uses each of the musical elements they have just defined to represent what is happening in the story. It is one thing to know the definition of a musical element, it is quite another to recognize it aurally, and understand how it is used to accomplish the composer’s intent. Writing about this not only demonstrates the students’ understanding of the vocabulary words, but it also teaches them something about the creative process of composing music; a lesson that can be used in a future lesson when the student will compose music with an expressive or descriptive intent. This lesson also is aligned with the principles of Common Core, because it requires a student to examine a text and find evidence in the text to support claims.