Using A Little Common Sense To Help Music Reading

2011Symposium_1_2When I was in elementary school lo those many years ago, there were a few years when I had trouble with math. I tried really hard, and spent a lot of time at home trying to get it, and practiced many strategies for understanding concepts and coming up with the right answer. Sometimes, after I had exerted great effort, I would come up with an answer, and be delighted to have done so. It never occurred to me to think about my answer to make sure it made sense. As a result, Johnny, after starting with five apples and eating two may have had 325 left on a few occasions. It took a patient teacher to point out the impossibility of my answer, no matter how much effort I had exerted. I could have used a little common sense to help me learn math. Eventually, having physical objects in front of me, and removing two from a collection of five led me to understand that Johnny must have had fewer apples after eating some than when he started, and that he had only three left after his snack. Seeing real objects made the abstract numbers meaningful.

The same applies to music. Last week, I taught a lesson on phrase structure. I had my students mark the phrases in printed music of “Jingle Bells.” I chose that song because I knew they all were familiar with it, and would be able to use their familiarity with the melody to find the phrase structure. I gave them four things to look for. I told them new phrases begin after relatively long notes or rests, when a rhythm pattern starts over, when there is a sudden change in dynamics or articulation, and that all of the phrases would be the same length. While most students were able to correctly using the phrase structure using these principles as guides, some misapplied them, and gave an analysis that made sense to them on paper, but not when I sang the song to them pausing at the places they claimed the phrases ended. “Oh what fun it is to” I sang. “Does that make sense, to pause there?” The student instantly recognized that it did not make sense, and quickly found the correct location of the end of the phrase while listening to the music, and was able to mark the phrase correctly in the printed music, showing that they did have enough reading skill to mark phrases in printed music.

It did not occur to the student to employ the strategy of singing this familiar song while Music Notes Backgroundfollowing the notation in order to find where one phrase ends and the next begins. They trusted what they thought about what they saw without checking their answer against some common sense. “If I have marked the phrase correctly, if I pause at that point, it will sound right, like a pause belongs there.” Because the student did not or could not connect what was read with what was imagined or heard, what was read could not possibly make any sense.

This brings out a fundamental problem encountered in learning: the connecting of everyday experience with abstractions of them. Written symbols, whether musical notes or words of a language are not the things themselves, but abstractions of them. The word “chair” is not a chair, but refers to a physical object we know as a chair. I am sitting in a chair now as I write this, but the word “chair” is on my computer screen, not under me. In the same way, a note is a sound with a certain pitch and a certain duration. It is something I hear, and it is caused by a physical thing, a sound wave, activating my ear and sending electrical impulses to my brain. This note is in the air or in my imagination, but not on the printed page. That note, on the page, is an abstraction of the real note. Understanding the abstraction, the written representation, is a matter of connecting experience with what is written. When the two cannot be reconciled, then one is in error; either what is written does not accurately represent what I have heard, or if I am reading, I have heard or imagined  something other than what is written. In order to accurately read music, we must be able to “check our work,” making sure that the two do indeed match.

Philosophical Musings on Art and Music

2011Symposium_1_2What do humans do? What are we made for? If we look at our educational institutions, we would conclude that we think and reason in words and formulas, create works of art that utilize mathematical relationships and perhaps words, but which express emotions and feelings, figure out how things work through scientific inquiry, and design and build things. These things that humans do roughly correspond to the disciplines of language, philosophy, mathematics, visual and performing arts, science, and engineering. We are reasoning, linguistic, inquiring, and creative beings. While none of these is independent of the others, one pervades all the others; creative thought is necessary for reasoning, communicating, and inquiring. Without creative thought, we fail to initiate inquiry that leads to innovation or improvement, and we struggle to comprehend our well suitedness to our earthly environ; just as our surroundings and indeed ourselves appear to us with color, shape, order, and often impressive beauty, the fruits of our creative activity is similarly crafted with those same attributes.

Visual art presents shapes and color in two and three dimensions that represents or challenges our awareness of our world and ourselves. Music presents sounds that are represented in our minds as shapes and colors in space that cannot be seen but are intimately known thanks to the creative invention of composers and performers of music. Dance is perhaps the perfect art form, combining the visual art of the dancer’s body with the aural art of the music to which the dancer dances. The arts are life imagined and reimagined. At times they give us a vision of what we could aspire to and at other times give us a candid view of what we have settled for, and thus take us at times to a high place of hope and aspiration, and at other times to a low place of regret and shame. Through these honest glimpses of the human spirit, and only through them, we face the certainty of mathematics, the logic of language, and the quest for knowledge of philosophy and science.

Mathematics is never so beautiful to most of us than it is on display in a work of art. Language is never so poignant to Einsteinmost of us than when adorned with melody, and science is never so ennobled as in combined tones forming harmonies and counterpoint that wondrously and miraculously combine to form an acoustic wonder. No less than Albert Einstein summed this up when he said “Life without playing music is inconceivable for me. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music…I get most joy in life out of music.” Einstein’s second wife once explained, “Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories. He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.” Late in life, Einstein observed, “I know that the most joy in my life has come to me from my violin.”

It is this joy that is the essence of what we should take away from these remarks. Einstein was not a world-class musician, but nevertheless drew immense satisfaction, joy, and even inspiration form his musical performances. Einstein’s friend Janos Plesch once wrote about Einstein, “There are many musicians with much better technique, but none, I believe, who ever played with more sincerity or deeper feeling.” Students sometimes wonder why they have a music class because they are not going to be career musicians. Most will not question taking math though they have no plans to be career mathematicians, but the connection to “real life” seems to be more obscure for music. The answer is that most, like Einstein, will derive untold and probably unexpected rewards from performing music as an amateur along side whatever profession or career they choose. Music is immensely stimulating, and even more so when a musical instrument is played. If someone of Einstein’s stature could realize such benefit from being an amateur musician, our students can be sure of exacting a similar benefit, even if they do not become elite physicists.

How Do Language and Music Mix in the Music Classroom?

2011Symposium_1_2As we saw yesterday with rhythm, language and music are closely related so that training in one strengthens proficiency in the other. Although language and music differ in form, purpose, and use, both are highly syntax-dependent. Neither music nor language makes sense if the sounds heard cannot be cognitively organized, and if meaning cannot be found in the structured arrangement of sounds. . Researchers have found that some of the syntactic processing involved in listening and responding to both music and language is done in the same area of the brain. For both, Broca’s area is involved in the processing. While the differences in linguistic and musical syntax require separate cognitive processes, the integration of stimuli into comprehensible structures relies on the same neural resources. This immediately suggests that music or language activity mutually strengthens the neural connections used for the other.

Part of the syntactic processing mentioned above is handling expectation and connecting one event to another. Through proper use of grammar and syntax, language communicates a subject, verb and object, described by Patel as “who-did-what-to-whom.” Music, through syntax but not grammar, communicates patterns of tension and relaxation. These musical events succeed through a composer’s manipulation of expectations, making it possible for the listener to predict what will happen and when it will happen. When expectations are not met, tension results, and when expectation is met, relaxation occurs. This is an important aspect of the temporal nature of music.

Language is also presented to the auditory system temporally. Because of this, the human brain must process rapid successions of stimuli, and quickly find whisper_musicmeaning in sequences of sounds. Tallal explained that, “Children with language learning problems (or weak language development) can’t sequence two simple tones that differ in frequency when they are presented rapidly in succession. They do absolutely fine when you present two tones separated further apart in time. So the actual precision of timing in the auditory system determines what words we actually hear.” Researchers have found that musicians find it easier than non-musicians to detect small differences in word syllables. Musical experience improves the way human brains process rapid changes in sounds used in speech, and may help in acquiring the skills needed for learning language and reading.

Another benefit of musical training to language development has to do with understanding language through noise. Strait and Kraus found that musicians were better at understanding speech in noisy environments than non-musicians. Music listening depends on an auditory process called streaming, wherein certain sequences of sounds are grouped together and segregated out from other concurrent sounds. It is the facility that allows us to have a conversation in a room where others can be heard having other conversations. In music, listeners follow a melody line, and keep it separate from harmony or contrapuntal parts heard at the same time.

Just as the mathematical aspects of music are organic to music study and do not require separate instruction, so too with the linguistic aspects of music. All of the benefits to language development through music study are realized during the course of normal music instruction. Just by listening to and performing music, the requisite brain activity will benefit language development. To help this along, ask students to predict what they think will happen next in a piece of music. Ask them what they can do in a performance to build the listener’s expectation of what is about to happen. Ask them to memorize short, quick phrases of music. Make the music slow enough so that it is accessible, but fast enough so that they cannot memorize individual notes. This will cause their brains to remember the music as a group of notes instead of a sequence remembered individual notes, and in the process improve their ability to capture meaning from rapid successions of data. Much of our syntactic knowledge of music is acquired naturally and so does not need to be entirely learned in class. Most students can find the tonic in a tonal song by the time they are in kindergarten. We should draw on this intuitive knowledge with activities that give students practice at understanding and even conversing in music.

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.