A Method for Improving Rehearsal Efficiency and Enjoyment

2011Symposium_1_2One of my most often used phrases when teaching musical works to students is that a right pitch played at the wrong time is still a wrong note. While pitches, rhythm and beat are all important, it is often advantageous to teach the rhythm first, separated out from the pitches. This gives the student less to think about all at once, and gives the student the opportunity to learn music the way they learn music patterns, with pitch and rhythm separated. This is true of individuals receiving a private voice or instrument lesson, and it is also true of large ensembles. Sections in a band can play, clap, patsch or chant the rhythm they see in their part. Once each rhythm in a four-part texture has been practiced, putting just the rhythms together without instruments can be a lot fun. Assigning separate timbres to different sections can create transparency and interest. The woodwinds with one rhythm might clap, while the upper brass might patsch, as the lower brass chants. Non-pitched drum  parts are already rhythm only, so the percussionists can creatively find different timbres without playing their instrument. Choirs can have one timbre assigned to each voice part.

Very quickly, rhythm only practice will result in everyone agreeing on a tempo, and becoming more independent in maintaining the tempo. Just the physical movements and transfer of weight that occurs from rhythm only practice instantly improves rhythm and beat accuracy. Students are more free and more likely to want to move their bodies while clapping and patching than when they are playing an instrument. Singers are more likely to be aware of the rhythm and beat while clapping and patching, because they cannot rely on the rhythm of the text to help them with the rhythm. Rhythm only practice causes students to make a more substantial investment in the beat and rhythm, and the fun musical experience it creates motivates them to be even more rhythmically accurate.

After rhythm and beat are secure, the next aspect of the musical work that can be brought in is harmony. Before rehearsing a musical work, conductors analyze the score and from that analysis know what the chords are throughout the piece. Here is where keyboard skills are useful. While your students once again perform the rhythms, play the underlying chords on a keyboard. These can just be sustained if an electronic keyboard is used, or you may need to play a rhythm on the chords if an acoustic piano is used, because the chords won’t Ensembleotherwise be audibly sustained. Next, have the students sing or play their parts at a constant soft dynamic level while you play the underlying chords. If singing, students should use a neutral syllable, not the text. Hearing the chords while they play their parts with accurate rhythm and beat will aid them in tuning, and will train them to audiate chords while they play or sing their individual parts.

When a musician can hear the chords and fit his or her single note into the chord, not only does intonation improve, but music making goes up to a whole new level of enjoyment. It’s like discovering a whole level of the music you never noticed before. By now, the rhythm, beat and chords are established, and any issues with pitches can be resolved. Because the pitches are “lining up” correctly and because the students are hearing and listening for chords, errors will be more apparent to them, and they will be more capable of correcting wrong notes. You will also have an easier time detecting pitch errors, because rhythm and beat errors have been largely eliminated. The music doesn’t sound like a confusing mish-mash of sounds; even when errors are made, they occur within a much more organized and accurate performance. Finding and correcting mistakes is not as stressful or unpleasant, and progress and improvement occurs at a faster rate.

The Truth About Meter in Music

2011Symposium_1_2I don’t think many of my students think about meter when they are listening to music. They are aware of a melody, of the tempo, of the beat and rhythms, but they are not so aware of the meter, at least not consciously. I’ve noticed that meter is not so much something that must be taught as something that students must be made aware of. Music exists rhythmically in several levels all at once. A child listening or singing a song and asked to show the beat with his or her hands may move to a quarter note, eighth note, or even sixteenth note beat without any prompting. I am often fascinated to watch my four-year-old students when I ask them to show me the beat with a patsch. Most will show me the quarter note beat, but some will intuitively patsch eighth notes. This is especially true if the song begins with eighth notes as, for example, the French folk song “Pierrot” does. If the child taps the rhythm, tapping quarter notes when they occur and eighth notes when they occur, then that is a different thing; but when the child maintains the eighth note patsch through the quarter notes, he or she is audiating the eighth note beat; what Gordon calls the micro beat.

Micro beats are divisions of the beat. Going in the other direction, their are elongations of the beat. Both of these terms assumes a single “beat” to which shorter and longer durations are compared in determining whether they are divisions or elongations; however, another way of looking at this is that there are several levels to the music. There is an eighth note level, a quarter note level, and half note, whole note (in common time), one-measure, two-measure, phrase long levels, and so forth. This view was stated in A Generative Theory of Tonal Music by Lerdahl and Jackendoff. In establishing the one-measure level, the listener intuitively perceives a recurring pattern of strong and weak beats, and assigns a metrical structure to the music based on the perceived pattern. Because much of our Western music is in duple meter, Westerners tend to have a bias toward duple meter, and will favor duple meter in the seconds it takes to establish a pattern. If duple doesn’t “fit” the listener will try another way of organizing the beats, continuing until the right match is found. When I am teaching the concept of meter to my students, I try to bring this intuitive process to the surface; instead of telling them what the meter is of the music they are singing or listening to, I have them try both duple and triplemeter signatures patterns either with conducting or chanting, and let them discover which pattern fits and which one does not. The wrong meter is usually obvious to nearly everyone, because the perception of metrical structure is, as I said, intuitive and therefore subconscious for a listener familiar with the musical genre to which he or she is listening.

Familiarity then, becomes the most important strategy for teaching meter. In other words, as students listen to more and more music of a particular idiom, they will intuitively become more and more successful in detecting the meter of music from that idiom. They can be helped with singing, chanting, playing, and movement activities, but the basic ability to perceive metrical structure is already there. This is important to keep in mind, because meter in this context is natural and self-evident through the music. Meter should never be an unnatural concept that is taught with a theoretical definition and a forced demonstration of unmusically exaggerated strong beat, distorted to make an obvious demonstration of the definition. Strong beats are not just the product of performed accents. Although nearly all music has meter, very little of it has explicitly accented notes on the first beat of each measure. Remember, the music is what is heard, not what is written. Strong beats are more the product of relative duration, parallelism, articulation, and rhythm patterns, than just accents.

The Amazing Human Musical Mind, Part 7

2011Symposium_1_2Besides those things I mentioned yesterday, I could switch to rhythms. Now I will gently bounce the child to a beat. The child is not able to do anything to a steady beat yet, but I can again model that, teaching the child what that feels like, letting the child experience it. So I’ll bounce the child while I chant rhythms on a neutral syllable, like “bah” or “bum.” I’ll repeat the same pattern so that the child learns that pattern and so that I make it highly predictable. I’ll also use different meters. When we sang “Twinkle,” it was in what we call duple meter, or alternating strong and weak beats. After using a duple meter song, I would switch to triple meter, or patterns of strong, weak, weak. Remember I mentioned earlier, it is important to use a variety of tonalities and meters when singing to young children, so there is variety in what they absorb, so their musical vocabulary grows large, and is not restricted. To help more with the meter, I could instead make some large muscle motion like raising my arm and perhaps the child will see me doing that and join in. Very young children can’t time it to the music yet, but they can time it to what they see, and connect the motion to what they hear. Eventually this will help them feel the meter in their bodies themselves. Remember, we’re not expecting or insisting that toddlers do any of this, just that they see and hear us doing it. If they do it too, great, and if they do something else in response, that’s great too. With older children who are capable of participating independently, I insist on them participating once they are comfortable in the class; I don’t permit them to opt out; but with toddlers, they are not yet at that stage.

When a child has reached two years, she can imitate songs with some accuracy, especially when singing structurally important notes. For example, it is typical of a two year old to tentatively and with some precision sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but then sing the last note louder, with confidence, and with excellent accuracy. A child at two has learned the tonal hierarchy of music, and easily audiates and sings the most important pitch in Western harmony, the tonic note. Some children will be able to sing with greater tonal precision throughout an entire song, though this often does not occur until 3 years.

Before I give you some classroom music activities for 3 and 4 year olds, I must reiterate how far the child has MusicEarcome so far. As with language, the child simply must have been around music since birth if his or her brain is going to develop well for music, language, and math. Think of how catastrophic it would be if a child heard barely any language spoken, or none at all, until they were 3 years old. The setbacks would be impossible to overcome. We know the value of children being around speaking people, and of reading to young children. Every parent remembers the excitement of his or her child speaking the first intelligible word. The situation is no less critical for music than for speech. Singing to a child, being around those who sing and play music, are essential for musical and cognitive development. We have seen why this is so. The activities I am about to show you are designed to decidedly take children out of the music babble stage, into the realm of singing pitches accurately and with a clear tonality, and of rhythms in a clear meter. Clear tonality means the pitches are accurate enough to be perceived as belonging to a particular scale, such as D major, or E minor, and meter means the rhythms are accurate enough to be perceived as being consistently grouped in a pattern of strong and weak beats, such as STRONG weak STRONG weak, and so forth.

There are four types of musical activities you should do with your students; those that help the child find and be comfortable with their singing voice, those that advance the child’s audiation ability, which is the ability to think in music and sing what has already been thought, those that develop moving to the beat of music to which they listen, and those that develop moving to music for expression.

The Amazing Human Musical Mind, Part 4

2011Symposium_1_2Just as a child starts to speak after listening to others speak, so too a child starts to sing, chant, and move after listening to others sing music. Through the voice, children develop the ability to sing and chant, which is the equivalent to speaking in a language. Because we are interested here in music, and not language, adults should sing short tonal patterns and chant short rhythmic patterns without any words, lyrics, or poetry. Even nursery rhythms and poems should not be used at this stage. Just singing on a neutral syllable, such as “bah” or “bum” is fine.

When my daughter was less than a year old, and before I knew all of this about early childhood music, I used to stand at the foot of her changing table as she lay there, and sing quick series of pitches on a neutral syllable; It never failed to bring a smile to her face—you know, the kind that makes everyone in the room with the baby go “ohhhhh.” I just thought it was great fun, making my daughter smile like that, but it turns out I was doing just the right thing to develop her musicality. So this is one thing you can and should do with infants. Sing to them without words, short phrases at a time.

From birth until around 3 years, a child will engage in the musical environment with little conscious interaction. The child will hear and remember sounds heard, and make random responses to them. This is when musical babble takes place, which is the child making sounds that don’t make musical sense to adults, but which are meaningful to the child. For pitches, the child makes singing sounds, but does so with a speaking voice. For rhythms, the child moves erratically without an apparent tempo or meter. This is a valuable stage in a child’s musical development, analogous to all the advances a child makes in language during these years. And as with language, it is too soon to begin formal musical training as long as the child is in the musical MusicEarbabble stage. Unstructured informal guidance is needed from birth to about age 3. During these years, there is no plan as to what the child will be asked to do, but the child is simply allowed to respond to music he or she hears, and to musically babble. From about age 3, structured informal guidance is appropriate. Now the parent or teacher says and does planned things with the child, but does not expect specific responses from the child.

Parents often wonder if it is appropriate to begin piano or violin lessons at about age 3. The answer is yes but only if the child is not required to practice and perform prescribed music. Giving the child an opportunity to explore an instrument on his or her own terms, and to make open-ended musical response to things that a teacher plays on the piano, is worthwhile and appropriate. However, as long as a child has not shown the capacity to keep a steady beat, maintain a meter or sing accurately in a tonality, traditional music lessons are not a good idea. At some point between the ages of 3 and 5 years, the child will begin to imitate with some precision sounds in his or her musical environment, especially pitch and rhythm patterns. When this change is observed, the child is ready for traditional music lessons such as piano or violin instruction. Susan Pascale wrote an excellent article on this subject. In it she makes the following suggestions, which are right in line with what researchers have told us. First, enrich the babies. “Teaching an instrument to a child under 3 is an exercise in frustration. Instead, bring them to hear live music. Give them simple toy instruments, like keyboards—kids love pressing buttons. If you ever played an instrument, dust it off and start playing again, in front of them.” Do you hear the practical ways Pascale suggests modeling and creating a musical environment for infants? Second, “There is a magic number. It’s about 3-1/2 years. For many children, that’s the age when they can begin to concentrate long enough for instrument lessons—especially if the instrument is a piano.” Pascale goes on to suggest that, “the best classes for this age are like a great big playgroup, with the instrument as the focus. Children can’t wait to see their friends.”

Why Music Is Not Expendable

2011Symposium_1_2If there has been one constant over the last decades in education, it is the ease and speed with which music programs are cut or eliminated when funds are short. Time and again, music is viewed as less important and even expendable compared to language arts, science, and math. While there are no doubt numerous factors to explain why this is so, two major ones come to mind immediately. Today I will explore these factors and discuss what music educators can do about them.

The first factor is elitism. The focal point of music programs too often are large performing ensembles. Most of the music budget is channeled into band, chorus, orchestra, and the sub-groups that are derived from each. The problem with this approach is that typically only 20-40 percent of a school population participates in large performing ensembles. While these students may cultivate a strong love of music, and accumulate rich and positive experiences in music, most of the students in our schools are not benefiting from most of the music education that is offered. When this majority grows older and many within it become community and educational leaders, they naturally do not attach importance to music education because they were never given the opportunity to benefit from it themselves. In fact, music programs are viewed as a threat to students’ future success, because many music lessons must be taught as pull-outs, requiring students, many of them high achieving students who aren’t looking for a way out of class, to miss a class in order to take music lessons. This keeps the number of students willing to participate down, and discourages some of our most promising students from joining a school band, orchestra or choir. If those ensembles are a student’s only option, they will miss out on being musically educated in school. I call this elitism, because it panders to the needs of the few with little concern for meeting the needs of the majority of students. As long as those ensembles are performing at a high level, winning awards at festivals and making a community proud, no one considers all the students who are left out.

This lack of inclusiveness has other negative effects as well. Ensemble lessons and rehearsals can easily be almost whisper_musicexclusively devoted to building skills while ignoring concepts. Students practice and drill all kinds of things, including rhythms, fingerings, pitches, even marching steps. But none of these drills and practices requires high level or critical thinking. When asked to defend the music program with what is being accomplished in terms of student learning, educators have an impossible task of justifying a program devoted solely to building skills. There must be components of meta-cognition, problem solving, critical thinking, connecting to other disciplines, creating and interpreting to bring music up to the same academic level as language arts, science, or math.  There must be instruction and practice in reading music, not just imitating aurally presented phrases and patterns.

The second factor is related to the first, and it is this: there is too little attention and value given to what a music education for students who are not interested in joining ensembles should be. The world is full of people who love music and enjoy listening to it, singing and dancing along to it, and even playing it on non-orchestral instruments, who will remain unknown to most music teachers because they don’t play in band, orchestra or sing in choir. These are the kids who will become superintendents of schools and principals and school board members. They must be included in the plan for music education. Programs must guide these students to a path of music making that interests them, and that will make a lasting and positive impression on them, motivating them to support music programs in their communities throughout their adult lives. Students need to be challenged to listen to and learn about music they otherwise would not seek out on their own, such as classical or world musics, but they also must be guided to more knowledgeably responding to music they already know and love, and to perform, compose and improvise in those genres too. The idea that fostering a love of music is restricted to Western European art music and perhaps jazz and symphonic pop is suspect at best. Music education must become a meeting of interests, where students are both supported in their existing musical interests, and challenged with new ones that enrich and extend both their ability to interact with music and the probability that they will always be allies of the arts.

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.

Teaching About Music The Way We Teach Music

2011Symposium_1_2For the most part, music rehearsals have three parts that extend over a period of weeks. The first part is learning how the music is supposed  to go, the second part is learning to perform the music correctly, correcting errors where they occur and trying to avoid errors during trials, and the third part is performing it correctly repeatedly so that the performance-ready version becomes natural and easily repeatable. The third of these three parts is accomplished with repetition; repeating the right version over and over so that it is committed to memory and so that it is the most likely outcome of trying to perform the piece. Repetition is one of the most powerful learning tools there is. Whatever is repeated is learned and remembered. We know this and we do this in our rehearsals every day. But what about the non-performance things we want our students to learn and remember? Do we take advantage of the power of repetition when teaching those things as well?

If I teach a class a concept by telling them what it is, and having them use the concept over the course of the lesson, by the time I see that class again, which is usually after a week has passed, most of those students won’t remember what the concept was or be able to give me a definition, but most or all of them will remember the song I taught them that contained the concept. This happened just this week. I introduced a third grade class to syncopation two weeks ago. Yesterday, the first time I had met that class in two weeks because of the holiday vacation, not one of them could tell me what syncopation was; yet, when I asked them to sing “Run From the Farmer,” nearly all of them remembered the song. When I asked them to raise their hand whenever they heard the syncopated rhythm, all of them did it correctly without hesitation, but they still couldn’t tell me what syncopation was. They remembered raising their hand at that rhythm, or perhaps at those lyrics, but could not describe what was happening metrically and rhythmically in the music. This should not be surprising, because they repeated the song and the hand raising several times two weeks ago, but they only heard the definition, and only twice at that. How could I have taught the definition differently so they remembered that too? I could have used repetition.

Unison recitation is an under-used strategy in classrooms. The teacher asks a question, and the class says the i-get-itanswer out loud in unison. Of course questions must have one answer for this strategy, but that makes it a great tool for learning definitions and vocabulary. I told them that a syncopated note both between the beats and strong. Is a note that is only between the beats syncopated? “No,” they answered in unison. Is a note syncopated if it is only strong? “No,” they again answered in unison. So what is syncopation? “A note that is both between the beats and strong.” Again. “A note that is both between the beats and strong.” What is syncopation? “A note that is both between the beats and strong.” .You get the idea. Students who have repeated something like this will remember it with much greater success than just hearing it or even reading it. Learning a vocabulary word or a definition is no time to contrive a way for students to use higher level thinking. That comes when they apply the concept to authentic experiences. When they sing a syncopated note, or improvise a rhythm with a syncopated note, then they are using higher level thinking. After memorizing the definition, to get them to apply the concept, I played a syncopated rhythm on a drum, and then had individual students improvise a different rhythm that was not syncopated. In order to know what something is, you also have to know what it isn’t. Most students needed two or three trials to come up with a non-syncopated rhythm, but all but one was able to do so. That was high level thinking that reinforced the concept being taught, that of syncopation.

Teachers should not hesitate to use repetition to teach new concepts and vocabulary. Before students can apply a concept, they must first learn that concept, and repetition is an effective way to learn new concepts and material. Teacher must be careful not to dismiss repetition as unnecessary in our rush to develop critical thinking skills. Repetition is a necessary first step in meaningful, relevant learning.

What Is An Effective Approach to Teaching Sight Reading?

2011Symposium_1_2One of the perennial challenges for music teachers seems to be teaching sight-reading, particularly to older children who have not developed music reading skills at a young age. Music teachers often believe that students will get better at sight reading by practicing sight reading. This is true if students already know how to read music, and are trying to improve on what they already can do. But students who cannot read music, or are poor music readers will only practice poor reading and poor reading habits if they are sent off to practice. Music teachers must always equip students to practice before asking them to do so. With this in mind, I have some things students should be able to do before they simply go off and practice sight reading.

First, musical notes represent sounds, not fingerings. If you are teaching a musical instrument, require your students to sing what they are about to play before they play it. Even if they have to sing at a slowed tempo, auditing the pitches before playing them will be a tremendous help. I once tried an experiment with two beginner fifth grade trumpet classes. For one class, I taught them solfege and required them to correctly sing with solfege syllables every line of music before they played it. With the other class, I did  not teach them solfege or require them to sing, but just had them play the music. Both classes used the same method book, and had the same instructional times. The result was that the class that sang was four pages ahead of the class that did not sing by the December concert. Since then, I have found that singing consistently advances students faster in their instrumental music studies. Singers need to separate themselves from pianos. It is my opinion that singers rely far too much on a piano to learn their music. As a result, much of their repertoire is learned by rote, with little audiation taking place. Reading music must involve hearing tones in the imagination where none are physically present. Practicing sight reading must include producing physical sound from the written note, with no help from another sound source. Tuning can be checked with an electronic tuner to avoid inadvertently going flat or sharp.

Second, Western tonal music is composed within the context of tonic-dominant harmonic image05relationships, and of isometric patterns. The natural stresses that are applied by harmonic functions, metrical placement, note duration, and consonance and dissonance are all integral parts of the musical experience. When musicians read music, they must do so in conformance with the written rhythms, meters, beats, and patterns of tension and release that grow out of the rhythmic and harmonic contexts. It is not enough to sing the correct pitches and rhythms, though even this is too often not accomplished, but they must be inflected and interpreted in such a way that the hierarchical structure of Western tonal music is perceptible. The singer or instrumentalist must stress the appogiatura or suspension, must build tension approaching a cadence and release it on the resolution, must realize the subtle but crucial difference between the downbeat of a weak measure and the downbeat of a strong measure, must understand that there are many levels of beats present in music, from the division of the ictus, to the beat of the onset of each four-measure phrase. These are all elements of good music reading, and making them part of what is practiced when sight reading is practiced makes the experience more musical and less pedantic. Sight reading must be about more than pitches and rhythms, because music is much richer than that.

Third, anything that is written represents something that exists in the physical world. The world apple represents a particular variety of fruit. The word is not the fruit, but refers to the fruit, and is the name given to the thing that exists in the physical world that we know to be an apple. A note on a musical staff is not a color, picture, number, or even a solfege syllable, for those are just names for the representation, not the thing itself. The thing itself is the sound–that is what the written note represents. Regardless of what strategy or method is used to teach music reading, ultimately, the written note must be associated with the heard sound, and the student must be able to make the sound so that it is audible in response to seeing the written representation of it. This, I feel, is the step that is frequently overlooked. There is either no sound taught prior to revealing the note, in which case the student cannot know what the note represents, or the sound and written representation are taught simultaneously, which leaves the confused learner to wonder whether the sound represents the written note, or the note represents the sound. We must teach the sound, then the representations. That means sight reading is taught first by teaching the sounds contained in what is to be read, and then associating the sounds which are already familiar, to the notation of them, which is new. That is how sight reading ought to be taught.

What Is Music Theory and How Does It Fit Into Music Education?

2011Symposium_1_2A casual survey of so-called music theory books used by piano and violin teachers reveals that music theory is frequently understood to be the body of knowledge needed to read music. When students using these materials “learn music theory,” they are asked to name notes and chords, identify and define symbols such as key and time signatures, measures, kinds of notes, and so forth. When I got to college and had to take freshman music theory, I saw that now my professors considered knowing how to label octaves, write with correct voice leading in four parts, and analyze chords as music theory. Later still, I found that studying music theory meant doing Schenkerian analysis, which included making reductions. So what exactly is music theory? Is it note and chord spelling, a method of musical composition, or analyses of musical works?

Perhaps we should start with a simpler question: what is a theory? The writers of the Webster-Merriam Dictionary wrote that a theory is “an idea or set of ideas that is intended to explain facts or events.” Notice that the facts and events themselves are not the theory, but the explanation of them. Theories explain how things in the world work; things like gravity, the human mind, and relativity. A theory of music, then, describes how music works, but not in the sense of A’s or G-sharps or B-flats, but in terms of harmonics and vibrations. It would explain why certain pitch combinations sound dissonant with a discussion of the tones not sharing overtones, while notes that sound consonant have multiple shared overtones. Such explanations have a scientific basis, and explain why music sounds the way it does. Piano tuners use such a theory all the time as they measure the tempering for pairs of notes. Knowing that a pitch is a B-flat doesn’t explain how music works, any more than saying a house is made of wood and bricks explains the forces acting upon that house that keep it from falling apart. Children who are learning note names, chord names, and note types are learning the materials of music, not music theory.

While it may seem pedantic to dwell on this point, many well-intentioned music teachers have been led to believe that note, chord and rhythm spelling is all one needs to know to learn to play or sing competently, and to understand music. A teacher with this disposition will not find it necessary to go further, avoiding such important things as note tendencies and attractions, differences in the tensions of different intervals, and the expressive potential of these. If one focuses only on what is found in so-called music theory books, (and the reader will now understand why I say “so-called) aural skills will often remain divorced from music spelling limiting the musical understanding to written signs and symbols without sound and, because it is music, without meaning.

Schenkerian analysis hits closer to the mark, because it at least begins to explain how the human mind organizes musicMusic Notes Background beyond the physically heard sound. Lerdahl & Jackendoff’s Generative Theory of Tonal Music comes even closer, articulating a psychological basis for how we organize and understand music that we hear. With knowledge of these actual theories, a music student can then understand how the notes, chords and rhythms they are learning are formed into structures of meter, motifs, themes, theme groups, sections, movements and works over periodic time-spans, and create patterns of tensions and relaxations that are the expressiveness of music. Note names, chord names, and rhythms are just the beginning, and alone are inadequate for teaching music theory and music in general. Teachers should by all means teach music spelling, but must also teach what sounds those things being spelled are, how and in what forms they exist in the physical world as sound, and how they interact and are perceived as musical in combinations that have musical and psychological bases. That is the essence of music theory and essential to good music teaching.

An Intervention Strategy for Teaching Music Reading of Rhythms

2011Symposium_1_2It seems there can never be too many methods for teaching music rhythm, especially where reading music is concerned. It is interesting that music notation can be at once both so logical and so confusing. Researchers have taught us that music reading is learned similarly to language reading; first we learn a vocabulary of patterns, then we learn what they look like written down. Once the sound we learn first is matched with the notes we see, music reading takes place. While there is no question that this is sound theory and leads to sound teaching, there are nevertheless times when students don’t make the necessary matches and connections. At these times, we need other strategies to help them see the connection between what is heard and what is seen. Today, I will describe one such strategy.

Music rhythm can be approached as a series of sounds and silences. Notes are sounds, rests are silences. Each serves as a kind of on switch and off switch for sound along a continuous span of time. This time is measured at first as all eighth rests drawn above a blank staff on my white board. Each rest represents one beat of silence. Each beat can be “turned on” by placing a note on the staff under one of the eighth rests written above the staff. Each beat can remain turned off by carrying an eighth rest from above down into the staff. Once some beats are turned on with eighth notes or kept turned off with an eighth rest, students can begin reading and drumming or clapping the rhythm by following half-beat pulses and making a sound on notes and keeping silent on the rests written in the staff.

Once they get the hang of this, I then add in quarter notes and quarter rests. These each equal two eighth note rests, so after playing a quarter note, the switch stays on for one more beat before going off again. If there is a quarter rest, the switch stays off for one more beat before going on again. At this stage, I do not use two or more rests consecutively. I assist the students’ reading by pointing to each eighth-note beat with a pointer on the notation on the board as they read and play the rhythm, or have a student point while the others play. With ten to fifteen minutes of practice, even the student who is initially most confused about how to read rhythms is demonstrating some fluency at performing rhythms from notation.

Aside from how well this method works, there is another advantage it offers. Whereas research based note_hierarchymethods precede reading a rhythm with hearing and performing it, such a method does not provide a strategy for reading an unfamiliar rhythm. In other words, if there is notated a rhythm pattern that is not in the student’s rhythm vocabulary, how does he or she figure out the rhythm from the notation? In teaching language, students can sound out words and string together vowel and consonant sounds to speak an unfamiliar word. They then learn the definition, perhaps from a dictionary or teacher. In music, there are no definitions of patterns; a patterns meaning is what it sounds like in the context of beat, meter, and tonality. The method I have advanced here can be used to figure out unfamiliar rhythms, and will be unnecessary for patterns that the student recognizes and can sing at sight. Remember, this method is designed as an intervention for students who, in spite of research-based instruction, still are unable to perform rhythms from standard music notation. Once an unfamiliar pattern is learned with this method, the durations involved should be collected into a group and learned as a pattern so that it will be remembered the next time it is encountered.  This method is also similar in conception to piano roll notation used in music sequencing software, and may be of use in teaching conventional notation from piano roll notation by having students convert from one to the other.