What Is The Context?

2011Symposium_1_2Most ideas and words can easily be misunderstood without context. Take the word chair. If I sit on the chair, he’ll expel me from the committee. If you were thinking of a piece of furniture, my sentence didn’t make much sense. You had to know I was talking about the chair of a committee; a person. Slightly more meaningful would be a phrase. For example, “to be or not to be, that is the question.” Most will recognize this phrase from Act 3 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but will know little if any of the story of the play from which the phrase comes, or of the high quality of the play as a whole. It is good to know the phrase, but better to know the work.

So it is with musical themes. Music students, especially instrumental students, learn countless “themes from” in their music books. The purpose behind including these is no doubt to enrich the students with a knowledge and familiarity with great themes from musical masterworks. But if the teaching never goes further than the eight or sixteen measure theme, a vast array of learning and enriching has been missed. If one is teaching “theme from Surprise Symphony,” is the important thing that there is one loud chord that surprises us in an otherwise dynamically soft context? No, of course not. The important thing about this theme is that is the theme upon which a wonderful set of variations is written, and that this theme and variations is one of four movements in a symphony written by Franz Josef Haydn. Students should listen to the whole movement, and make a study of variation form, not just learn to play the theme, or more often the first half of the theme.

Another instance of a problematic context is when classical music is used for commercial use such as advertisements or movie soundtracks. Again, the familiarity and popularity that exposure to classics in the popular media produces is a positive thing, but if left to the versions heard there, students will again get a limited or misleading notion of what these musical works are all about. There was a commercial a few years ago for Direct TV that featured the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem. The use of that music in the ad made it possible for me to play the beginning of the Lacrimosa for my students, and have them immediately recognize it. That’s good. But they had no idea that it had been written by Mozart, or that there was more to the Lacrimosa than the seconds of music in the ad, or that even the entire Lacrimosa movement was part of a larger work, written as a memorial for someone’s death. Playing the whole movement, and excerpts from other movements gave them an understanding of the requiem form, and a more balanced, though still incomplete experience of Mozart’s Requiem. Other classical works used in movies and television warrant the same attention. Our students are hearing these works, so music teachers would be wise to take advantage of this introduction, and take study of these works further than a one minute sound bite.

Classical music used in the media also presents a second opportunity. Why did the advertising firm representing Personen / Musiker / Liszt / am KlavierDirect TV decide to use that particular music for that commercial? What was the music expressing that matched what the advertisers wanted to express or have consumers feel as they were watching the ad? Trying to get inside the minds of advertisers who use classical music is a great way to teach expressive intent of the composers of this music. Of course, the same can be taught about other genres of music used in commercials, thereby broadening the study of expressive intent from classical music to popular music. I tell my students that all music expresses something. When a visual image is paired with music, the music can strongly suggest what the visual image expresses. It can be fun to play different music to commercials or movie scenes that originally had just music (no speaking) and compare the emotional affect of the scene or commercial with different music. This too is a study in context.

As we teach a diverse repertoire of music to our students, we must be careful not to skim the surface to shallowly. We must always present music with enough context to accurately represent the genre, specific musical work, and expressive intent, and give students a fair opportunity to accurately interpret and analyze what they hear and perform. Every theme has a context of music that surrounds it, every musical work has a context of other works written in the same genre, culture and time period. We must be sure to include both contexts, going far beyond assigning a theme fragment.

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.

Using Core Arts Standards To Teach Students How To Analyze Repertoire

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

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

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


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



What is Musicianship?

2011Symposium_1_2Musicianship is one of those words that is used frequently but thought about rarely. As music teachers, we want our students to acquire musicianship, but we don’t necessarily spend much time specifically teaching it. Much of the time we are teaching skills, and then assuming musicianship will automatically follow. But it is often the case in education that the transfers of knowledge we think students will make on their own go unnoticed. Often, it is necessary for us to guide students through the transfer of knowledge from one application to another, or from one level of proficiency to the next. So it is with transferring skills to the practice of musicianship.

When I was an undergraduate at a major music conservatory, there was one weekly class I had to attend every semester for all four years. The name of the class was “musicianship.” Students signed up to play for a master class taught by a distinguished professor with the whole school watching. Several students would perform each week, and through it all we saw and heard how to shape musical phrases into performances that were pleasing, expressive and even passionate. What we did not learn in that class were fingerings, bowings, and what notes to play. That was not part of learning musicianship. Learning to play musically was the purpose of the class called “musicianship.”.

Implicit in this view is that musicianship is the highest level of musical thinking and performing—it is what elite players domusic_words_large to cause their performances to be outstanding above the rest. Musicianship cannot be thought of as only what a musician does, because some of what a musician does cannot be considered practicing musicianship. Knowing how to play, and practicing fingerings, notes, and other things must precede practicing musicianship, but technical matters of playing an instrument do not come up to the bar of what musicianship is. Knowing what to play is not included in musicianship, but knowing how to play and playing that way, does demonstrate musicianship.

So far I have defined musicianship in the realm of musical performance only, but musicianship can also be demonstrated by any act of music making. These include composing, improvising, and listening. In our Western art music tradition, composers create the master plan that the performers will follow during rehearsals and concerts. Because the composer imagines what the work will sound like when performed, all of the benefits of musicianship must come into play during the composing process. Phrasings and expressive details must be planned and executed in the writing of the music, and so requires musicianship. The composer builds a musical structure that the performers will animate with physical sound. Listeners then receive that sound, and must apprehend the structure and all that the composer and performers have expressed, and come to a hearing of the piece that includes the composer’s intent, the performers’ intent, and through the listeners’ own experience and musicianship, understandings of both. Listeners’ musicianship is apparent from the way they recognize musical patterns, respond emotionally to music, and remember motifs, themes, phrases and melodies. Musicianship is practiced wherever knowledge, skill, and artistic sensitivity, to borrow from the Random House Dictionary, are brought to bear on an act of music making.

When we are teaching students solfege, ear training, instrumental technique, sight-singing or any other musical skill, we are not teaching them musicianship, but instead preparing them to make music with musicianship. There is nothing particularly musical in an artistic sense of the singing that is done in an ear training class, or the music that is played in an early level instrument lesson. Though music is being made, it is not necessarily musical. This is because musicianship has not yet been applied to the skill of producing pitches and rhythms. Musicianship is a synthesis of music skills, accomplished in a single act of music making. We teach someone musicianship when we teach them to bring all the necessary music skills together into a performance of artistic excellence.