The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Has Something For Your Students

Version 2As musicians and music educators, we know that it takes much commitment, work, and many hours to prepare a performance for presentation to an audience. But sometimes it’s difficult, even for young music students, to appreciate or even realize just how much goes into preparing a concert. It can be enlightening to have the opportunity to hear professional symphony musicians share what they do to prepare for a concert. To be able to ask them questions in a live conversation is even better.

As educators, we also know that music is the manifestation of natural laws of science; that music is a creative way of manipulating and taking advantage of the science of sound, including all acoustical principles. Music teachers have a great opportunity to collaborate with their science teacher colleagues in bringing the acoustical world of sound to their students through demonstration and hands-on learning opportunities to play, experiment, and discover the many ways in which sound can be manipulated and organized.

Next week, students everywhere will have a wonderful opportunity to interact with members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. On December 13th at 10 AM ET, GPB Education will take students on a live virtual field trip of the Atlanta Symphony aso-logo-500x153Orchestra, highlighting the science of sound, various ASO musicians, and the preparation it takes to put on a live musical performance. Students can interact with the show by submitted questions to experts and participating in live polls. The show will be live streamed on and on GPB Education’s Facebook page. More information and to register for the event, go to Music teachers might consider using this live forum during school with music students to bring the world of live music into the classroom, and to create an authentic learning experience. I urge you to join the Atlanta Symphony in this presentation.

What Do Music Notes Mean?

2011 Symposium2

I searched the title of this post today, and the results were any number of explanations of how to read music; what the note names were, the different kinds of notes, the treble and bass clefs, and so forth. But is this really what those notes on a page mean? Not at all. As you read these words on your phone or computer, what do the letters mean? Would you say that in the word “ice cream,” the individual letters mean anything? Of course not. The letters mean nothing unless they are in a string with other letters so that the string of letters spells a word. It is the word that has meaning, not the letters from which the word is formed. It is the same with music Each note has a sound of its own, just as letters have sounds of their own, but an isolated note means nothing. It must be part of a group of notes which one can understand as expressing some human quality that the creator of that group of notes intended to express. Leonard Bernstein, in his Young People’s Concert “What Does Music Mean,” said  “if I play a note, one note all alone means nothing. It’s just a plain old F sharp or a B flat.

If a person knows that a particular note on a musical staff is g, or a, b-flat, or whatever, then good for him or her, but that knowledge alone, or even in combination with hearing or performing that one note, won’t result in an expressive musical experience. It will result in a pitched sound being heard. Music must be a musical creator’s  expression of something. The creator can be a composer, improvisor, or sage passing along an oral tradition in song. One note all by itself cannot possibly be so expressive. People innately understand music by grouping perceived sounds into rhythmic or melodic groups often called rhythms, measures, motifs, phrases, themes, and so forth. Whether it is a West African drum pattern, an Indian raga, or a marching band drum cadence, music makes sense to us when we are able to aurally organize it into groups. Music that purposefullyBernstein impedes or blocks a listener’s ability to do so is perceived as confusing or unintelligible. Listeners find it difficult to determine what such music means, because they do not have a familiar way of responding to it emotionally or kinesthetically.

There is, however, a sense in which an individual note, if it is one among other notes,  can have meaning. In Western tonal music, individual tones can have meaning according to a harmonic function. We have names for these individual notes which give us a clue as to what their function is. These names include leading tone, tonic, supertonic, dominant, subdominant, mediant, and submediant. The leading tone has meaning in that it draws us to the tonic a semi tone above. It compels us to anticipate the arrival of the tonic, and in so doing creates tension and forward motion in the music. But without other notes to establish it as the leading tone, it is powerless to do any of this. So even an individual note relies on relationships to other notes to give it meaning. So what music notes mean has nothing to do with note names or where a note happens to be placed on a musical staff; it has nothing to do with what a note is named, it has to do with what a note does. There are leading tones, dominant tones, tonic tones. There are blue notes, altered notes, dissonant notes and accented notes. These characteristics are closer to the mark; they describe what a note can mean. An altered note is one that becomes a leading tone, or dominant tone within a tonality where this ordinarily is not the case. Altered notes introduce tension because they have strong tendencies to move us toward another note, and because they are often dissonant in the current tonality. The name of a note–b-flat or f-sharp–is merely a convenience; it tells a musician which pitch ought to be played or sung. The names themselves have no meaning, only the sounds one produces by reading a particular pitch in written music.

snare drumWhat of notes that have no pitch? Do notes that are for non-pitched instruments such as a snare drum or high hat have any meaning? Yes they do. Just as pitched notes have tonal meaning, non-pitched notes have metrical meaning. Meter the ordering of beats into patterns of strong and weak beats. Like pitches, these different strengths of beats have names, like crisis and anacrusis. The note at the beginning of one of these patterns is the strongest, and the note at the end of one of these patterns is the weakest. This kind of note meaning gives a waltz its characteristic lilt, and a march its orders to step LEFT right, LEFT right. Like pitches, non-pitched notes have no meaning apart form relationships with other notes. One note cannot be perceived as strong unless it is surrounded by other notes that are less so. Conversely, one note cannot be perceived as weak unless it is preceded or followed by one that is strong. Syncopated notes, relatively long notes or loud notes, accented notes all have meaning because of the relative importance duration and articulation assign. As with pitches, rhythms have names. These names are called rhythms syllables, and include Curwin, Eastman, and Gordon rhythm syllables. These syllables, like pitch names, help identify durations and in some cases also rhythmic function, but they are not the meaning of the rhythms. The meaning, again, is in how the notes sound in relation to other notes, and in how groups of notes sound. Bernstein summed all of this up well when he said, “the meaning of music is in the music, in its melodies, and in the rhythms, and the harmonies.”

How Can Symphony Orchestras Attract Young Audiences?


Many have considered the problem of how to cause classical music to become more popular, especially with younger audiences. Data indicating a shrinking audience for live concerts, particularly among younger people, have worried arts organizations and educators for some time. It has also been noted that while attendance at live classical concerts has often decreased, sales of recorded classical music has fared better, indicating a shift in how people prefer to listen. With home theater technologies and digital recordings, the sonic quality of recorded music can rival that of a live concert; and with added convenience and the elimination of the threat of the dreaded and prolonged candy wrapper distraction, there are aspects of recorded music listening that are appealing.

Still, I’m a supporter and enjoyer of live music, and I want to see live classical music organizations and venues do well. This week, while in attendance at a Young People’s concert with my fourth grade students, I observed something that I believe will shed some light on this issue of what will make classical music appealing to young listeners. The program included two works: Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, and Elliott’s The Remarkable Farkle & The Wolf. The latter is based on actor John Lithgow’s book of the same title. Both works had a narrator, who told a story that each took the audience on a tour of the orchestra. But there was one important difference. For Peter and the Wolf, the narrator acted the story. Using props as puppets, he entertained the audience with a lady’s purse with whiskers and a tail attached for the cat, a feather duster for the duck, a stick with a light scarf tied to it for the bird, a suitcase with ears and a tail and big teeth inside for wolf, and the narrator himself as Peter (donning a hat), grandpa (with a cane) and the hunters (carrying plungers for rifles). The students were spellbound by the acting, and they couldn’t wait to see what prop would be used for the next character. Through it all, they still enjoyed the music, too. I know this because some of them were singing Peter’s infectious tune on the way out (and in two cases during the concert) For Elliott’s opus, the narrator spoke, but there was no acting. Though the music was excellent, the students were visibly disinterested while the orchestra was playing, but craned their necks to see the instrument families as they were introduced.

What can we learn from this? Those students wanted first to have something to see. They wanted to watch something that developed and changed, like a story or a new sound. Once the visual aspect of what was going on became familiar, they were no longer interested hearing the music. In order for classical music to be appealing to contemporary young people, I believe that what they have to look at must be more changeable than a lot of people sitting in one place on a stage. Music that changes timbres and direction often is interesting. Music that is accompanied by acting, or by video, as for example John Williams’ hugely popular movie nights are, are much more likely to succeed than classical music that does not change visually, and presents an overall homogeneous blend of timbres. Lest those of you who tend toward purism object, may I remind you that Handel had his music played by orchestras floating on barges, Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony featured players leaving the stage as the work went along, and Tchaikovsky wrote music that includes a part for live cannons. Surely if these masters could avail themselves of such showmanship, it is not beneath today’s orchestras to take advantage of similar resourcefulness.

Does That Instrument Always Sound Like That?

2011Symposium_1_2Tomorrow, my fourth grade students will attend a young peoples concert, put on by the local symphony orchestra. This is an annual event, and is by no means the same program each year; however this year, the concert will focus on introducing the audience to the various instruments and instrument families of the orchestra. One of the mainstays of such a program will be represented on the program, that being Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. The other piece, fashioned perhaps after Britten’s famous opus, is The Remarkable Farkle,” which is based on a story by actor John Lithgow and music by Bill Elliott. It, like the Britten, is a series of variations on a theme, each variation played by a different instrument or family.

There are two approaches to introducing the orchestra represented in these works. Elliott’s (and Britten’s) approach is to take the same theme, and demonstrate how it, varied to suit the instrument being demonstrated, would sound playing it. This seems like a good approach, because it holds the instrument as something of a variable, and the theme as something of a constant, though a varied one at that. The composer is a liberty to demonstrate several aspects of the sound of an instrument by creatively incorporating multiple playing techniques, as for example with pizzicato, bowing, and col legno with the strings, or open, muted, or stopped with French horns. There is at least the possibility of avoiding an exposure to the expressive possibilities of an instrument that is restricted by a single theme or characterization.

Prokofiev’s approach was to compose a separate theme for each instrument, and have each theme/instrument represent a instruments of the orchcharacter in the story. It is hard to oppose this method of remembering the timbre of a clarinet by remembering Sasha the cat, or the bassoon by remembering old grandpa, because it has proven successful for many generations. The weakness of this approach, it seems to me, is that it stereotypes the instrument into one kind of melody, one kind of personality, and leaves the listener unaware of the diverse representations a clarinet, or bassoon or what have you can make. It was years after I had first heard Peter and the Wolf that I realized the bassoon ever had anything serious, that is not comical, to play in the orchestral repertoire; and does the flute really always sound like a bird?

With this in mind, I’d like to propose some musical works for teaching the instruments of the orchestra to children. For flute, I suggest Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Debussy, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony 4, the scherzo. For Oboe, listen to the scherzo from Symphony no 6 by Beethoven. This has wonderful solos for oboe, clarinet, and French horn. Also, Symphonie Fantastique, the pastorale movement has a wonderful English horn and oboe duet. Tchaikovksy’s Symphony 4, the first movement, is alternately a showcase of woodwinds and brass, including a bassoon solo, and the third movement is nearly all pizzicato strings. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony 5 begins with a wonderful clarinet solo (actually two clarinets in unison), and features a renowned French horn solo in the slow movement. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade is an orchestration delight throughout, with many solo passages including features solos for violin, clarinet, oboe, flute. Other clarinet parts are found in Rachmaninoff’s Symphony 2, the slow movement, and Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin. Many good trumpet and woodwind parts are also featured in Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. The trombone is featured in many works by Berlioz, including Hungarian March, Dvorak’s Symphony 8, and Wagner’s Tannhauser. Wonderful examples of the tuba are found in Symphonie Fantasituqe, March to the Scaffold, and The Fountains of Rome by Resphigi in the movement “Fountain of Trevi at Midday.”Familiarizing students with these excerpts or works after they have been introduced to the instruments and families through the standard “introduction to the orchestra” pieces will broaden their understanding and appreciation of each instrument.

What Does Music Mean–Revisiting Bernstein’s Lecture

2011Symposium_1_2In 1958, Leonard Bernstein gave a Young Peoples Concert entitled “What Does Music Mean?” In it, he said that music doesn’t mean anything in the ways language does, but instead means what it is. Today, I will take up the matter of musical meaning, restricting myself to developing Bernstein’s points, and avoiding deeper aesthetic and philosophical debate.

To understand something is to know its meaning. Meaning is not born of the physical sounds that are music. It is instead born of two things. First, of the intentions of the one who planned and organized those sounds in such a way that we would consider them to be musical and therefore music. For this reason, a composer’s intent has a great deal to do with what a particular piece of music means. For example, a gavotte was first a French folk dance. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the gavotte became a popular court dance, with more complicated dance steps added by ballet masters of the day. It also became a standard movement in the suite, such as J. S. Bach’s orchestral suites. Later still, Prokofiev wrote a gavotte as one of the movements in his first symphony. Here, the gavotte was not intended as dance music at all, but as music to be listened to by a sedate audience.

In one sense, the meaning of a gavotte has stayed the same. A piece of music in common time, in three sections, moderately fast, originally intended for dancing. A person could learn about the form and history of the gavotte, and call this information about a gavotte to mind when listening to one. Such a listener would be well informed, and in at least one sense be correctly said to understand the music. But knowing about a piece of music is not all there is to understanding it. Musical meaning is not restricted to historical facts and analyzed form. If it were, then music would be meaningless to every listener who heard a piece of music, but did not know much or anything about the music. We know this is not the case. People hear music everyday about which they know very little or perhaps nothing, yet are able to make sense of the sounds in a musical way, and to respond physically and emotionally.

This leads us to the second thing of which musical meaning is born: from the listener’s perception. Music compels us to move, and arouses emotions. These two responses—movement and emotions—are just as MusicEarnecessary as form, structure, and history. Musical structure enables us to make sense of music, to perceive it as more than an accidental soundscape. Music makes us move and experience feelings because another human has designed it to do exactly that. Music is composed for the purpose of affectual and psychomotor communication. When we dance or otherwise move to music, we are allowing our bodies to do what the mind naturally tells it to do as a natural response to music being heard. Interestingly, when we respond emotionally to music, we say that the music “moved” us. Though not referring to physical moving, the word also means to be affected, and is very much tied to the physical response. Music that moves us also increases our heart rate, may give us “chills” or “goose bumps” and cause our muscles to tense, even while sitting in a concert hall.

Ultimately, musical meaning is experiential–the experiencing of a planned, purposeful, organization of sounds into music. Music meaning is what we experience while we listen. This is not as subjective as it first may seem. People with a shared culture and shared musical enculturation will experience a given musical work similarly. While there will certainly be minor differences in musical experiences of a given work among audience members of a concert, by and large, they will find very similar meaning in the music. The more students are allowed to fully experience music through movement and emotions, the more meaningful music will be for them. Music listening is an action, not a passive behavior. That is why Elliott considered music listening a way of making music and why Gardner considered music a way of knowing. To concentrate on form and “what to listen for” to the exclusion of physical and emotional meaning is to teach a restrictive and distorted view of music. These things are only the table setters to a rich musical dining experience where movement and emotions are the main course.