How do teachers find and share ideas, worksheets, and handouts?
Prior to the 21st century, there were limited means for teachers to interact with each other. Teachers who worked in the same building as each other could talk in person. If they wanted to reach people outside their program, they could publish their ideas in printed journals, magazines, books, and leaflets. They could attend conferences, workshops, and symposia. They could call each other on the phone, or send each other snail-mail.
But, you see, this weird thing's been happening in the last 15 years or so, which has completely transformed the ways that teachers can learn with each other... and that thing is social media.
So, how can teachers find and share teaching ideas, worksheets, and handouts on Twitter?
How can we workshop materials on Facebook?
How can we use Pinterest, Instagram, Google Images, YouTube, and blogs for professional development and networking?
These are all very new, and very raw, questions. Social media hasn't been around all that long, and many academics still think that the only purpose of social media is to share adorable cat photos and dinner selfies.
My friends, social media is way more – way, way, way, way more – than just a platform for sharing photos of the world's cutest kitties.
In this blog post, I'd like to share with you the process that led me to create, and then totally revamp, a handout on scale degrees and intervals. Hopefully, it will show you just how useful and amazing social media can be for us teachers, and will inspire you to get more involved.
Step 1: Google Images
My students have been having some trouble understanding the concepts of scale degrees and musical intervals. So, I wanted to make some sort of handout to help clarify their confusion.
The first place I looked is Google Images. If you search for "musical intervals" or "major and minor scales", you'll find lots of wonderful graphics (and some less-than-wonderful graphics, too). What's striking to me, every time that I peruse Google Images, is just how diverse the images are. As I told my students in class, there are so many ways to visualize musical ideas; no single idea is the "right" one or the "wrong one," and different visualizations work better or worse for different people.
In this spirit, I took three very different graphics that I found on Google Images and put them all on a handout, as you can see below. On the front side, intervals are visualized on a piano keyboard. On the upper backside, they're written on staves, and the lower back provides a text-driven table.
I could tell you all about how I used this handout in class, and how the different visualizations caused us to probe different aspects of intervals.
But that's a discussion for another time.
What I'd like to tell you now is that despite the clarity of this handout, and despite the interactiveness of my lecture, my students were still confused.
So I began to look for more ideas.
Step 2: Pinterest
Pinterest is a search engine, kind of like Google. You search for something, and it brings up a list of results.
And like Google Images, the search results on Pinterest appear in the form of pictures, rather than text.
But here are two major differences between Pinterest and Google Images:
1) Pinterest doesn't only search for pictures. It searches for blogs and other websites that contain pictures, and it grabs pictures that (ideally) reveal something about the content of the website they came from. So if you search for "musical interval worksheets," for example, it brings up images from teaching blogs, which you can then peruse for further ideas.
2) Pinterest allows users to thematically organize images and blogs on special pages called "Pinterest boards." For example, there are dozens of boards devoted to the subject of music theory worksheets. What this means is that when you search on Pinterest for "musical interval worksheets," Pinterest will mine these pre-existing boards and send you results that other Pinterest users have already marked as pedagogically useful. It will also send you links to these music pedagogy boards themselves, which are full of peer-selected graphics and blog links.
Although Google Images had provided me with some wonderful graphics to include on my intervals handout, it had also left me frustrated. So I tried some searches on Pinterest instead: "music interval activities," "music interval worksheets," "music interval practice," and so forth. What resulted was not only a treasure trove of worksheets and handouts, but also links to teaching blogs that offered suggestions on how to use these materials in the classroom.
For example, below is a two-page worksheet that I found on Pinterest and decided to have my students fill out in class. It's from the website of Amber Staffa, a piano teacher who also wrote an entire blog post on how to teach musical intervals. The worksheet helps students visualize intervals as towers of blocks. One of the biggest challenges that my students have been facing is the idea that, for example, C to C# is NOT the same interval as C to Db, even though they both sound the same: the first is a kind of unison, and the other is a kind of second. I love the imagery of block towers in this worksheet, because it helps us to see that interval size (as opposed to quality) is based on the distance between pitch classes (A, B, C, etc) rather than pitches (A, Ab, A#, etc.)
This worksheet helped a lot, but it still wasn't enough. After all, it's just one worksheet, and a rather simple one, at that. I needed some sort of academic handout, with lots of depth to it, which could accompany an interactive lecture.
You see, what I really wanted to teach my students is how to navigate the intervals between scale degrees. In major, scale degree 6 is a whole step above 5, but in minor, it's a half step above. In both major and minor, 4 is a whole step below 5, and in minor, 3 is a whole step below 4... but in major, 3 is a half step below 4. You get the idea... if my students could understand how to navigate scales in this way, then it would be so much easier for them to sight-sing, notate, and understand tonal melodies.
But nothing that I found on either Google Images or Pinterest focused explicitly on that goal.
So I decided to make something myself.
Step 3: Workshopping my Own Handout on Facebook and Twitter
After a good half-hour of sketch work, I put together the following handout, which is unlike anything that I'd found via Google Images or Pinterest. Of course, not everything that is unique is good, and I think that my students may have found it more confusing than illuminating. (For the record, one student came up to me after class to tell me how much it helped!) In fact, despite how much thought I put into this, I myself couldn't make heads or tails of my own handout when it came time for the lecture. I handed it out, scratched my head for a minute trying to remember why in the world I thought this was useful, and then just moved on with something else.
This is where Facebook and Twitter come in. I wanted to know what other music professionals thought of this handout and how I could make it better. So, I posted my handout with the simple question: "Does it make sense?"
Within a few hours, I had some fabulous responses from total strangers. Several people found the color scheme confusing, while others were concerned that some scale degrees looked "bigger" than others. On Facebook, a few people began offering specific ideas for revision:
It's strange that the second scale degree "D" appears "larger" (wider) in major than in minor, when really it's the *distance* from ^2 to ^3 that's larger. I wonder if the "bars" could be made into color-coded intervals (M2 vs. m2, one color for each), and the letter names themselves appear at the junctions between each... That would probably just invite more confusion; I'm no visual designer.
it would be neat if you could illustrate how there is a transition of half step down for major to minor!
perhaps, keep the major scale in one color and then the differences would be more evident. Then again, the 3 and 6 are minor chords, but so is the 2 and the 7 is diminished. So, I think it would be best to leave out the white on the major scale and then show the changes for the minor scales by using the white? Interesting idea.
In Yiddish, we say "gezogt un geton" – said and done. After considering this advice, I totally revamped the worksheet and posted it again:
This time, not only did people offer further critique and ideas; some of them even made their own graphics in response to mine, and posted them as alternatives!
After more discussion on both Facebook and Twitter (which you can read, if you're interested), I came with a third revision – which is actually a whole series of graphics that capture my initial ideas and goals SO MUCH BETTER than my first attempt:
This, of course, led to even more discussion (which included a pretty cool Venn diagram idea), but I'll spare you the details. Again, you can read these public discussions if you'd like: here's the conversation on Twitter, and here's the one on Facebook.
My point is this: I could have done things the old-fashioned way, by throwing together a handout and then asking a couple friends for their feedback. If my friends had time, I'm sure they would have given me some good advice – perhaps right away, but more likely the next day, or maybe a week later since we're all so busy. But instead, I embarked on a whole journey through Google Images, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter which almost certainly gave me far more feedback and far more ideas than I would ever have gotten otherwise. As well, it was fun to interact with total strangers in a back-and-forth, real-time discussion on music theory pedagogy, and I do hope to engage in further such discussions with them in the future!
And my bigger point is this: you can do this, too! If you find the right people to follow on Facebook and Twitter, you'll be amazed at the conversations, collaborations, and new ideas that can arise. If you're not sure whom to follow, feel free to ask me, and I'll be happy to connect you! And I encourage you, if you haven't already, to explore music theory materials on Pinterest and Google Images. These are fantastic resources, but they are so little-understood and so little-appreciated in academia.... which is basically why I started this blog.
As always, I'd love to hear from you! Feel free to comment below, tweet to me @SocialMediaMus1, or send me an e-mail at SocialMediaMusicTheory@gmail.com.
Cheers from Jersey City, New Jersey, where I'm visiting a cousin I haven't seen in YEARS (hooray for reunions!)
PS - If you'd like to download a PDF of my handout, you can do so by clicking "download file" below!
Last week, I wrote about an experimental assignment. After introducing my students to the concept of scale degrees, I asked them to listen to a couple of episodes of the music theory / psychology podcast Song Appeal. These episodes discuss how the use of particular scale degrees in popular songs by Fall Out Boy and The Calling creates both tension and comfort. For homework, I asked them to write a few sentences about what they found (1) interesting and (2) confusing in each episode, with the hope that this would help them contextualize the theoretical concept of scale degrees. As I wrote last week, it sort of flopped... while my students enjoyed the podcast, almost none of them wrote about scale degrees in their homework.
So I've been thinking more about it. What went wrong?
In hindsight, this assignment really isn't so radical. It's common for teachers to ask students to write brief responses to book chapters or articles. So why not ask them to respond to podcast episodes, too?
What went wrong, I think, is that my instructions were simply too vague and open-ended for the narrower goals I had in mind: "write a few sentences about something you find (1) interesting and (2) confusing in each episode." If I wanted them to focus on scale degrees, I should have simply said so. Students aren't mind readers!
So I thought I'd have a round 2 at this, crafting a new assignment that would do what I had originally wanted my students to gain from the original assignment, but with clearer instructions.
But it's a bit lame to give them the same homework two weeks in a row, isn't it?
So here's what I did this week.
One of the podcast episodes I'd previously assigned them discusses how the limited use of scale degrees 1-5 in "Sugar We're Goin' Down" by Fall Out Boy helps create a sense of comfort and familiarity for listeners.
So this week, rather than simply asking them to listen to the podcast episode, I decided to have them delve into the sheet music itself.
The first thing we did, after I handed out copies of the score, was to listen to the song on YouTube while following along with the sheet music. This was actually the very first time that most of my students had ever looked at sheet music. I'd taught them, of course, how to read and write pitches, rhythms, etc, but this is different: this is real music, not just an exercise.
The second thing we did, after listening to the song, was to explore the score's layout and paratext. Remember: my students had never seen sheet music before. So I pointed out the layout of the title and the band's name. I explained how the grand staff shows us the right hand melody and the left hand accompaniment, with the lyrics printed in between the two staves. We noticed the metronome marking at the beginning, and – interestingly enough – the formal labels "intro," "1. verse," "pre-chorus," "chorus," "instrumental," "2. verse," etc, that were printed throughout the score. We talked about the dynamic marking, mf, and the key signature, both concepts that we hadn't yet discussed in class. And we noticed that instead of 4/4, the time signature was written as a big C – "C is for Common Time."
The third thing we did, after listening to the song and exploring the score's layout and paratext, was to label all the notes in the 1st verse's melody with their scale degree numbers. This was great. It's exactly what I wanted to teach them. We wrote the D major scale on the board, labeled the scale degrees, and then they tried to do the same for each note of the melody in their handouts. Then I wrote the melody on the board, and together, as a class, we labeled all the scale degrees in it.
What's the point of labeling scale degrees?
Who even cares?
Well, here's what we found.
Nearly every single note in the verse's melody is scale degree 1, 2, or 3! There are a few 5's here and there, and at the very end of the verse we get a few 4's. But isn't that interesting? There are 7 notes in the scale. Why only use the first three?
In the Song Appeal podcast episode on this song (Season 1 Episode 1), the show's host, Hunter Farris, explains that this limited use of scale degrees 1-3 is precisely what makes the song feel so comfortable and familiar for listeners. Not only is the melodic range very simple, but it's exactly the same range used in nursery rhymes like "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Merrily We Roll Along." Furthermore, as Farris notes in his podcast – and as we ourselves noticed while analyzing the score in class – scale degrees 4 and 5 are added very gradually. After only having 1-3 for a while, we get a 5. Then, the melody goes on with just 1-3 and 5. Only after we're used to the addition of 5 do we then get, at the very end of the verse, scale degree 4. We're not bombarded with scale degrees. We ease our way into the song.
For homework, I asked them to label the scale degrees in the pre-chorus and chorus, too. That'll be interesting. You see, the verse is limited almost exclusively to scale degrees 1-3, with occasional 4's and 5's by the end. The pre-chorus, however, emphatically introduces scale degree 7, and the chorus is full of large leaps. So it's like we ease our way into the verse, and then the pre-chorus builds up some excitement by introducing the leading tone, and then the chorus just soars. So cool! And we'll talk about this in class next week.
But wait, why stop here?! Let's change this to minor now!
After we labeled and discussed the scale degrees in the verse, I asked them to add accidentals to convert the verse's melody from D major to D minor.
Again, this highlights the practicality of scale degrees, while also reinforcing the differences between major and minor. AND IT'S FUN!
All they had to do was lower every scale degree 3 by a half step, by adding natural signs, and boom – it's in minor. For homework, I asked them to practice playing the verse's melody on the piano in both major and minor. In class next week, I'll ask them to sing it in both modes.
Finally, after having delved into the score in these ways, I gave them one final assignment: go home, label all the scale degrees in the pre-chorus and chorus, convert it all to minor...
... and then...
... re-listen to the podcast episode about this song, and write a paragraph explaining how the use of scale degrees 1-5 creates a sense of comfort and familiarity in this song.
Boom! That last part is really what I had wanted from them last week, but hadn't gotten... but this time, having gone through the music in so much more detail, I'm confident that they'll be able to understand this thesis about the scale degrees much more clearly.
Upward and onward!
Kind regards from Providence, RI,
Last week, I introduced my college students to scales.
At this point in the semester, music theory is still extremely new to them. We've talked about the basics of pitch, rhythm, and meter – what many might call "utterly basic." And yet, those of us who have taught total beginners know that even these foundational concepts can be so overwhelming to learn.
There are just so many symbols, so many terms, so many rules, so many concepts, and so many variables to assimilate, that it can feel like we're simply drowning in them. To make things worse, all of these symbols and terms and rules are so intricately interconnected, that it can be difficult to understand one without already knowing the others.
Obviously, this ain't insurmountable. It just takes time and practice.
But I mention this to remind us all, before I describe the homework I assigned them, just how new this still is for my students. Yes, we've learned the basics – but maybe it's more accurate to say that we're learning the basics, and will continue to solidify our understanding of them throughout the semester.
When can we start actually using this stuff?
In an earlier post, I told you about asking my students to write essays on "what is music theory?" and "why do we learn it?" A significant answer to both of these questions is that music theory helps us understand and talk about music in more detailed and interesting ways.
For example, there's a wonderful new podcast called "Song Appeal," which explores the psychology of why we like the music we like. The show is hosted by Hunter Farris, a music student at Brigham Young University, who uses the language of music theory to explain what makes a given tune "catchy," why certain chord progressions keep our attention, how musical sound can trigger nostalgia, and more.
Like many music podcasters, bloggers, and YouTubers, Farris tries to make his work accessible to people who know nothing about music theory, by minimizing his use of jargon and by explaining the terms and concepts that he does use.
So I had this idea: if these podcasts are designed for absolute novices, then maybe they'll be perfect for my students in the very first weeks of learning music theory?
Psychology of Scale Degrees
For homework, I asked my students to listen to a couple of episodes of the Song Appeal podcast, and then write a few sentences about what they found (1) interesting and (2) confusing in each episode.
Since we had just talked in class about scale degrees, I intentionally assigned episodes that explore the psychological power of scale degrees.
Season 1 Episode 1 argues that the song "Sugar, We're Goin' Down" by Fall Out Boy triggers a sense of comfortable familiarity in its listeners in three significant ways:
Season 1 Episode 15 takes a totally different approach to thinking about scale degrees. Rather than triggering a sense of comfortable familiarity, Farris argues, "Wherever You Will Go" by The Calling is full of tension and suspense. How does this happen? As I explained to my students in class, scale degrees aren't just numbers applied to random notes. Each scale degree has a function to play, and it's largely the interaction of differently-functioning scale degrees that gives tonal music its emotional power. Scale degree 1, for instance, is typically used at the beginning and end of a phrase to establish a sense of "home." Scale degree 5 reinforces the endings of phrases by resolving from 5 back to 1.
So what makes "Wherever You Will Go" so gripping? Rather than resolving from 5 to 1, the melody frequently leaps from 5 to 7, or from 5 to 2... both so close to 1, but not quite there. As Farris explains:
"The melody starts out on note 5, and when we hear that, our brains expect to hear note 1 pretty soon so we can get some resolution. Then it moves to note 7, which is so close to note 1 – so close to resolution – that our brains almost beg to hear note 1. Imagine if “Wherever You Will Go” ended on note 7 like this “So late -”. We just need some kind of resolution! So when we hear note 5 and then note 7, it’s like waving a cookie in front of the Cookie Monster’s face – but not letting him eat it – then waving two cookies in front of his face. And unless we hear note 1, we’re going to feel how the Cookie Monster would feel if he didn’t get to eat those cookies."
OK, cool, but this is a pedagogy blog... not a psychology blog!
So, I asked my students to listen to these episodes, and write a few response sentences, as a way of seeing how the theory we're learning in class can actually help us better understand "real music."
I'll admit, it was kind of disappointing. But maybe that has more to do with the ambiguity of my assignment instructions than it does with the assignment concept.
To be sure, some of my students LOVED listening to this podcast. "Sugar We're Going Down" was a radio hit when my students were in middle school. One of my students was so enthusiastic when she came to our next class session, that it was all she wanted to talk about before we got started.
What surprised me, though, was that most of the responses mentioned nothing at all about scale degrees. They mentioned that these podcast episodes discussed tension, or that they discussed familiarity, or that they discussed these songs that were such a huge part of my students' childhood, but without giving much insight into how or why.
Again, maybe that's my fault. In crafting the assignment, I had wanted it to be as open as possible, so that students could feel free to explore their own curiosity. But in fact, I hadn't really wanted it to be sooo open... I wanted it to specifically help them think about practical implications of scale degrees. I should have made that clearer in the instructions, with questions like "how does talking about scale degrees help us better understand these two songs?" and "was there anything about the discussion of scale degrees in these episodes that confused you, or that triggered new questions for you?"
So maybe I'll assign this again... next week! But with new instructions:
"Listen to these two episodes again. Write a paragraph explaining how scale degrees 7 and 2 are used to create tension in 'Wherever You Will Go,' and a second paragraph explaining how scale degrees 1-5 are used to create comfort in 'Sugar We're Goin' Down.'"
And we can have a short class discussion about it, even if just 10 minutes.
What do you think?
As I've mentioned in previous posts, this is all an experiment for me. The vast and mysterious world of social media is still so new, and it's so radically different from traditional media, that it can be very difficult to know how best to use it in our teaching... especially with all the stigma that it carries within academia.
So I'd be very grateful to hear your reactions to this assignment, if you have the time and energy to spare.
Feel free to leave a comment below, e-mail me at SocialMediaMusicTheory@gmail.com, and/or send a tweet over @SocialMediaMus1
All my best, from Providence, RI,
What's music theory?
And why are we learning it?
In my experience, these questions are rarely addressed in college classrooms. Maybe on the first day of class, there might be a few introductory words exchanged, but in general we just hop right to the task of learning facts, examining materials, discussing ideas, and acquiring skills.
In fact, when I've asked my students at New York University and Brown University why they signed up for music theory, the answer was nearly always a non-sequitur: "I need this class to fulfill a requirement." I mean, that answer is not irrelevant – graduating is important – but such an answer reveals that the students haven't actually thought very deeply about what they're learning and why it's worthwhile to learn. And chances are, their professors haven't been regularly encouraging them to do so.
Why so meta?
Knowing why we're learning music theory makes it relevant.
Knowing why we're learning music theory gives us a sense of purpose and drive.
Knowing why we're learning music theory inspires our curiosity and our creativity.
Knowing why we're learning music theory helps us remember things better, because we want to remember things better... and not only for the sake of our grades.
Knowing why is important. Not because your teacher tells you "here's why it's important," but because you individually, on a deep, emotional level, really believe it's important. That deep understanding is not something you can gain by simply parroting what a teacher or textbook informs you of. It comes through deep introspection, through discussion, and not just once but regularly throughout your studies.
But what is music theory???
The trouble is that many of us can't even articulate what music theory is in the first place, let alone why we're learning it.
And the more we learn, the more our understanding of what music theory is can change.
And the more our understanding of what music theory is changes, the more our reasons for learning it can change, as well.
As our knowledge grows, so do we... or, at least, we should...
So this semester, I'm going to try something that I haven't done before. I'm going to regularly challenge my students, throughout the semester, to evaluate and re-evaluate what they think music theory is and why they're excited to learn it. Social media will play a crucial role in that process.
First class: What is Music?
This is why, on the very first day of class, I devoted our entire session to debating the meaning of the word "music." If you didn't read my blog post about that class, check it out. How can we know what music theory is, if we don't even know what music is?
Spending a full hour debating what "music" is may seem trite, or even laughable. But it gets us to think critically. It gets us to look inward and challenge our previous ideas and beliefs. And it sets the stage for further reflection in the weeks and months to come.
First Homework: What is Music Theory?
Now that we've had two weeks of classes, I gave my students the following assignment:
Watch the following four YouTube videos. They talk about what music theory is and why it’s important to study, but each from a different perspective. Write a one-page essay explaining what you agree and disagree with in each video, what you personally think music theory is, and why you personally think music theory is important to study.
In hindsight, I probably should have assigned a fifth video as well, by Dr. Kate Sekula, which offers the most traditional academic conception of music theory: "the study of the structure of music, [... which means learning] how to identify and describe all of the elements that make musical sounds happen." In this PowerPoint-style video, Dr. Sekula explains the five fundamental components of music theory – melody, harmony, rhythm, form, and texture – and how understanding these elements can help us to better perform, compose, arrange, teach, and talk about music. Check it out below - it's well worth the three minutes:
Nour Sharif's video has a similar focus, explaining over 15 ways that understanding the basic rules and principles of music theory can help us to better make, hear, discuss, and think about music:
Not Right Music expands this rule-based conception of music theory beyond the realm of classical music, and even beyond musical notation. Defining music theory as "the rules that make a style what it is," he argues that every genre has its own unique music theory. Pirate metal has its own music theory. Polka has its own music theory. Chance music has its own music theory. Even if we don't typically think of a particular genre as having "rules" or "theory" per se, every genre comes with prerequisite knowledge, skills, and expectations. Understanding those prerequisites – whether a deep understanding of chromatic harmony, or how to work a digital audio workstation (DAW), or how to make your voice sound raw and grungy – can bolster one's fluency and creativity in a particular style:
Samurai Guitarist expands this line of thinking even further by addressing this common question: "If music theory is so important to all genres of music, what about Genius Performer X or Brilliant Songwriter Y who never studied music theory but made such incredible music?" He argues that music theory is not (only) a set of rules that one learns in a classroom, but more broadly our entire way of understanding music. That understanding can be learned entirely outside of an academic setting by simply listening to great music in your genre, by imitating it, by creatively figuring out what sounds good and bad, etc. In other words, Genius Performer X and Brilliant Songwriter Y actually did learn a huge amount of music theory... it's just that they learned it through experience, experimentation, and tons of listening to good music, rather than by sitting and reading a textbook:
The last video I assigned, by Adam Neely, reframes the entire discussion in terms of "prescriptivism" and "descriptivism." Rather than thinking of music theory as a set of prescribed rules that everyone must follow (why many people think learning music theory hinders creativity), he instead urges us to think of it as simply a way of describing and understanding our music. As in the other videos I've mentioned, Neely criticizes those who pride themselves on not knowing music theory. Why celebrate your ignorance about something you claim to love? Why be proud of not being able to talk intelligently about something you might be devoting your entire career to? It's not about rules; it's about understanding:
So that's the assignment! I've asked my students to watch these videos and write a 1-page paper  comparing and contrasting the viewpoints they've heard,  coming up with their own definition of music theory, and  articulating the reasons why they think it's important for themselves to learn music theory.
So far, one student has already e-mailed me to say that she's totally confused after watching the videos, because they all say different things, and she's not sure who's right. Good! That's the point! The point is that there isn't a single right answer, and that people legitimately disagree over this, and that it can be really, really hard to figure out what we actually believe ourselves.
Learning is not about receiving truths from the hands of our teachers. It's about struggle. It's about confusion. It's about disagreement. And it's about perseverance through all that struggle, confusion, and disagreement so that we can figure out what we think. And it's about the courage to challenge even our own beliefs as we revisit the same questions throughout our studies, and throughout our lives.
I'll let you know how the essays turn out! I'm also planning to have a 10-minute discussion in class about it, after they've turned in their essays, so that students can hear each other's ideas, too.
Until then, as always, I'm eager to know what you think! (even – especially – if you disagree with me!)
Cheers from Rhode Island,
Our second class was devoted to the basics of rhythm and meter. It was fun! Most of the students had no idea what measures, bar lines, quarter notes, etc, are (although they'd grown up hearing and making music), so we were really starting from scratch.
After presenting a frontal lecture on the basic concepts and notations, I did what a lot of teachers do: sight-clapping.
But this time, I did it differently.
Usually, what I would do (and what many of my colleagues do) is either write a rhythm on the board or pass out a handout, ask the class to clap it, and then do another one, and another, and another. Sometimes, I've asked my students to write their own rhythms on the board for everyone else to clap, or I've given them handouts with polyphonic rhythms that they can clap together in groups.
But this time, I did it differently.
"Bernadette Teaches Music"
So, there's this fabulous YouTube channel called "Bernadette Teaches Music." Bernadette is a Japan-based ukulele player with a master's degree in education, and most of her videos deal with playing the ukulele. But she also made a series of rhythmic clapping videos which I found to be incredibly useful in my music theory classroom.
The videos are marked "Level 1," "Level 2," and "Level 3."
Level 1 deals only with quarter notes and quarter rests.
Level 2 introduces eighth notes.
Level 3 introduces half notes.
As you can see in the videos above and below (and do watch them; they're less than 2 minutes each...) the videos take us through a series of rhythmic clapping exercises, with constant drumming in the background. Each measure flows straight into the next, and an arrow moves along to each beat, directing our attention and helping us to not fall behind.
So basically, I just played these videos in class and had the students clap along.
The result was pretty cool.
First of all, it was really engaging. The constancy of it, the pulse of it, the moving arrow, the captivating background drumming, the way that it just flowed from one measure to the next, along with the occasional breaks to catch our breath made the whole thing go by in a jiffy.
Second, the background drum beat was confusing... but in a good way! Rather than just banging out "1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4" the background drumming is actually complex, and it usually accents beats 2 and 4 rather than 1 and 3. Occasionally, it even switches suddenly to only accenting beat 2, or only accenting beat 4. The students pointed out that this made it even more difficult for them. But you know what? That's a good thing! In real life, when we're making and listening to real music, how often do we just have a straight "boom boom boom boom, 1 2 3 4, boom boom boom boom" going on in the background? Rarely - so why do we do that in the classroom? Usually, in the real world, we have multiple rhythms going on in the background, and often they will accent more than just beats 1 and 3. Part of learning to keep a sense of rhythm is learning how to do so when there's lots of other stuff going on in the background.
Third, gamifying these videos made them super addictive! As you can see when you watch the videos yourself, each video is broken up into six sections, labeled A through F. I laughed along with the students as things got harder and harder, and we joked about "losing life" when they made mistakes. We braced ourselves for "the boss" (section F) in each video, and breathed a sigh of relief when we beat it (no pun intended). But here's the best part: my students were so engaged that they ultimately insisted on doing more than I had planned. Although I had only planned to do Levels 1 and 2, one of my groups INSISTED on doing Level 3, as well. Be honest, how often do your students insist on doing more than you assign? Mine just did!
Fourth, because these videos are on YouTube, the students can revisit them from home. In fact, for homework, I asked them to practice all three videos so that they'd feel comfortable doing them again in our next class.
Fifth, because these videos are on YouTube, it was much easier for me as a teacher. I didn't have to prepare my own examples, nor did I need to take time to write everything on the board, nor did I need to waste paper and ink with the photocopier.
Not a Secret Sauce
To be clear, this is not the "secret sauce" method for teaching rhythm. It's only one of many tools that can be used in combination. I do still believe in the power of asking students to write and clap their own rhythms for each other, as this engages their sense of creativity and ensures that they're mastering the conventions of rhythmic notation. I do still believe in the power of creating my own rhythmic exercises for the students, as this allows me to tailor our assignments to the needs of the students.
And, in any case, this series of YouTube videos has only three levels, and does not go beyond half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes in quadruple meter.
Nevertheless, I found it to be a wonderful (and wonderfully engaging) tool in my music theory classroom, and would encourage others to give it a shot!
To that end, I'd also be curious to know:
If you've tried this in your classroom, how did it go?
And if you haven't tried it yet, but aren't sure you'll actually do it, what's holding you back?
Whew, what a first day!
I taught two sections, back to back, one with 12 students and the other with 7. Nearly all of my students came in with a background in making music – many of them rappers, some hip hop producers, some singers, some instrumentalists – but almost nobody mentioned having a background or interest in classical music. By and large, their training has taken place either in church (as part of a choir) or via YouTube (by watching and learning from musicians' tutorials), and most of them have never learned to read music.
"Learning Music Backwards"
This isn't the main point of my blog post, but I do want to highlight a particular exchange I had with one of the students. She mentioned that she had learned music "backwards" – by learning to play half a dozen instruments through watching YouTube videos and figuring things out on her own, but never actually learning to read music. For this reason, she felt somewhat frustrated about having to "relearn everything from the beginning," and wished she had done things "the right way" first.
It's kind of a funny thing to say, you know? We don't learn to speak our first language(s) as toddlers by academically studying the alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, style, and classic literature BEFORE beginning to speak it ourselves; just the opposite! We speak it for years by listening, imitating, experimenting, failing, succeeding, and even (as in the case of my own 3-year-old kid) by constantly making up stories and lyrics, grammatical-errors notwithstanding. Only then, after having all this experience playing around with language on our own do we take formal classes. And it's because of all that experience that the classes make sense to us. The classes solidify concepts that we'd learned through intuition, while correcting mistakes that we'd become so used to making that we hadn't even thought about them. When we learn about "nouns" vs. "adjectives," we already have a vast store of vocabulary to draw on for examples. When we learn new vocabulary, new expressions, and new sentence structures, we already have a strong foundation to immediately implement them in our daily conversations.
So when my student admitted to learning music "backwards," I suggested that she hadn't done it backwards at all. Sure, "from the college's perspective," we agreed that she hadn't done things in the "proper" order, but who says "the college's perspective" is the only viable perspective? I'm actually really excited to hear that she learned to play several instruments just from watching YouTube videos and experimenting on her own. Her learning was driven by curiosity, by self-motivation, and by the willingness to just go out there and make music happen. As we learn the nuts and bolts of music theory this semester, she'll be able to relate what we're learning to her previous experience singing and playing piano, guitar, ukulele, and other instruments that I've already forgotten.
And no less important: as several of my students who had learned to play instruments from watching YouTube videos agreed, there's only so much one can learn from a YouTube video. To be sure, there's also only so much one can learn from a classroom teacher. Classrooms bring so many learning opportunities that one just can't get online, and YouTube brings so many learning opportunities that one just can't get in a classroom. So I'm really happy that not only this one student but many of my students already have experience learning things via social media, and are now coming to a classroom to fill in some of the gaps that they've missed along the way.
Anyway, tangents are fun, but let's go on with the main theme of this blog post: what is music?
What is Music?
As I see it, music theory is not about rules and terminology. It's about sharpening how we talk, think, make, and listen to music. Rules are not rules; they're ideas and conventions that people have discovered work really well. Terms are not terms; they're vocabulary words that help us plumb music more easily and deeply.
So this is the essence of my teaching: as we learn about musical "rules" and "terms," we do so to deepen our thinking about music, to expand our creative toolbox, and to develop a more discerning and critical ear.
What better way to set that stage than by telling the students in my intro music theory class that "I don't know what music is," and then spending the rest of the class period asking them to enlighten me?
Music vs. Sound Effects
We began our discussion with a YouTube video.
In this classic scene from Disney's Pinocchio, what do we call the sounds that are keeping Jiminy Cricket awake? Are they music, or are they sound effects? (or both?) (or neither?)
(If you haven't seen this, watch the 1-minute video before continuing with my blog post. It's really something!)
Initially, my students had mixed reactions. Some thought it was music. Some thought it was sound effects. Others thought it wasn't music but had musical qualities, while others simply weren't sure.
Quickly, however, they came to a general consensus that anything can be music, depending on the context. A raindrop can be music. The sound of the lights flickering overhead can be music. Even the sound of clocks. (One student insisted that snoring is never music, but that was a minority opinion.)
For example, one student suggested that a sound becomes music when it is combined with other sounds. That is, a clock by itself is not music, but multiple clocks playing different rhythms at the same time is music. In response, I asked: "is a solo piano melody not music, if it isn't combined with other instruments?" "Is a cappella singing not music?" "If a cappella singing is music, then why isn't a cappella clocking music?"
On the other hand, as another student suggested, the sound in this scene was clearly not meant to be music. After all, the entire point of the scene is that this noise is preventing Jiminy Cricket from sleeping. And yet, Jiminy Cricket is not the only entity that is listening to the sounds in this scene: we, the audience, are hearing it, too, and even quite enjoying it! This led my students and I to question the very ontology of music: is a sound that we call "music" always music? Is a sound that we call "not music" always not music? Or, can one and the same sound be considered in some contexts music and in other contexts not music? Can one and the same sound be music to my ears and not music to yours? (By and large, the students argued that music is entirely contextual, and one and the same sound can indeed be alternately "music" and "not music.")
I didn't get into this with my students, but one of the reasons Disney was so revolutionary is because he synchronized music, sound effects, and choreography to such an extent, and in so much of his work, that these "obvious" boundaries were blurred to a smudge. Not just in Pinocchio, but in basically every Disney film, all of the Silly Symphonies, and most famously his classic Steamboat Willie short from 1928.
Think about the opening scene from Frozen, for example, where the sound effect of the ice-picks cracking the surface of the lake is not only synchronized with the pulse of the workers' singing and swinging, but is actually the percussion section for the song itself. It's part of the music, but it's part of the choreography, but it's a sound effect, but it's just noise. It's all those separate things synchronized... or are they really separate at all?
Discussions like this get to the heart of why music theory is important. Music is one of those things that seems really obvious and straight-forward, but it's actually extremely complicated and confusing. The more vocabulary we have for talking about music, and the more ideas that we grapple with, and the more conventions that we know about, the more capable we are at recognizing music's complexity, and the deeper we can go with our experience of music.
Music vs. Language
After discussing Pinocchio, we turned to a famous experiment by the psychologist Diana Deutsch: her "Speech-to-Song Illusion." (Thank you, internet, for making her work immediately accessible at the click of a button!)
If you haven't heard it before, take a listen to the audio file below. It's a recording of Dr. Deutsch talking. But if, at any point, you think that she's singing, raise your hand.
Here's what's supposed to happen: it's supposed to sound like talking, but as she loops one particular phrase over and over and over again, that phrase will begin to sound more like she's singing....... so much so, that listeners can sing it back, play it on the piano, and even write it down with musical notation.
Since that's what's supposed to happen (and that's why her experiment is so famous), I figured it'd be interesting to run the experiment for ourselves with my students, and then ask them the following question:
"If the very same audio file can sound like speech at one moment, but music at another, then what is the difference between music and speech?"
But gee golly whiz, that's just not what happened!
For sure, some of my students heard the transformation from talking to singing, and one of them even sang it back.
But most of them didn't hear the singing at all, and a few still didn't hear it after listening to the entire recording twice!
This added a new layer to the discussion: what really is music, if the exact same audio can be heard by one person as "singing" and another as "talking," especially when both listeners have grown up in the same community? (Remember, I'm teaching at a community college.)
And then one of my students dropped a bombshell. Really insightful. He pointed out that melody is not the sole property of music, but is also a core component of speech. All speech has melody to it; we just don't always think about it. So the act of listening to Deutsch's speech looped over and over and over and over again did not magically turn it into music. Rather, it helped our brains to become more attuned to an important component of her speech that we hadn't previously been listening for: its melody.
What's the point?
Over the course of the next three months, my students and I will be studying "the elements of music" – pitch, melody, rhythm, harmony, and form. But none of these elements are unique to music. Speech has all of them. (Harmony in speech comes from the overtone series, and from people talking over each other). Sound effects often have some, if not all, of them, too.
So what, then, makes our course "the theory of music," as opposed to "the theory of sound?"
Some people might say that this question is tangential to "the real goal" of my course, which is to teach people how to read black dots on white paper.
Don't get me wrong: learning how to read black dots on white paper is really important, and we'll be doing a TON of that in my course. By the time the semester is over, they'll be able to do their dictations, their sight-singing, their Roman numeral analyses, their piano scales and triads, and even a bit of pen-on-paper composing.
But that's not the only point of music theory, or even the most important. Music theory is so much more. MUSIC is so much more. And that's what I'm hoping my students will gain most of all from this course.
Whew, what a first blog post...
Let me know what you think in the comments below, and I'll see you next Tuesday with post #2!
Hi! I'm Sam. I teach music theory at a community college in New York.
I have always experimented with using digital resources in my teaching, but this semester I'm going to try something new: I'm going to load my course with social media. And this blog is my way of documenting, processing, and sharing that experiment.
Wait, social media? Like what?
YouTube videos, podcasts, blogs, Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, Instagram, Pinterest... There's so much amazing stuff out there!
Cool, so what's your class, and what's your blog?
I teach an introduction to music theory for freshmen and sophomores who have little to no knowledge of music theory. Many of them are incoming music majors, while others are simply interested in music. Concepts include the basics of staff notation, simple vs. compound meter, scales, triads, and basic chord progressions. Students will also learn how to play all of the "white key" scales and triads on a piano; our classroom is equipped with 20 digital pianos for this purpose.
So this blog, which I'll update every Tuesday during the Fall 2018 semester, will be a journal of sorts:
Isn't social media just for, uh, socializing?
Ok, so, to rebut this common myth, I'm going to quote an English professor. (Obviously, right?)
Dr. Ryan Cordell, Associate Professor of English at Northeastern University, has noted that a lot of people dismiss Twitter, because (so they say) "I don't need to know what a bunch of people had for breakfast this morning!"
And they say the same about Facebook, and Instagram, and Neopets, and -- let's face it -- basically the entire internet.
“If that's what you’re seeing on Twitter, you’re following the wrong people. Twitter can help academics make and maintain connections with people in their fields, find out about interesting projects and research, or crowdsource questions and technical problems."
In other words, no, it's not just about casual socializing.
Social media is still so new, especially in academia. In fact, many teachers have banned all computers and phones from their classrooms, for fear that students will be distracted by texting and surfing (i.e. by using social media for casual socializing).
But social media can positively transform our teaching and learning in soooo many ways, if only we know how to use it effectively. Most of us just don't know how. And honestly, that goes for me, as well, which is why I'm so keen on pursuing this teaching experiment and blog.
In sum: this blog is not going to give you fail-proof, guaranteed methods for successfully using social media in your teaching. Instead, it is going to be an awesome adventure, full of curiosity, questions, quite likely some mistakes, lots of exploration, and hopefully, in the end, a few useful insights.
I invite you to join me on this adventure by contributing your thoughts, questions, complaints, and so forth in the comments section below each post. Honestly, I do really enjoy reading my own blog posts, but what I like even more is engaging with others in meaningful conversation. So, please, post away - I look forward to talking with you! (unless you're a troll, of course; I love to see trolls in fantasy novels and movies, but not in my blog.)
Let's do this!
Let's go! Looking forward! :-)