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,