Music can be seen as very complex (a Beethoven symphony or Bach variation), sometimes quite simplistic (a nursery rhyme or simple melody). Music can be heard as dark and ominous, joyful and exciting, or even angst-driven with longing.
But what is it that makes music this way? The great part about studying music is that there is truly no end to it. I remember as a college music student, I was excited to walk into my first music theory class and learn all I could about it. Who knew there would be just so much?! (And I swear, they must start in on some complex theory concepts to weed out and determine who is really ready to take on a music major.)
The thing is, with music, there are so many people who are intimidated by the potential complexity of it that they think they cannot possibly make sense of it even if they enjoy listening to it. Hogwash, I say! With everything else we know about learning, the key is to start small by understanding a few basics of music.
Basic Musical Terms
Just about everyone has a reaction to the music they hear. Think about that song that makes you cry or gets you excited or helps you relax. Think of that sound track that scares you or that holiday music that moves you. Music has such power, doesn’t it? But why? It all has to do with the musical clues left by the composer.
When I introduce my classroom of students to the idea that we will be actively listening to music each day, I begin to familiarize them with some basic music vocabulary. It is through the understanding of this core set of vocabulary words, that students can start to talk intelligently about music.
So, a student who says this about a piece at first, “That made me scared,” can develop the capacity to formulate this: “The long, low pitched notes in that piece really made me feel nervous, like I was waiting for something to get me!”
I first introduce my students to three terms in music that act as the musical clues they will be listening for:
Dynamics– the louds and softs of music (volume)
Tempo – the speed in music
Pitch – the highs and lows of music (note range)
From there we can discuss other words such as piano (soft), forte (loud), adagio (slow), allegro (quick), etc.
These three terms, though, can last you through the whole year as you listen to and discuss a variety of music. Of course this takes some practice and the students need some modelling at first.
Inferences Made from the Clues We Hear
When I begin to introduce my students to a new piece of music (which we will then listen to once or twice a day and discuss for a week), I always enjoy getting their first impressions; their initial reactions to the music. Undoubtedly, they come up with statements such as,
“That was exciting.” or
“I pictured a chase.” or
“That made me want to sleep.”
What they are doing is making inferences! This is a great time to bring that up. People infer with music all the time. How we react and feel about music is a form of inferring. But what is it about the piece of music that makes us infer? This is where you can apply those three easy terms: dynamics, tempo and pitch.
Just like we refer back to a text to uncover the clues that make us create an inference, we must listen back to the music and uncover what musical clues the composer left for us to discover.
Now students will start to come up with more musically intelligent statements such as,
“The fast tempo and high pitched notes made that piece exciting.” or
“All the booming, low notes and fast tempo made me visualize a chase.” or
“Those long, low notes were played piano (soft), and they were played as such a slow tempo, it relaxed me. I could have closed my eyes and fallen asleep.”
Listening is Active!
Listening to music is truly an active process. So much is going on. At times, it is wonderful to just sit back and listen to music for the pure enjoyment of it. After, all music is a form of entertainment and is meant to elicit a variety of emotions. It’s also great to teach students how to listen to music with a musical ear: listening for the clues that make us feel a certain way.
No matter what you teach, you may find that listening to music with your students is something beneficial. I do! It builds community and, if you allow for it, get students to have some great, intellectual discussions about music.
Here is a playlist of pieces to get you started. Happy listening!