Simplifying musical thinking, and where key words come into it

I am going to try and make some rambling, bothersome thoughts come together in a vaguely cogent fashion in this post. Two things have been bugging me in the last few months:

  • I have noticed that I make assumptions about musical concepts that I mistakenly perceive to be crashingly obvious – so obvious, in fact, that I then fail to explain things that need explaining
  • Music is so nebulous (invisible, non-verbal) that we need to attach words to it in order to explain things. Yes, we most certainly can, and should, use music as a ‘target language’ to demonstrate – but as any MFL teacher will tell you, you need to make sure the kids understand what the foreign words actually mean. The equivalent in music is attaching a word to a musical concept so that we can talk about it and refer to it without getting confused. But we’ve got to strike a balance – we can’t go into a key word frenzy without losing some of the musical value of what we do. We have limited time available to us at KS3, after all

I have been trying to get to the bottom of what I actually want my KS3 classes to understand. Over the years, this has become more clearly focussed, but is based on a pervading style-agnosticism: I want my students to know that music, whatever its style, is made from the same stuff. However, I have come to conclusion that banging on about elements too much (the ‘building blocks’ of music… 1990s Music Matters anyone?) doesn’t really help here. Visions of children sitting in rows reciting ‘Pitch is high and low. Tempo is fast and slow’ come alarmingly to mind.


Even years of doing exploratory ‘elements pieces’ didn’t hit the nail on the head. I have decided that understanding something about melody, chords and bass lines is where the emphasis should truly be. Knowing that dynamics is loud and soft is good, and enables you to describe one aspect of a piece of music, but melody, chords and bass enables you to see what’s really going on. I am no expert on musical cognition, but the interconnectedness of these things is important, and to my mind leads to greater musical understanding.  If any of those things do not happen to be there, then that is an important observation about whatever music you are listening to/performing/composing.

So, out with elements pieces and writing down tables that look like this:elements ppt

Call me reckless, but I’m relying on natural language acquisition for students to pick up these terms along the way, coupled with a little bit of Doug Lemov-style choral-speaking (1) call and response when required.

So, we are hammering home melody, chords and bass (MCB) through practicals performances, improvisations, and compositions. It’s doing the trick, and I really feel that my students’ understanding is improving.

Until, that is, I realise that I have glossed over the fact that a chord necessarily has more than one note, and a bass line is one note at a time (the clue is in the title: ‘line’, or so I thought) – at the bottom. Yikes. It seems like these kinds of assumptions just can’t be made, and I am so glad that some of my pupils have made their misconceptions clear in a way that has helped me improve my teaching.

To use another Doug Lemov technique, I am now having a quick round of CFU (checking for understanding) before every practical task. Quick-fire, scatter-gun questions for ‘randomly’ (! oh yes, you know what teachers’ ‘random’ really means) selected students, or whole-class response:

  • Is the bass line highest or lowest? (lowest!)
  • Is that at the left hand end of the keyboard, or the right? (the left!)
  • How many notes do you play at a time? (one!)

…and so on. I think it’s working.

(1) Both this and CFU come from Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion 2.0 (pub Jossey-Bass, 2015), which I can thoroughly recommend to teachers of all sorts. The whole of Part 1 is dedicated to checking for understanding. The things I refer to here are targeted questioning (p34) and call and response (p262). Call and response is quick, old-fashioned (but remarkably effective) for when you want to reinforce a term:

You: So, a chord is two or more notes played together. What is a chord?

Class (together): Two or more notes played together.

You: What is two or more notes played together?

Class: A chord!

… if it’s come out of their own mouths, they’re more likely to remember it and use the term themselves.

In the whole process of thinking about this, I’ve also been doing a fair bit of ‘excavating error’ (p72).


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