I came across the idea of threshold concepts in David Didau’s book What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? In the book he refers to the work of Jan Meyer and Ray Land, who describe threshold concepts as portals that ‘open up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something’. Basically, these are the points at which students tend to become stuck, and if they remain stuck, they will not be able to progress further in their understanding. Identifying what they are is of enormous help in planning a good curriculum and sound teaching.
Of course, this got me thinking about what threshold concepts there might be in music. Where to start? With what music actually is? So, we could say
Music is the organisation of sound. People then invest this with meaning in lots of different ways.
But really, that’s not really a threshold concept, as music is so part of human existence that we all know that, even if we haven’t thought about it explicitly or put it into words. If we haven’t thought about it explicitly it’s still not going to stop us developing further musical thinking.
So, onwards. I came up with three that I reckon are pretty sound:
The unit of time in music is a beat, which might be short or long, depending on the tempo.
Beats are grouped together in bars (mostly).
One C is pretty much equivalent to any other C, although they are in different octaves or played on different instruments.
This one, I think is OK:
You can think about pitches as being organised in sequence (horizontally, i.e. a melody) or in parallel (vertically, i.e. a chord). Often these things happen simultaneously.
After that I came up against some that caused me problems:
Most pieces of music only use a limited number of different pitches at any one time (a key). The relationships between these notes, and how they fit together, are very important.
In staff notation, one blob = one sound (except for ties).
In music, a balance of variety and repetition is a very good thing.
The problem that I have with these is that you might very well get quite a long way without them, depending on what type of musician you are. If you are a performer who plays from staff notation, you need the second concept, but could be an excellent player without giving the first and third any thought whatsoever. If you are not a notation-based musician, you could create all kinds of great music through performing and/or composing without the second.
It’s pretty obvious that there are different kinds of musicians, and that there are different threshold concepts that apply to these. As teachers, though, we need to think very carefully about what kind of musicians it is that we are developing. This is necessarily going to involve making some value judgements about what a ‘good musician’ actually is.
So I’ve been thinking about all the musicians I have known whose musicianship I have admired. Nearly all of them have been more than just good performers. Not all of them have been composers, but they have understood how music is put together, have incredible aural skills and a deep understanding of harmony. I think I’m with John Finney when he says ‘to know music though the mind of a composer adds greatly to understanding what music is.’
Those are my priorities, perhaps because of my upbringing as an old-school, traditional musician. Another teacher’s could be different. Another sticky problem with these threshold concepts in music is that true musical understanding is non-verbal, and someone might have a phenomenal understanding of any of these concepts, but not be able to articulate it. The music itself has to do the talking, which often doesn’t sit too well with the way schools expect things to be (i.e. the idea of ‘evidencing’ progress: I am coming to loathe the concept of this even more than I loathe making a verb out of a noun!).
I reckon I’ve missed some really important threshold concepts here. Would yours be different? I would be very interested to hear people’s views.