I’ve had this theory for a while that if you have the words to describe what is happening when you play music (physically, mentally, emotionally) it assists greatly in the development of musicality. My experience has been that having a vocabulary to express what you hear is integral to being able to improve. This is because great musicians are always comparing two things: their ideal concept of what something will sound like and what their playing sounds like in reality. Yet, in the way that we teach, we often tell our students “that’s wrong, it goes like this,” without giving them the tools to be able to express why something doesn’t meet their own aural concept. It’s just as important to do this with the nuts-and-bolts of music (rhythm, articulation, pitch) as well as the more expressive aspects of music. This is because giving students building a musical vocabulary early enables them to understand instruction more quickly and develop self-reflective practising skills. 

I emphasise using specific language to my students in a number of different musical contexts during their lessons. Firstly, when teaching rhythm (I teach both rhythm names and numbers) I always make my students understand that the numbers represent the beats, and that and represents the exact midpoint between the beats. I then explain that the notes that happen with the numbers are the on-beats and the notes that fall on the and are the off-beats.

Once students understand on-beats and off-beats I point at an off-beat quaver and ask them to tell me which beat it falls on. The answer is often, “One and.” To which I respond, “you have the right answer (it’s always important to acknowledge that the student has understood the concept) but have just given me two different places, the answer is the ‘and of one’ or ‘the and belonging to beat one’.” Teaching rhythm in this way gives students a very clear idea of exactly where their notes are when they read music.

Teaching in this way has had one very positive unintended consequence: my students have started to develop a non-judgemental critical voice. Their language has moved from “that was wrong” or “bad”, to “I played that note on beat 1 instead of the and of one.” Not only does this allow students to identify problem areas and fix them efficiently and thus allow them to improve more quickly, it also counteracts that ever-present hyper-criticism that so many musicians develop at such a young age.

Every now and then you meet someone who can explain incredibly complex concepts in very succinct and easy-to-understand ways, why don’t we strive to give the next generation of musicians the tools to be those people.

This article was originally published under the title “Being able to talk about music is essential for developing musicality. Part 1: Rhythm”

Next week’s education post will be the second article in this series, it will focus on developing language for musical expression.