Once you know how to talk about where notes are in the bar it is also useful to understand the terminology surrounding what the notes are. One of the things I have found whilst teaching students about music theory, aural studies, and improvisation is that it is often difficult to engage with these concepts because of the sheer volume of new vocabulary. Terms like chords, scales, scale degrees are often foreign to students (seriously, ask a student what a scale is and see if they can give you an answer). Then we add in words like interval, major interval, minor, perfect, diminished, augmented, major arpeggio, major scale, major interval, major key. When you start looking at chords there is the root note which is the bottom note of the chord – oh wait, then sometimes there’s a different bass note, is it an inversion or a slash chord? And then there’s the question of what to call each chord, is a G major chord just a G chord, and you only distinguish quality for minor (“because that’s how its written on the lead sheet I dowloaded.”).
You get the point. There are lots of new terms. So in addition to teaching sequential skills in music we also need to teach sequential language. This will allow students to gain understanding of what different terms mean and how they relate to each other. Here’s an example:
Let’s look at how much new language is required to understand a C major scale. In this scenario the student is fairly young, knows quite a few notes, including some sharps and flats.
“This is C major scale it has no sharps or flats.”
What’s a sharp and a flat?
“a sharp is a note which has been altered to be one semitone higher than its original pitch. A flat is a note which has been altered to be a semitone lower than its original pitch.”
What’s a semitone?
“A semitone is when two notes are right next to each other without a note in between.”
“Let’s go back to the scale. Do you know what a scale is?”
“A scale is a collection of notes played sequentially, and the notes are arranged in a specific pattern of tones and semitones. We talked about semitones earlier do you remember what they were? And do you know what a tone is?”
“If you look at a keyboard, a semitone is two notes next to each other without a note in between, where a tone is two notes next to each other with a note in between – a tone is worth two semitones.”
Ok, I kind of get that.
“Great now lets look at the interval structure of the scale: “Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone.”
Ok that’s a lot to take in.
In that short exchange we have used the following music-specific words: flats, sharps, scale, tone, semitone, pitch, major. There is also some complex general vocabulary: specific pattern, interval structure, altered. But there is also the assumption that the students understands the following concepts: pitch relationships (higher and lower) and the notes on a keyboard.
And yet as musicians and music educators we often assume that, because a major scale is so fundamental to our knowledge of music, students intrinsically understand all of the surrounding vocabulary and concepts just by learning the scale. It is my believe that we have to teach students the language of the things we are teaching them so that when they encounter a major interval they can go, “Oh that must be related to the major scale ,” and their teacher can reply with yes, “when the top note of an interval belongs to the major scale of the bottom note the interval is major – unless its a special kind of major interval called perfect.”
So next time you introduce a new concept to a student, have a think about the language that the student needs to know in order to construct their understanding. That way your students will make more connections and feel good about themselves for “getting it” and when a student feels good about their music they are more likely to practice!