Understanding Music with Musical Patterns
First, take a banana.
Open up and smell it. Is it green, or over ripe, or somewhere in between? You ‘know’ with your nose. You detect the smell and then compare that smell with other bananas you’ve smelled in the past. You can do the same with your eyes. You compare what you have seen in the past with the banana you have in your hand. The patterns that make you discern edible from inedible are automatically stored in your brain from previous experiences.
Are you seeing the WHOLE banana? Probably not very much of it at all. You likely focus immediately on the badly bruised spots or the string hanging off of it. You’re not taking in every cell. That’s too much to comprehend. You detect the important patterns, almost without thinking. That’s very cool when you think about it.
Okay, enough with the bananas and on to music.
When you listen to music, are you hearing every note? Hearing? Maybe. That’s physical. The sound IS hitting your ear—your cochlea is transmitting it through the auditory nerve to the auditory cortex and some other things between the air (on which the sound travels) and your brain.
Are you understanding every note? Almost impossible. You are comparing the patterns you are hearing (of tones and rhythms among other elements) with patterns you’ve heard in the past.
Maybe you need that translated. “You are comparing the patterns you are seeing with patterns you’ve seen in the past.” You are NOT reading letters. You comprehend your language based on the patterns of letters you recognize as words. . . that carry meaning, but we must add one more thing—context.
Context is decisive. It makes all the difference. If I said “to,” or “two,” or “too,” or “tu” (fr.), which one would you hear? It depends completely on the context. Patterns and context are crucial in language and so they are in music.
Not letters, patterns!
I’ve harped on this before, but music educators teach note names (analogous to letters in language) often before we’ve taught patterns, or words. It’s akin to teaching the alphabet to a child who cannot speak his own language yet. What does a ‘K’ mean? Nothing. In music, what does an ‘A’ mean? Nothing. Unless it’s inside a musical pattern, say ‘F A C,’ but ‘F A C’ is still incomplete. There is no context—unless you gave it one yourself. So, I’m going to tell you that ‘F A C’ is the subdominant function (IV chord) in C major. Now it has everything you need to understand it.
What exactly is music understanding?
Music understanding is rooted in lots of songs and chants and movement and dance, but it MUST eventually move to the understanding of musical patterns. How they are the same. How they are different. How the same patterns can sound different in different contexts.
The importance of patterns is hard to overstate. It happens to be how you can even read what I’m writing. Also, how you can recognize a loved one walking down the street. And of course, whether or not you should eat that banana.
Your brain is hard-wired to make patterns in order to understand the world. Music must have as one of its cornerstones the teaching of tonal and rhythm patterns. Otherwise, we leave music understanding only to those who have high enough degree of innate ability that they can do it for themselves. I prefer another world where it’s possible that all of us have access to understanding music—through patterns.
How can you improve music understanding by teaching patterns?
Here’s one way to teach patterns — in this case, tonal patterns — to a class. In this example, I assess how well my students can audiate tonal patterns by having them sing in tune.
After you’ve sung a song (say in D major), sing a group of patterns (see the 6 sample patterns attached below), one at a time, for the class to echo. You sing one pattern (a measure) first, and the class echoes. Then, more important, you sing first, and each individual child (or as many as is feasible in 5-8 minutes time) repeats the pattern by him/herself.
After each child performs, say, “You’re using your singing voice very well, but your tones are different than mine.” Or, “You’re singing exactly the same tones as I am.” Or, “You’re using your speaking voice, but to sing tones, you will need to learn to use your singing voice.”
You can repeat this exercise, using rhythm patterns. Your feedback will change accordingly. For example, you might say, “You did a different rhythm than I did,” or “That was exactly the same.”
The pitch (the sales kind, not the note).
So, why not an app that teaches and scores you on your ability to hear and reproduce many of the most important patterns in music? There’s no reason, except that its development needs to be funded. Would you consider helping us? Any amount is welcome. $5, even.
Visit this campaign and see what we’re up to. See the videos of what kids can do when they are taught to understand music through the teaching of patterns. It’s quite amazing. Perks are available. Get on the ground floor of what could be a revolutionizing supplement to music education. Click here to learn more.
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