Properties of Sound – LOUDNESS

I hope you had a thought of the properties of Sound and had a little experiment with Pitch. Today let’s have a look at Loudness.

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How forte or piano you play, loud or soft and all the dynamics in between, above and below. In music these terms are relative as we know. Relative to the instrument, to the piece, to the room or hall we are performing in, even to the piece we are playing. Piano can mean soft, or restrained, or gently and depending on the phrase and the era of the composition the intention of our soft playing will be different.

Perhaps it is more evident to try with forte which depending the context it might mean or strong, with force, heavy…

There is game where you have to say the same phrase in as many ways as you can think of. Find a small passage from what you are practicing right now and play it forte. Now, continue playing f but change your intention playing it with force, heavy, punchy, with nerve. How would your angry self say it and how would your calm self say it but keeping it loud and the same tempo. The changes might be very small but audible. It will help if you mimiced some thing or some one, like an animal, a neighbour or the sea. This is one of the attributes of playing an acoustic instrument or writing for acoustic instruments. There is the powerful tool of intent that gives character to the music.

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Try the same game with piano as well and then try it with the “in between – above – and – below – ones ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fff, piu. Don’t forget the accents sf, or sfz (***HOT TIP FOR COMPOSING –>) that don’t have to exist only in f environments. And last but not least (I hope I haven’t left any dynamics out) crescendi and diminuendi, the hairpins otherwise known. Make them small, make them big, make them sudden, go to extremes and go to the step right next to where you started and work on that difference, find the intent behind it.

So now adding on to the game I introduced last week in the post about Pitch, try your small passage exaggerating the dynamics (chromatisms I would say in Greek and it always confuses me when I have to say it in English). Play the ‘wrong’ dynamics and mix them up.

All thoughts and ideas writen here are through my own experience and observation.

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020

The Properties of Sound

I conducted a workshop called Same – Same – Differnet, workhop for flutists in May 2020 and during that process I was posting some thoughts on the event’s page on Facebook that would come handy during the workshop. As this is something any musician can use in their practice, regardless if they are performers, composers, educators, and no matter of what type of music they are dealing with, I thought of sharing them here well. I am guilty that there is not much profound information here but I think looking into the Elements of Sound is an area we overlook and it is good to be reminded about it every now and then. There will be a few blog posts coming, one for each element so keep an eye for the next one.

Pitch | Loudness | Timbre | Duration |  Envelope: attack, sustain, release | Location

For the Elements of music click here

We know the properties of sound. How can we use this knowledge in our playing if all of these properties are usually predetermined from the composer? Or are they? If I change phrasing do I change the whole piece? And, am I allowed to do this? In what context? How much is too much?

Interesting questions! Thanks for asking!!! 😅 We will discuss later what happens with other pieces written in other eras or by living composers. Let’s take this small piece for now. 

The score of Fantasy Impromptu-ish is pretty heavy. Notes everywhere and a couple of stylistic decorations, the score is almost complete. It could be, but it also could be a bit more. You see, there are some dynamic markings that can be interpreted in many ways. What is piano? If we try playing very softly then we might produce an air sound. Then we discover that we can play an air sound in a few dynamics. A note can have air and a pitch or go back and forth between air and pitch or… and still sound piano, quietly, reserved, gentle, held back.

Why don’t you take 2-4 bars of your favourite piece, or Fantasie Impormptu-ish and try to manipulate only one sound property using the entire phrase. The first property of the list is PITCH so let’s go with that. What can we do?

We can play that phrase using only

  • harmonics
  • multiphonics
  • microtones
  • change of registers
  • sing
  • something else…

Give it a go and let me know what happened.

All thoughts and ideas writen here are through my own experience and observation.

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020

Teach Composition in the Classroom – the right way

Part 3

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Composition tasks could be focused around the Elements of Music, especially if you have already discussed about it while working on a song. For example, if the children are learning Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, you can talk about the form of the piece that is in ABA form. Or if you are teaching Oh! When the Saints, you might talk about rhythm. Use their experience of what they know to carry on learning and creating.

I’ve gathered the Elements of Music for you to have as a clear reference point. Different sources might use different words for the same thing, or say there are 5 elements only, or more. Adjust your findings for your teachings.

1) harmony (one sound existing around many other sounds), 

2) melody (the sound pattern, arranging one sound after the other), 

3) texture (how many sources of sound there are and how are they placed together),

4) rhythm (arranging short and long sounds to create a sound pattern), 

5) form (how to arrange bigger chunks of sound in time creating sections that may repeat), 

6) timbre (the colour or quality of the sounds chosen), 

7) dynamics (when to play louder or quieter), 

8) tempo (how fast or slow do these sounds progress through time)

9) other extra elements such as lyrics, or use of a video, dance, etc…

Thinking of music as a construction of sounds rather than only in the classical sense gives more options to you and the students. The children can approach music without misconceptions or predeterminations about what it should sound like. Whether the students are creating music with musical instruments, or their voice, or body percussion or, using objects in their surroundings, they will inevitably be referring to these elements while putting sounds or notes together.

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An easy way to create composition activities is to play with rules. You know that music, any type of music is set on arbitrary rules, or guidelines. Don’t use parallel fifths, play all twelve tones before repeating the cycle, hold the chord as long as you like, the rules are endless. Make up your own rules, allow the children to come up with their own rules, they absolutely love doing so, and thus composition has already started. You can research, or you will already know, different music rules that existed over the hundreds of years of what we call western music, and adjust those rules to better fit the group you are working with. I am thinking about the classical music of the western world because I am more familiar with, of course, apply my suggestions to better fit your needs. Use folk or traditional music or the music you feel most familiar with. I would also invite you to think of incorporating movement and drawing in your activities as these enhance the learning and creative experience. Sometimes it helps to not think of composition in terms of absolute music like playing a beautiful melody on the flute, and at the same time not all composition activities will be about turning noise into music. Experiment and improvise.

Improvisation is your first step to composing – that’s how I do it anyway… If your learning time is limited you could improvise for just for 2 minutes at the start of the lesson to warm up the instrument, or get familiar with instruments, or their voices, their bodies, open up their minds. You can use these first few minutes to introduce the theme of the lesson through improvisation. They don’t have to know what the theme is but it will gently set the mindset of the lesson and your expectations. By playing all together it gets noisy but it also gives the chance to children open up and familiarise themselves with their environment in the music lesson. 

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Be accepting of what the children will come up with, be open to simplifying or complicating rules. Create, improvise, sing, dance!

You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

All thoughts and ideas writen here are through my own experience and observation.

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020

Teaching Composition in the Classroom

Part 2

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If you’re still asking why invest time and effort in musical creativity, the short answer may be, and I’ll elaborate in another article more on the subject: 

  1. It brings forward needs for learning, like how to read and write notes, how do we indicate loudness and so on… Because now the student has to use them to right their musical piece
  2. Students spend time with their musical instrument and figure out how it works by themselves and for their own purposes.

Cool! Now that you are passionate about normalising composition in your lessons let’s dive in a little deeper. 

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Where to start? What do you do? How do we achieve an open-minded teaching approach, be truly inclusive with the students’ ideas of solutionising, and not get hung up on our own expectations ?

Top tip, we may be incorporating non musical elements to make points clearer and activities more appealing.

We’re interested in a holistic way of teaching music, and composition is part of this learning.

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Let’s start by aborting any notions there may be about (a) talent – it’s a different discussion – and people born composers, and (b) not everyone can teach composition. You might agree as well, school is the time when children get to observe, experiment and investigate what otherwise they wouldn’t have the chance to. Like how to do stuff and how the world works, how to think and problem solve using all of their senses in order to learn the whats and the hows. The Whys come through creativity.

Composition, musical creativity, in the classroom is an activity for every student and not only extra work for the (“talented”) few that might be up for the challenge. Of course, if you discover a child showing a bit more interest then by all means offer more material to work with. But you may consider presenting it like the bonus exercises they get in Maths, where those extra exercises are there for every student to decide if they want to solve them and the teacher will encourage as well.

Every music educator can teach music composition. You don’t have to win an IVORS award to do it. You don’t even have to study specifically music composition to qualify as the educator for musical creativity. If you think about it, not all primary school teachers have written articles for big newspapers or published books, yet teaching students to write essays, poems, diary entries and more is part of the national curriculum so they all teach it. The children finish primary school and know the process to writing a narrative. Throughout their school years the students practice different writing techniques, some abstract, some more concrete but the purpose remains to provide a set of tools and knowledge to use later on. 

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Adding music composition and creativity into our lesson plans will become a habit. Some teachers enjoy music composition written on 5 lines with a clef, and a key and time signature, finishing each piece on the tonic, regardless of what the children know about theory. This is acceptable. It’s closer to what the children are used to hearing and by practicing the same concept many times they will eventually realise what the more technical terms mean and how they are used (see reason 1 above). Other teachers use more abstract and kinaesthetic approaches, like tracing the periphery of an object with vocal sounds to play with aspects of musical form (see reason 2 above). The end product remains:  a musical piece (sound piece) written and performed by the students.

Identify your learning objectives for each lesson and that will lead to the best approach for the creative segment of the lesson. Every music educator is qualified to incorporate music compsition in their lessons and every student is entitled to being creative through music. It can be a short segment where the focus is on a small creative activity or creativng a new piece. But every time is for every child. I strongly suggest the Orff method for inspiration. Part 3 is following with tools on putting a your creative segment together.

You can read Part 1 here.

All thoughts and ideas written here come through personal experience and observation.

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2020

Teach Composition the Right Way

Part 1

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Okay, now let’s not think in absolute terms. There are many right ways to approach composition in the classroom of a primary school. As long as you are following the needs of your classroom and your musical beliefs then you are probably doing a good job.

My music teaching style follows loosely the Orff Schulwerk (Orff approach), where I combine music with drama, speech and movement in my lesson plans. Giving space to exploration and experimentation of sound even if it gets a bit noisy at times, proves to be valuable. In each lesson plan I have at least one activity of listen-and-response, one creative activity and and one performance activity in no specific order. I will also incorporate non musical activities during any lesson, like movement, drama, writing, because it engages the children to realise music through a different spectrum. Telling a story will later become a sound story, then remove any spoken words, and use musical instruments, for example. Or to show the quality of a sound: high, low, fast, slow, we will use some movement based activities. So creativity during the music lesson will take many forms before it becomes music creativity.

But you might want to go through a very direct compositional route. Maybe something like this one…

I was co-teaching a class with a music teacher that had more than 35 years of teaching experience, I had a handful. We agreed that the last 20 minutes of the lesson would be spent on composing. The composition segment went as follows: 

Task: to write 8 bars of music. 

  1. The children divided their piece into 2 lines where each line had 4 bars.
  2. We asked them to write the rhythm of the first four bars of the piece we were working on and repeat the same thing in the second 4 bars.
  3. Start the piece with a C or E or G
  4. The last note of the first line had to be G or B or D
  5. The last note of the piece had to be a C. 
  6. Write any notes they liked that belong in the C major ( the C major scale was written on the board)
  7. Play what they wrote
Rania’s personal

Is that something you had in mind? 

Fact 1: We had relevant results. 

Fact 2: During the process the children were confused, it took them ten minutes to just write a note down

Fact 3: Most children applied the scale to the rhythmical melody – not wrong but it happened because “that’s what they understood they had to do”. 

Fact 4: It was a Year 6 classroom, 11 year-olds that more or less had an idea of how their musical instrument works, the clarinet, they could roughly read notes. But in terms of writing notes down that never happened. 

I think this was a well intended task for children of that age, but not suitable for this specific group. Writing notes down might seem so obvious and common but it’s a valid step, one that cannot be skipped. When I asked other colleagues about this activity they more or less agreed to it. I have my thoughts about this. 

This task is well structured, and it invites the children to fill in just enough gaps. The rhythm and the set of notes were already provided, as well as starting and finishing notes. So the children had to pick notes and apply them with the indicated rhythmical value.

But this activity didn’t fit those students, they found it too intimidating. It was their first time writing notes on a piece of paper and it was for a very short time. And of course, the discussion is about making composition a standard activity in a music lesson. So potentially there will be a learning out of this and the children will want to do more of it. This activity pushes the student into a composition pit but not down the composition path. It’s good if you want an activity for the last lesson of the term and have never to follow up later on – which is what it was. 

However, if composition is part of your music lessons from the beginning of the school year, no matter the age of the students, then by default, composition won’t be just a last-day-of-term activity, the children will get used to following composition instructions and when you do want to have a fun and more complex activity you would have more ground to work on.

If I could go back to that day, with the same children, same level of musical knowledge,  and do the same activity, here are some things I would do differently:

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  1. Print a page where the rhythm is already above the music staff, and the key-notes are also given so they would just have to concentrate on writing a melody 
  2. Dedicate the whole 60 minutes of the lesson to do this
  3. Asked them to choose one bar from the last piece we were working on and copy it on a blank music staff and then choose another one from a different piece
  4. Write a two bar rhythmical melody using note values that they already know and then exchange with their partner to write in the melody
  5. Work out an example together before giving them full freedom to create

Though, know that it’s common for students to seem confused when they’re asked to create something new without any sense of direction given to them. No matter if it’s to create a music piece, write a passage, come up with a move, create a board game, write code, etc… Creativity often times feels like picking material out of a sea of chaos, it’s daunting. And if they only interact with that ‘sea’ one hour a week if lucky, creating smaller and perhaps a bit restrictive exercises and often might be more beneficial than one bigger one every three months. The more disciplines we use and invite the students to be creative in the more normal it will get to create stuff by themselves and later on.

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When anyone is creating music they have to predict to some extent how the final product will sound, stay relevant to the theme, and notate abstract and arbitrary symbols with the intention of some person reading and understanding them. Composition is learning through process and continuous involvement with the craft. Not to find the next Mozart but to develop the next generation of thinkers and doers…

all ideas are my own

© Rania Chrysosotmou 2019

Music Composition in the Classroom

Easy activities to get primary school students composing

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Sound and Music, which is a national charity for new music in the UK, have conducted a survey and discovered that music composition and creativity are generally overlooked in schools in the UK. You can find information about Sound and Music and their initiative here where you can also download the report here as well. Composition or music creativity is often overlooked during a music lesson. 

I’ve put together some activities and overall thoughts about teaching music composition in primary schools, for children between 5-11 years old and about 30 children in each classroom. Always assess your group of children and tailor to your teaching style. Everything is open to interpretation. 

My overall view on composition in primary schools aims to defy the rigid boundaries of classical music and concentrate on putting sounds together. I think one of our goals as educators is to set the bare foundations where students can later build on. Movement is an important aspect of music learning because it enhances the learning and it makes everything fun. Use the activities in a way that will serve your and your classroom’s purposes. 

I know, time is a major factor that determines what and how a lesson will take place. Focusing on performance, to read and play notes, is measurable by students, parents and the heads that determine if music is needed in the school. So it becomes risky to introduce this abstract concept called music composition. But I do believe it is worth it!

Activity 1

Ask the children to write on a piece of paper a note and give it a duration between a crochet, minim or semibreve. Display the papers on the board and arrange them in bars and perform it. The children will enjoy seeing that their own note is on the board  and anticipate to hear it being played, while you check they know their theory. For more advanced children, ask them to write an entire bar.

I’d suggest keeping a simple time signature, like 4/4 or ¾ and for the more adventurous 5/4 might work as well. Not using any time signature  is always an option and children will learn something different.

Activity 1b

You may go full avant-garde and instead of writing notes, write down sounds you can produce using objects in the room, your body or voice. The sound can be as short as 1 bang and as long as 4 seconds, for instance. Shuffle the papers and each student picks one out randomly. Arrange the students to their positions and listen to the beautiful specific randomness. You can introduce the idea of a conductor leaving it up to them to decide how the music will unfold. For this activity it might be good to call on being sensible. 

Activity 2

Link music history, discover new composers and musical styles with what the students are learning in other subjects such as English, Geography, Arts, History… I find that 20th century music is the easiest to experiment with. You would be looking at minimalism, serialism, atonal, aleatoric music, and the list goes on. I define the style in the broadest sense so the children don’t get confused or discouraged. Each time we talk about that style I add another small element to the definition. 

You can link serialism with the World Wars history. Ask the children to come up with a series of 7 different sounds or notes and number each individual sound from 1 to 7. Perform the series twice, the first time as is and the second time perform it in reverse, from 7 to 1.

Activity 3

Use the song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to introduce to the children the idea of form in music, ABA structure, and invite them to come up with body movements to indicate each section. An example could be to wave your arms for A sections and bend and stretch your knees for the B section. Ask the children to work in groups and write their own set of moves on a piece of paper. Then exchange the papers with other groups and always finish with the performances. 

Activity 4

Take Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, write the last 4 bars of the song on the board. Ask the children to write their own piece using all the notes on the board, so use each note twice, in any order they like but keeping the first and last note as is. 

Activity 5

Invite the children to think of their morning routine and pick just one action, such as getting out of bed, brushing teeth etc… Ask them to try and mimic the movement using sounds from ordinary objects or musical instruments. Note it down using conventional or unconventional notation, and perform it. They can think about what they are feeling while they would do the movement, what they hear, see. This activity is comes ready with a beginning, a middle and  an end, it’s very concise and can be approached from many different angles. I wouldn’t try and guess what each composition is based on as it would subtract from the purpose of creating music, art.

Activity 6

Always sing, improvise, and listen to anything including folk music, which is very important. Ask the children regularly if they wrote a song they would like to share. This way they you are showing them that writing music is an ordinary thing and you are interested in their work.

I encourage you to check the Orff Method if you’re not familiar with it. It promotes a similar thinking and ethos. You can take part in day seminars or their incredible one-week summer school in York where they go into more detail about music education. You can find lesson plans online from other teachers incorporating this method and music creativity. Make these activities your own and have fun with them!

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2019

Musical Respect

Fear – respect – being polite.

Fear of the authority is a physical and mental state no parent wishes his / her children every experience yet it is astonishing how this tool is being used. What is more horrific is how well people respond to intimidation even when it is used as the final resort. Did that happen because of lack of respect, poor demonstrations of strength and power, it was a habit? Teaching discipline and respect through fear and expecting it back through fear is a typical way to keep a herd of sheep. Not to inspire and raise children, not to have a band and not to be a person. But is that too idealistic???

One of the lessons I got from music from my early years was to be respectful. Be respectful of the score and the composer. Be respectful of the era and the historical facts. Be respectful of Tradition and Customs and those who came and played before you and those who are older and have progressed and your teachers of course. And most of the times or until you are older, no one truly explains why and what is this respect that we ought to show. My memory of how my peers and I showed this respect was by sitting quietly, not asking too many questions, being a bit passive with a positiv-ish more neutral attitude. But that kept us out of trouble (not an excuse).

This more passive way of receiving the gift of music later evoked another issue. Asking, researching and creating with confidence are skills that become harder with age. The fear of knowing something wrong is sometimes worse than not knowing that at all. Which might make sense as it’s easier to learn something than to unlearn and learn something different. Intimidation will make the student study, sometimes it might lit a spark but scaring people to get them inspired is a bit of a paradox. Fear keeps people in the dark. Love and passion move people forward.

I think it’s less likely to ignore the feeling of fear than the feeling of love. Essentially, an artist wants to evoke a feeling in the audience. Whether that audience is sitting in the hall, in front of a TV or a viedo-game console, or in a classroom, the performance should be excellent. And to keep the audience intrigued and concentrated offering fear a safe solution. I think it would be better though if at least in the classroom, during a lesson the feeling we want to evoke is love, passion and determination first of all on a personal level and people that are around us and then to music. Respect should come out naturally and discipline will be the internal power that makes us move forward. And know and teach why!

 

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2017

Patience through Practice

To value and devote time to recap. Go through what you have learnt so far and practice them on a beginners level. Practice slow. Playing or reading about what you already know as long as the intention is to move forward. You might realise something new, build muscle memory and brain memory, and my favourite, to make new brain connections to understand something else entirely different to music (if there is such a thing!).

Recapping, revisiting something already known shows a disciplined character. Do it with full purpose and intention, be humble to your knowledge and expertise and allow your body, brain and mind time for digestion time for digestion.

When I was at university I studied saxophone. My teacher would start my lesson with tenuti, so I had to practice them. I felt embarrassed at first, it didn’t sound interesting. I was doing this when I first started saxophone and my family would leave the house for the time I was practicing. Then this exercise progressed to “dropping the harmonics” as he called it. Something I wouldn’t be able to do as a beginner. I continued studying as my teacher guided: “slowly, take your time, challenge yourself for longer, listen, go again, be mindful”. My sound was comparable to the teacher’s in just 6 months.

Patience. Be patient with yourself. Be firm. Listen. Think. Organise. Take time and give time.

© Rania Chrysostomou, 2017