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Posts tagged ‘listening’

Pedagogy of Harmony

The title of this post comes from a phrase coined by Stephen Downes in a Mastodon conversation where he said:

“This and the related discussion led me to think of a ‘pedagogy of harmony’ as my own perspective (as opposed to pedagogy of small, say, or pedagogy of slow – buy also, on reflection, as opposed to Friere’s pedagogy of the oppressed (and later pedagogy of hope’)).

What is a ‘pedagogy of harmony’? I’m not exactly sure, but it combines a feeling of well-being and comfort and inclusion.” (source link to the full thread here)

A day or two later, I received an email from Matthias Melcher suggesting perhaps the concept could perhaps be explained by melodic dissonances and maybe with an audible demonstration. This unexpected email sparked a firework of ideas in my mind. I’ll do my best to put a few of them in an understandable order here.

My frame has to do with painting different images of harmony, how we can practically understand it, and what it has to do with people and pedagogy/learning (that ‘p’ word is a good one, but laden with baggage). Humour me with explaining and dancing around a topic that is as big as history itself, well nearly.

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Listening to the world MUS654

It’s the beginning of this year’s #MUS654 and we’re looking at all things sound for this week. Under the #MUS654 tab (at the top of the page on this website) are all the sessions and this week’s topic: The Mechanics of Sound has to do with sound. Every year I come to this with fresh ears as I learn to listen again. What does my world sound like? What can I hear?

So often sounds wash over us. Listening is a strange thing compared to sight. With sight, we can close our eyes and ‘make it go away’, but not so with sound. Bathed in sound from dawn to dusk and in between, the world never stops. Sitting in my office now, lights off, sun coming through the window, through the quiet I can hear the tappity tap of my keys and I wonder what else can be heard. I know there are programmes that can identify what you type by listening to the sounds of the patterns of typing, and the loudness of the different key strokes. What does the world around me reveal?

There are so many things that I am unaware of.

I recorded myself typing the text above. See if you can hear the patterns of my typing. Can you hear when I made mistakes and went back to correct them?

On this week’s page there are several activities you can explore. I have chosen this as an ice breaker, because it’s fun, and everyone can participate- whether you consider yourself to be specifically musical or not. I have recorded a ‘soundscape’ of something that I encounter every day. Your job is to listen and guess what it is. Please leave your guesses in the comments below 🙂 and in a few days I will post the answer in the form of both words and a picture. Don’t spoil the answer by reading all the comments first!

As a musician, listening is crucial; it is distinguishing between the smallest nuance. It is a skill that we continue to develop, and we can choose to open our ears to the world around us and to hear it with new vibrancy. What can you notice? What is around you? What sounds do you like and can you pinpoint why? So many questions…

Have a go recording your own soundscape, and do look at the other resources and activities on the page. Whether you are in #MUS654 for the long haul (all 10 weeks!) or just happened by the page, welcome and let’s explore the world of sound together. I am always open to questions or comments, and would be delighted if you shared your comments and creations so others could join in, widening the conversation.

Featured Image CC BY-NC-ND by Images by John ‘K’

Picture the sound… #MUS654

One of the elusive topics in music learning and teaching is expression and meaning. How can we work in one medium (sound) and have to explain it in another (words?)? Often the intention of the teacher and the experience of the student can be so far apart, and we may never know it. This week I got creative and a bit silly and set my class loose with the project of picturing the sound. Really – I gave them all sorts of dried pulses, pasta, rice, seeds, nuts, bits of cotton wool, cake decorations, big sheets of paper and asked them to create the picture they heard as people performed to them. This sort of invitation is usually met with two different reactions, often in close succession, excitement followed by a tentativeness and doubt.

Oh WoW!

and then…

but I don’t know what to do?

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Making learning scales tactile and meaningful

Learning sinks in when we do it. That sounds basic, but so many people think it is something that is done to them – the teacher will teach me, that’s how I learn. Well, not really. The teacher presents, facilitates, encourages, fosters, but the learner learns. Only you can do it. Simple and very powerful when you own that. What does that have to do with scales? That is this week’s topic for #MUS654: Scales and the relationships of notes. If it is up to the student to be the active learner, ok, but how can the teacher do her part to guide and present opportunities for comprehension, understanding, context, and application?

How did you learn scales?

Every time I ask a class how they learned scales, someone says the teacher gave them a book and that was it. They just had to read the music in the book and get on with it. Oh, and they learned scales for an exam, no particular other reason.

Sometimes that can lead to leaving a musician with a stunted level of understanding on so many levels – basic theory, more complex harmony, contexts outside their own instrument. So what about that beginning learning? Scales are built on patterns, and they all are made out of the same musical alphabet. I like the idea of experiencing things in different ways – see it, speak about it, read about it, do it, build it, have it be tactile.. and all of those are possible with scales.

‘Playing’ with scales

A couple of years ago I found an app Read more

Deal me a tune

Today I decided to take a leaf out of Duane Padilla’s book and follow the example he set for us in the video he made for #MUS654 Session 2 about the difference between a riff and a melody. Duane is an excellent violinist and teacher and he explained it simply, and said that a melody is the notes of a scale mixed up. In his video he made cards for the different notes of the scale… I have cards – playing cards! I used these to represent the eight notes of any scale instead of writing down specific notes. Taking out one of each of the numbers Ace through to 8 gave one card for each note of the scale, and then I decided to deal myself a tune. Read more

Twinkle twinkle little bat #MUS654

Speech, the melodic qualities therein, and a favourite nursery rhyme. Sounds like a #MUS654 task to me! This is my effort at listening to a nursery rhyme – one of my favourite versions of Twinkle twinkle, having an go at notating the speech, and playing it on the cello. I thought about reading one myself, but I knew that I would read it in an affected way just because I knew what the task was about. The idea is to listen for the melodic qualities in speech and to see if you can come close to replicating them on your instrument. It is all part of this week’s #MUS654 topic of What makes a melody?

Most English speakers have a surprisingly limited melodic range in their speaking voices compared to speakers of other languages. For this exercise I choose one of my favourite parts of the animated Alice in Wonderland, where the doormouse recites ‘Twinkle twinkle’ with a twist at the un-birthday party. Listen from 10 seconds to hear just the right bit:

and then I sat down at the piano, and copied the voice… and it was a bit messy:img_7191


You can see it was tricky to decide what notes it used. I had someone else listen and they agreed it started on B, but then said – it sounds like it’s in C.

and then I played it:

When played on the cello, it is completely removed from the original. Beside the ambiguity between the lovely cartoon mouse and my ‘interpretation’ of the notes, there is the great difference in the tonal quality. I have not spent a long time getting the articulation right – but I wonder what is possible? There are composers who do use voice as a basis for their compositions and they transform the vocal spoken lines into purely instrumental playing. Take Steve Reich’s Different Trains for example. There are great examples of using speech – listen to 3 min 20 where the recorded voice says ‘the great train from New York’ and the cello mimics this, and then later there is the line ‘going to Chicago’ that is played by the viola. There are more… see what you can hear:


Have you had a go at any of the tasks in this week’s session? Do! 🙂

Featured image by Cea + CC BY

The Birds… what are they saying?!

Today as part of #MUS654 I had a go at one of the tasks from Session 2 about ‘What makes a melody?’ that asks us to copy and/or fake some birdsong, and MAN, it’s hard!! I enjoyed this, and I admit to limiting myself to about 10 minutes to listen and figure out something. It was a busy day here! The process of listening to the birds and going from something so abstract to working out some semblance of what they were saying was interesting as a process and revelatory in musical terms.

The process was quite hilarious, because if you look at me, I might be trying to play some broken glass instead of music. I started by listening to a conglomeration of birds and trying to pick out something from this mix of birds in the garden.

Then I tried to record just one of the birds and sat down to listen to it over and over:


When I realised that this was not going to happen without a lot of listening and experimenting, I decided to have a go faking it a bit.


It was a lot trickier than I expected, and the easiest bird to do was the one that just went ‘chirp chirp’ because I could just play one note, and that was followed by a pigeon – coo coo! I didn’t include those, because I thought it was more interesting to hear that I had a go and it wasn’t necessarily perfect (or even close!). To be honest, my first dozen attempts sounded like a lot of untidy trills, and the birds don’t really do trills. I was imposing aspects of classical music. It is habit to go from what you know, and I needed to listen. Birds hold notes and flit between intervals. They don’t really have vibrato. They don’t often trill. They don’t hold individual notes for long. It is very interesting when you attempt to copy it. I was notably frustrated at14156857293_bd514fdc8d_z how difficult I found it, and I do not think this is because it is impossible to either hear or do, but it is not something that I am used to. This taught me what it was like to do something new, and that itself was a useful lesson.  There were odd leaps to in-between the notes, and if it was scored, I really think I might have minded, not chosen to listen, or at the very least not enjoyed it. Still, somehow when I hear the birds sing those songs, I love them and am entranced by the way they leap octaves, project, and have ceaseless energy for their calling. (Image CC BY SA by Ferruccio Zanone)


There are, of course, other examples of sounds that aren’t necessarily birds, but are still reminiscent of other things… and this clip below is something near and dear to me. Something from my childhood – cartoons! Here is the Tom and Jerry music played live by the John Wilson Orchestra at the Proms in 2013. You can listen from the beginning or if you just want a glimpse of the effects, jump to 3 min 50 sec for a good 15 sec passage… Hope you enjoy it!


Featured image CC BY by Jon Bunting

Seeing more clearly

I’ve been thinking about sounds and I came across this website that provides listeners with a graphic listening guide for music… and it is completely unpretentious, and approachable, and quite useful in some ways. I am sure that some people might look at the image below and think, well, there is so much more, but also it is a way in… a way in to that so much more. Opening a door is a good thing, then you have the option of walking through. The link below takes you to a full write-up of the Toronto Symphony and how they use and design these aides to scores.


How the Toronto Symphony Orchestra uses graphic design to guide audiences

Short post today, got waylaid, but did want to post my daily #MUS654 post!

Tomorrow we start Session 2 and think about what makes a melody!


The Answer!

What was it? What’s the answer??? A couple of days ago I posted a listening challenge as part of #MUS654. The task was to create a soundscape and see if you, the listeners, could guess where I was and what was happening. I did have a few people have a go and share their thoughts…


One person asked:

Is that the sound of sand being poured out from a large bucket?


Wendy Taleo tweeted a haiku:

She sits near the road

Wet bitumen a mirror

Interrupted dreams.

Then I had this, which was spot on:

It sounds as though you are next to a road with a damp surface as if it had been raining. I heard several cars go by and I think there also a bike.


This comment came from someone who is an accomplished musician, and very used to listening to a variety of angles within the sounds around us. It is a real skill, and not everyone is regularly so objective and analytical with their listening, but that does not mean it cannot be achieved.

The first guess was good. Sand. There are qualities that are similar – the sound is low down to the ground and it has some semblance to white noise. It is something that we, as humans, do – to relate to what we know. It turns out that first guess came from someone who lives in a place where sand is prevalent, so they were used to that sound and associated the unknown with what they knew. I did a research study with several hundred school children at the beginning of my PhD, and they were all learning new instruments. One boy said he was learning the ‘elbow’. It was the oboe, but he had never heard of an oboe, and renamed it to be something he had heard of. I do that too – if I read a complicated foreign name in a book I sometimes make up a new version that is easier for me to read rather than breaking up the flow while I work out the phonetics.

Listening is a skill that can be developed, and it takes practice.

My cello teacher in Chicago used to occasionally suggest I practice in the dark: to listen and not rely on my eyes. At first that was so hard. It was similar to asking someone to meditate and clear their mind for the first time. I am very visual and aged about 19 when I first attempted to actually have a clear mind I did things like imagine window cleaners walking into my brain and polishing the interior walls. Busy, busy, busy. Take a moment in your day, whether you are a musician or not, and shut your eyes for 10 or 20 seconds and listen. Do it every day for a week. It is amazing what you might hear over the days.

Until tomorrow…!

Featured image CC BY by Colin Kinner

Sunday musings on listening

I was thinking about #MUS654 Session 1 Task 1, these musings are about the difference between listening to something and reading that same material. Why is it so different? Is it really different? Let’s consider the different situations. (Featured image CC BY by Cristina L.F.)

Sound is all around us. It is something that we are immersed in and it cannot easily be shut out. Thinking about listening to a given speech or programme only requires us to be in the presence of the sound, and then to select and prioritise those sounds. As I type about this, I am suddenly aware of the competing sounds around me: footsteps, the neighbour’s TV through the wall, the creak of a shutting window, the tappity-tap of my typing, Read more