Taking The Pulse Of Music – Instruments Part 3

Part three of my series on musical instruments, the idiophones:

In 2011, scientists proved something most of us already knew: some people simply cannot dance*. One particular subject, a post-graduate student identified only as Mathieu, was utterly unable to synchronize his movements to a regular beat. He even failed to recognize when someone else was moving in time and, thus, he became the first person to be diagnosed as ‘beat deaf’. I find it fascinating that, although reporting he has never been able to find a beat, Mathieu professes a ‘lifelong love of music and dancing’. I wonder what he hears! Is all music reduced to an ambient wash, or does it explode unnaturally in fits and starts? Perhaps, like the compensatory hearing of a blind man, he has a heightened appreciation of timbre or harmony. Pulse plays such a vital role in the structure and organization of music, yet we tend to take it for granted. Playing with idiophones is a great way for children to feel the pulse of music and develop their own internal clock.

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Once Upon A Time

In the most famous scene from Psycho – as a shadowy figure rips open the shower curtain to murder an unsuspecting motel guest – a languid clarinet solo would have drained all the horror from the images on the screen. Instead, the screeching and stabbing strings stretch tension to breaking point.  Hitchcock acknowledged, “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music” – needlessly precise, but (given he had originally wanted the shower scene to be music-free) an acknowledgement of its power. Similarly, at the start of Jaws, as a young girl swims in moonlit waves, a jaunty sea shanty or driving surf guitar track would have made for a very different experience. Little could herald the unseen menace like John Williams’ ominous and relentless two-note phrase, yet Steven Spielberg is reported to have initially laughed at the Jaws theme, thinking it a joke. Those two notes are now almost synonymous with a sense of foreboding.

The importance of music in film cannot be overstated. Music has the ability to manipulate emotions at a very primal and sub-conscious level. Studies show all people around the world recognize happy, sad and scary music, regardless of previous exposure to music and cultural background. Film-makers are well aware of this and spend a great deal of time and money ensuring the audience feels the story. Music also has a narrative power, taking the listener on a journey where ideas return, interact and develop, just like words. One of my favorite things to do with Dorian serves as an introduction to the emotional and narrative power of music: I simply read a story while he provides musical accompaniment. I recommend Goldilocks and the Three Bears as a great place to start.

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The Heartbeat Path

Dorian and I recently took the rhythmic ideas from Music In Motion outside. Using chalk we drew a line of shapes on the pathway.

Hearts and footprints chalked on a path
The hearts represent the beat and the ovals are footsteps. We took it in turns to walk the Stepping Path; first clapping a heartbeat; then listening to the heartbeat track; and finally listening to music with a strong, steady beat.
Dorian walks along a Stepping Path

Two footprints mean Jump!
Dorian lands
Jumping takes two beats, so leap over one heart.
Photo of a jumping path chalked on the sidewalk
Dorian jumps
For a Stomping Path, we added a circle every four heartbeats.
Photo of heart and circle chalked on sidewalk
Dorian stomps the ground
In standard music notation, the four-beat whole-note is also an unfilled circle.
Finally, a Tip-Toe Path. Two quick steps for each heartbeat.
Dorian runs along a Running Path
Next, we will combine the notes into more complex rhythms, but, for now, Dorian is feeling the groove of different music in his whole body and letting it guide his movements.

Music in Motion

Music can have a very powerful effect on our bodies. We tap our feet, nod our heads, drum our fingers, sway, leap, twirl, stomp, flex, and wave our hands in time to its pulse. Even in the rarefied atmosphere of a concert hall, where the audience is expected to remain respectfully still and silent, our breathing and heartbeat synchronize with the music. Sound and movement are so closely intertwined, some languages have just one word meaning both music and dance. In I Got Rhythm, I introduced four note-lengths based on familiar bodily movements.  I then called them Breathe, Jump, Walk, and Run, but have since reassessed and now prefer Stomp, Jump, Step and Run. ‘Step’ sounds better than ‘Walk’ when said aloud repeatedly and, while breathing is a good timekeeper, stomping is a gross-motor skill and thus consistent with the others. Also, stomping is much, much more fun!

So, here is how I like to introduce the four note lengths to young children…

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Bathtime!

Music is everywhere, yet listening is often overlooked. It forms wallpaper to our everyday lives; an unnoticed covering for silence as we work, eat, shop, cook, drive, exercise and play. It fills the background for movies, TV shows and video games yet, although we would surely notice its absence, we rarely consider its presence. Everyone loves and identifies with their music, but how often do we really listen, undistracted and attentive? If you’re like me, the answer is ‘not often enough’.

Try a little musical appreciation by taking a ‘sound bath’ together with your child, immersing yourselves in the music. At a convenient time, ask if your youngster wants to hear something ‘new’ or ‘cool’ or ‘special’. Keep the question vague and only elaborate if interest is shown; you can always try again later. So, what is this mysterious music? Anything you like! Or better still: anything you love. Whether it’s jazz, rock, pop, opera, hip-hop or Javanese gamelan, pass on your passion using your own CD collection or playlists. Before pressing play, say a little about the music: why you like it, how it makes you feel, what it means to you, or what memories it evokes. Maybe the music was played at your wedding, or it reminds you of your schooldays. Maybe the song always makes you feel excited and energetic. Whatever you choose, by adding broader meaning you’ll make this music stand out and help foster closer listening. I would suggest avoiding musical extremes; anything too long, complex, dense, distorted, unstructured, atonal, or harmonically unpredictable will be difficult for inexperienced ears to process. For most parents, this won’t be an issue, but fans of Schoenberg, Sepultura and John Coltrane might need to ease their children in at first.  Close the doors, dim the lights, remove distractions (phones as well as toys) and make the music loud enough to dominate the room. Try to create a listening event. It’s unimportant whether the music inspires quiet contemplation, dancing, singing, laughing or whatever (what a wonderfully versatile art form it is!), so long as the music itself is center stage. Play the entire track, even if interest wanes, then attempt discussing what you heard before moving on to other music or activities. Don’t be disappointed if your favorite piece is ignored or disliked; developing a personal sense of taste is part of the goal. Try something different next time. As in life, frequent bathing is recommended so enjoy the opportunity to reconnect with your favorite tunes and even try discovering something new together.

Reading, Writing And A Rhythmic Trick

Ava's music - Ava Schiraga (age 5)Expanding upon the ideas in Making Waves, the following activity uses shape to represent sound. This symbolization is a precursor to reading music and composing.  Additionally, the shapes form a graph of volume against time, so there is also a simple math lesson here, too.

To start your child reading music, you are going to send a musical puppet on a journey over some magical hills. Much more fun than clefs, key signatures and beat division! The higher the puppet climbs, the louder it sings or plays. Before starting, decide on the identity of the puppet, a starting point and a goal. for example, you could choose: a pirate walking from his ship to a treasure chest; Cinderella being driven in a coach from her house to the ball; a firefighter rushing from the fire-station to a fire; a grandparent driving to your house; a bmx biker riding towards a trophy; a mouse scurrying from a hole to some cheese; and so on. There are countless possible scenarios and, if requested, don’t be afraid of the surreal. A puppet of your family dog flying from a cake into your ear might makes this activity memorable; silliness can be very engaging.  Importantly, ensure the character and journey are meaningful to your child and the direction of travel is obvious.

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Making Waves

All of us used sound as our very first means of communication. Whether hungry, tired, dirty, cold, or bored, we cried out loud for a cure. This ability of sound to generate attention is never forgotten. Toddlers and kids increase the repertoire; adding screaming, whining, shouting, interrupting, and pestering as more advanced means of manipulating adults. And they’re very effective. Early on, we learn that if a particular method doesn’t meet our needs, try it again…louder. Soft whimpering won’t guarantee food, but ear-splitting screams will. It may take a while for parents to decipher the milk order, but if the screaming continues, eventually it will come. Older kids, bored of shopping, learn shouting loudly will possibly get them out of the store sooner rather than later. Volume is power.

Helping kids regulate loudness is an important first step in playing with purpose and it’s not just because it renders subsequent music bearable for anyone within earshot!  This activity explores the range of an instrument’s volume.  Like Remote Control, there are two roles: one developing self-discipline and attention and the other creativity and assertiveness.  If your child has played music with me before, you’ll certainly recognize aspects of what follows; it’s a great starting point. Be warned! The ideas should test the limits of volume, so it might get loud…

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