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Music learning: an ongoing process.

Students in music class share a common cultural experience. Many want to make music, to be part of an ensemble. Initially they learn by imitating--short-cuts to developing needed skills that can be applied, almost immediately, to creating variations, melodies or statements based on what is being learned: new notes, patterns of sound, scales, rhythms, durations, and at some point, traits of diverse styles and traditions.

Those engaged in learning often venture into the unknown, particularly when they problem-solve: when they try unique ways of manipulating an exercise, a motif, a phrase, a melody, a harmony, a rhythm. They may vary tempo, meter, dynamics, pitch, timbre; incorporate key and modal changes, introduce asymmetries in durations, rhythms, rests; add ornamentation and imitative features; shape sounds and or tones into some kind of meaningful form, and so forth. *

In the instance of classical instrumental music, rather than attending to a given program students might focus on the music itself--the tensions and releases, the manipulations that help shape the music and the affections. ** They may find the listening somewhat challenging but their music making--skill development and improvisation--will lead to greater aural awareness and understanding. For example, a youngster who has applied serial technique to a composition based on a tone row will increase his/her understanding of a dodecaphonic work, perhaps appreciate it, even though s/he may continue to dislike it. ***

Making time to manipulate a musical idea or technical problem encountered in class can be very productive and need only take several minutes. However, studies involving individual and group activities may require parts of several sessions. This happened when youngsters, 14-15 years of age, were challenged by a 20th century Canadian work.

They found the dissonant sounds difficult to hear and play in tune; the rhythms involving alternating metres and unexpected rests of different durations, daunting; as well, the non-tonal lines and unpredictable harmonies. They worked on tuning and rhythms with partners. (Prior to the study, each had composed a two-part work incorporating alternating metres, varied durations, unexpected silences, and extreme dynamics with the expectation that the piece would be performed in class with a partner.)

Students also suggested changes that would make the original work sound better, such as, composing a new ending, interpolating rests, changing rhythms; in short, ideas that would add more drama to the performance. They tried the suggested changes during ensemble rehearsals. They soon realized that there were extraordinary challenges to composing, and that the original Canadian piece, performed well, could be quite exciting.

Individuals benefit greatly when they listen with critical ears to their creative ideas; as well, to performances and recordings related to their musical studies.

Musical knowledge and experiences, often the bases for critical thinking and making judgemental decisions, can empower individuals to make informed analyses

of what they hear, perhaps recognize the trivia of mind-numbing materials coming out of too many media outlets. Musically informed criteria can lead to independent thinking rather than to relying on products of a culture industry and opinions of peers.

The strength of schooling--stretching the mind and being challenged by the unfamiliar--lies in the creating of new understandings, and in going beyond initial ways of hearing and thinking.

Music learning is a process of becoming, one that is ongoing, and that reflects an aesthetic sensibility involving knowing, understanding, and listening.


* A considerable number of articles in the CME Journal as well as Musical Growth (Kuzmich) have outlined or detailed numerous creative problem-solving activities that incorporate manipulations of materials at hand: new sounds, tones, modes, and procedures encountered in the music of different styles / traditions. These activities will enhance aural acuity, and make connecting to unusual styles and cultures possible. Recognizing a manipulation, an idea, a procedure can be helpful when musical works appear too different or complex.

** A given program may suggest detailed meanings in an instrumental work, for example, Symphony Fantastique by Hector Berlioz, and may attract new listeners. However, knowing that a musical work has a programmatic, narrative, cultural, or religious association may be interesting but need not detract from what is happening in the music, an autonomous piece relevant to those who are knowledgeable and willing to listen.

*** Students are given an assignment dealing with twelve-tone manipulations. Each is to compose a chamber work for four voices based on the tone row used in a violin concerto by Alban Berg. Students know what constitutes a basic set--the original tone row, its inversion, retrograde, and inversion-retrograde. They understand that there can be 48 versions of the preceding through transposition. They are encouraged to use a maximum of three versions and to incorporate rests as well as contrasts in durations, articulations, dynamics, register, timbre and texture. Their compositions are to be playable by their classmates. Incidentally, they've had experiences with imitation, canononic manipulation; and improvising or composing variations over a chordal ground as in Pachelbel's Canon, or a blues progression as in Louis Armstrong's West End Blues.

Youngsters involved in creative-problem solving activities related to the Canadian work and the 12-tone composition were from University Toronto Schools.


Colwell, Richard. (2005). Taking the temperature of critical pedagogy. Visions of Research in Music Education, 1-12.

Ford, Clifford. (2010). Musical presence: Towards a new philosophy of music. Contemporary Aesthetics, 1-28.

Foster, James. (2011). Continuity or break: Danto and Gadamer on the crises of anti-aestheticism. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 45(2), 36-48.

Gracyk, Theodore. (2011). Misappropriation of our musical past. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 45(3), 50-66.

Greene, Maxine. (2009). The aesthetic and artistic in aesthetic education. www.maxinegreene.

Gould, Elizabeth. (2011). Writing Trojan horses and war machines: The creative political in music education research. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 43(8), 874-887.

Hamilton, Andy. (2007). Adorno and the autonomy of art. This article is a development of some of Hamilton's ideas in his 2007 book, Aesthetics and music, 251-266.

Kertz-Welzel. (2005). The Pied Piper of Hamelin: Adorno on music education. Research Studies in Music Education, 25(1), 1-11.

McMahon, Jennifer A. (2011). Critical aesthetic realism. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 45(2), 49-67.

Pereira, C. S., Teixeira, J., Figueiredo, P., Xavier, J., Castro, S. L. (2011). Music and emotions in the brain: familiarity matters. PloS ONE 6 (11): e27241. doi: 10.1371/journal.

Professor Natalie Kuzmich chaired the Music Education Department at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Education (now OISE/UT) until 1998. During that time, she also taught the strings program at the University of Toronto Schools, a lab school for grades 7-graduation where she implemented and refined many creative problem solving teaching and learning strategies. Since her retirement, Kuzmich continues to contribute to teacher education through workshops, articles, and regular commentary. Natalie Kuzmich may be reached at
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Title Annotation:recurring motifs: commentary
Author:Kuzmich, Natalie
Publication:Canadian Music Educator
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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