Musical Alphabets

I’m exploring Musical Alphabets at the moment with two of my classes. ‘Alphabets’ meaning a bank of sound-options, which can be put together in different orders, to spell out new words, and thus make new melodies and patterns.

Middle Primary students are working with a dance-alphabet. Each letter of the alphabet gets assigned a particular movement (for example, letter A is the right hand flung high in the air). So far we are up to the letter P. It can be slow going as each letter has to be memorised by the students, and some find that easier than others.

With the letters A-P now created, there are already quite a few words and sentences we can create. My plan is to divide them into pairs (or groups of three), ask each group to choose a word or phrase to dance, and to practise performing that dance over and over again.

We’ll be able to build up a big ensemble piece that might involve groups/pairs performing on their own, everyone performing their own phrase all at the same time, maybe everyone doing a unison word (as a kind of chorus), and if anyone is up for it, longer solos.

I like this kind of task as the students are very motivated to remember their alphabet, and to find ways to spell the words they choose. And for those that find it easy, they can work with longer phrases or words, or start with the movements first (rather than the words) and create a string of nonsense words, that look really flashy.

However…. I need to watch the students carefully. This kind of task could alienate the students that are struggling with literacy, struggling with the alphabet, struggling to spell out words. Their teacher is in the music class with us, and I look to her for guidance with certain students.

Of course, I hope that for those students struggling to find a foothold with their reading and writing, a creative task like this might offer an alternative ‘way in’.

My secondary students have two different alphabets. The first is the A-G musical alphabet, using the diatonic (white) notes on tuned percussion. We have a set of lovely glockenspiels, and a big bass xylophone. By listing all the English words that could be spelled with the letters A-G (we found 31, last count), and devising a melodic structure that determines which are played, and when, we’ve put together quite a complex, multi-layered, atmospheric piece of music.

Their second alphabet is a drumming alphabet. Some years ago I did a drumming course, with a fab Melbourne-based drummer named Scott Lewington. I really liked his way of teaching – it involved us using syllables to name each of the sounds we were going to make on the djembes. Scott would get us to sing the rhythms at the same time as play them, and it proved to be a fantastic way of recalling the rhythms later.

The words of this drumming alphabet are KOON and DOON (bass sounds), KOO and DOO (tone sounds) and KAH and DAH (slaps).

I’ve taught these to the secondary students, and the techniques for playing the sounds on the djembes, and they have gone on to invent their own rhythms, finding different combinations of these sounds.

All this leads to interesting musical outcomes…. but I hope it also reinforces teachers’ efforts in teaching literacy concepts, and supports students by offering connections to other learning areas. I don’t make these links explicit – I don’t offer the connection as an explanation as to why I have chosen this task for them. In general, I try to talk as little as possible in the music classes, to keep it as inclusive of all language levels as possible. Music is perfect in this context.

My question though – does it support their literacy learning? How could I test for this? Is it relevant to look for proof that musical interventions are having positive impact on the student outcomes, when the students’ whole time at this school is a time of intensive learning – so it would be impossible to isolate the influence of music alone?

More later… back to my current reading now – “The Music and Literacy Connection” by Dee Hansen, Elaine Bernstorf and Gayle M. Stuber. Just found it in the library two days ago, and it is pushing a lot of buttons for me. A good long reading session is required!

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5 comments so far

  1. […] posts on Musical Alphabets here, and on Language School projects […]

  2. […] 1st post: Musical Alphabets […]

  3. […] Posted April 11, 2008 I have blogged in the past on some of my projects that focus on Musical Alphabets. I cover quite a range of different approaches under the idea of ‘alphabets’, but one […]

  4. […] last year on my Alphabet Dance project idea (which I also described in detail on this blog here, here and here, if you want to check it out) and today’s workshop was to introduce the project to […]

  5. […] for the Song Room in 2009, and ran a training session for artists at that time; and my blog posts (here is one) on the topic in 2007 were the recipients of my first-ever […]


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