Pitch contours and other puzzles

I’ve been thinking a lot about how you build an understanding of pitch among young students. Regular readers will know that I teach a lot of students in primary (elementary) schools that don’t have a lot of English, or who speak English as a second language. Because of this, I put a lot of thought into ways of teaching and establishing musical concepts without resorting to verbal explanations.

With pitch I’ve tried lots of different things. Firstly, I should explain that all my classroom work has a compositional basis, so we rarely isolate pitch as a context. Mostly, it comes up because I want children to develop their aural and inner hearing skills so that they can learn, recall, and figure out melodic lines more easily. To do this they need to have an awareness of the way the pitches in a melody relate to each other – whether they are moving up or down to the next note, by step or by leap, etc.

I don’t remember ever learning this stuff, so I’m no help to myself. I don’t remember learning how to harmonise when singing either. I had a good ear, and I guess I just figured out pretty early on that I could work out melodies and tunes that I liked if I had the first note, (or by choosing a first note and going from there) and that I could improvise harmonies by working a third away from the melody (as well as other intervals).

I’ve written before about my teaching strategy of marking out the melodic contour of a melody by singing it while touching corresponding places on the body (from the floor to the head. Read that post here).  I tried this recently at the Language School. The melody we were working on (which I wanted them to play on glockenspiels, so we did the body work to familiarise them with the melody – sung – and the pitch contour – shown on the floor and body) was 2 bars long, and it had an octave in it, 2 Es an octave apart.

I realised that the contour familiarisation with the body taps hadn’t worked when quite a few of the children chose whichever E they set their eyes on first. It was invariably the low E (which I started to call Big E, because the students aren’t yet familiar with words like Low and High) that they chose – but the melody started on the high E (‘Small E’).

I was taken aback to see this. I stopped them of course, and realised I needed to point out which note, specifically, the melody started on. But even after I’d told them, they struggled to remember. It was like the presence of the two Es threw everything out. They were no longer using their ears, they were thinking, thinking, thinking in such an incredibly labour-intensive way about which letter-name came next that the notes no longer seemed to have any melodic context for them.

It seemed that all that preparatory work we’d done hadn’t helped any concepts about pitch, and highs and lows, and upward or downward motion, to be established. It’s a strategy that has worked before, but I could see that it really hadn’t given my Language School students any clarity on this day.

One or two students did come to grips with the melody – students that have a bit more background with playing an instrument (piano) and who have more developed aural skills than others in their class. But the pitch contour work hadn’t helped them. It may even have served to confuse them!

Other pitch work I have used includes using numbers to sing up and down a scale:

Eg. on a major scale:

1-2-3-4-5 (clap!)

5-4-3-2-1 (clap!)

We establish a couple of note/number patterns that I teach, then I invite them to make up their own combinations, and help them to sing them. I am not always convinced that this approach establishes an understanding of the concept of pitch among Language School students either.

I also have warm-up games or tasks that I do, that match large physical gestures with vocal rises/falls in pitch:

In Rocket Ships, we all crouch on the floor. We start counting slow, form 1 to 10, in a low voice that gets higher as we get closer to 10. As the numbers rise we start to come up physically, so that the number 10 is called in a high voice, while jumping in the air and clapping the hands. Then we do it in reverse.

In Zippers, we crouch on the floor and hold a pretend zip in our hands. As we rise up, we say “Zii-i-i-ii-p!” starting with the voice low, and rising in pitch by the end of the word. Then do this in reverse.

These tasks are fun, especially for younger students. But again, I’m not sure they are establishing any concepts.

In the way that I approach teaching in an ESL environment, I assume that concepts will be established at different times for every child. That understanding isn’t necessary for successful completion of any of the tasks – they can participate simply by copying and having fun with sounds if that is what they are ready for. No one is marking their progress or comprehension in musical concepts apart from me, and I am only interested in so much as howt it enables me to offer them further challenges or to extend their understanding.

So it isn’t essential at this stage that concepts are understood. They will still get heaps out of their music-making experiences with me, and I always keep in mind that at Language School, they are navigating their way through an extraordinary amount of new information, every single day, and it is exhausting and confusing for them. But I’d like to think that the musical environment I create with every task affords the possibility that concepts will be established, so I shall continue to puzzle my way through this pitch thing.


3 comments so far

  1. bobbie gardner on

    I liked the idea of using height to demonstrate pitch, will use that! You got me thinking about whether I should isolate the concept of pitch, as I tend to do so in my sessions, demonstrating and getting young people to analyse what they have previously done.


  2. musicwork on

    It’s horses for courses, though… my students would struggle to work out what I was asking them to do if I isolated the concept of pitch too much, purely because of the language barrier. Older students, or those comfortable with speaking the language, must benefit heaps from having the concept explained, then being able to apply it to their own efforts, and use this knowledge to manipulate their sounds and inventions, and create deeper expressive elements.

    If the height thing works for you, let me know how you approached it!

  3. […] or perform melodies in this way before transferring them to instruments.  I did this in detail in one project at the Language School, which followed on from an early exploration of the idea at Pelican Primary School, and the […]

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