More thoughts on teaching the ‘pitch’ concept

I find that for many of my students, pitch is the most intangible, hard-to-grasp concept of all the musical elements. I’ve experimented a lot with different ways to help children make sense of it and to get greater satisfaction from working with pitched instruments. Rhythmically the students are usually very strong, but I think that multiple pitches (indeed, multiple sounds) are often very chaotic for them.

Last week, leading workshops for the City Beats program, I worked with students from four different schools. I found it interesting that students from 3 of the 4 schools used the words ‘high’ and ‘low’ to talk about the difference between different string instruments (eg. violin is smaller than double bass and therefore makes a higher sound). The much more culturally-diverse group of the 4th school were more hesitant and unsure about the language to describe those same differences, instead using ‘loud’ or ‘big’ and ‘soft’ or ‘small’. Work I’ve done previously with musical contour has not transferred across to understanding how to find the higher and lower notes on tuned percussion. It’s as if the concept of ‘high’ and ‘low’ don’t translate into musical concepts in some cultures and languages. That’s my suspicion; it is based on my own observations.

I don’t remember learning about something like pitch – I played a lot of music, and little by little, I absorbed musical knowledge without it every being explained to me. It was always quite evident to me that sounds move around, have different pitches, and the learning a melody means learning all its ups-and-downs, skips and rests. I approach my teaching and workshops in a similarly experiential way, but I also want them to have concrete knowledge and understandings to take with them into other music experiences. So from time to time, I try to unpack some of the theory or terminology of music, in practical terms – ie. “This is how this works in practice”.

However, we do very little work with pitch notation, which I think is a very useful way of making visible the differences between notes of different pitches. Lessons times at Pelican Primary are very short, with a huge range of abilities and needs. There is scant opportunity for the students to learn to play an instrument while learning to read pitch notation even with tuned percussion, as we don’t have enough instruments for everyone to be able to work at the same time, nor do we have a good room set-up for children to spend much time reading off printed documents or a projected page. (And they don’t have the patience or discipline to wait…!). I’ve experimented with a number of other ways to make the concept visible:

In one project, I asked invent and memorise melodies that they were learning by assigning different pitches to different parts of their bodies (eg. while seated on the floor they might touch the floor, their knees, their hip bones, their upper chest, their shoulders, their heads, to show 6 different pitches, from low to high), and to ‘play’ 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 students engaged with the task very enthusiastically. However, when the time came for that melodic contour to be transferred to an instrument, I was disappointed to see that it offered some of the children no help at all in finding the pitches on their instrument.

So far, without the aid of pitch notation strategies, the work on playing by ear, and identifying when notes are moving by step or by skip, has been the most effective approach to helping the students develop an understanding of pitch. However, there are still a number of students in that class who don’t yet understand what I’m talking about, who are guessing, or copying others rather than using any conceptual tools. So we are still finding our way through the woods.

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3 comments so far

  1. Alison Armstrong on

    I used to teach elementary school music and with the little kids there were a couple of things that were essential goals for me by the end of the year. One was differentiating beat and rhythm (beat is like your heart, rhythm is the words in your hands), matching my pitch in songs that only contained so, mi and la, and using the singing and writing of those songs to then be able to play the same song on xylophone, or sing it while playing an accompaniment pattern. As the students proceeded up the grades the songs began to include more notes until they could identify all the notes of the major scale by their solfa names. The act of singing the notes, drawing the contour of the notes with their fingers in the air, learning the hand signs for the notes, working out the letter names of the notes on xylophones, writing out the song with beat rhythm and pitch, helped make pitch a little more concrete. This approach came from the strong emphasis on Kodaly’s methods at my school. We also had the benefit of having two lessons (40 min each) of music a week.
    I’m teaching high school music now with much more emphasis on student led inquiry, which suits me better, but there were some great moments to be had in teaching elementary music. I remember the first time my students transferred what they were writing in their beat circles (rhythm with solfege letters and note names underneath) on to a proper stave with a treble clef and bar lines and the comments from the grade threes “Ohhhhh, I get it now!”. Beat first, rhythm second, melodic contour/ note names third, line them up and you get music!

    • musicwork on

      Yes, those moments where the concept gets understood are gold, aren’t they? I’ve tried quite a few Kodaly strategies with these classes, but they didn’t develop a lot of momentum with the groups. I am influenced by some of the ideas in Jackie Wiggins’ book Teaching for Musical Understanding, especially the idea of the ‘doorway in’ and the importance of authentic materials – this has influenced a lot of my choices of musical material. With pitch I’m fascinated by the sense I have that some of the students must be hearing the contours in a different way… a different framework, somehow. What I think of as ‘up’ and ‘down’, or ‘from the shorter bars to the longer bars on the xylophone’, they are perceiving differently. At least, that’s how it seems. Often, the students who struggle with pitch awareness are good achievers in music generally – they sing in the choir, they are very focused and engaged, they are rhythmically strong, they can carry an independent part… but when I use words like ‘higher’ or ‘lower’, or use/teach/explain hand-signs, or ask them to draw contours, etc, they don’t connect with the concept. They can mimic and copy – sometimes I have to look carefully to see if they are responding independently because they can hide it well – but there are some that I can see don’t get it. It’s definitely a work in progress. Thanks for the reminder of the Kodaly ideas though – I might look at adapting some of these this next term.

  2. myfriendmissmiller on

    I need to send your blog to my friend who is also a music teacher of ESL kids. He would totally love to have the support/advice about this stuff, as our entire building is 6-12 ESL!


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