Monday, August 13, 2012

Learning The Beautiful Laws of Harmony - Through Singing


"The Habit of Praise.––Perhaps we do not attach enough importance to the habit of praise in our children's devotion. Praise and thanksgiving come freely from the young heart; gladness is natural and holy, and music is a delight. The singing of hymns at home and of the hymns and canticles in church should be a special delight; and the habit of soft and reverent singing, of offering our very best in praise, should be carefully formed. Hymns with a story, such as: 'A little ship was on the sea,' 'I think when I read that sweet story of old,' 'Hushed was the evening hymn,' are perhaps the best for little children. Children should be trained in the habits of attention and real devotion during short services or parts of services. The habit of finding their places in the prayer-book and following the service is interesting and aids attention, but perhaps it would be well to tell children, of even ten or eleven, that during the litany, for example, they might occupy themselves by saying over silently hymns that they know." (Charlotte Mason Series, Vol. III, pg. 143-144)

"The Habit of Sunday-keeping.––The habit of Sunday observances, not rigid, not dull, and yet peculiar to the day, is especially important. Sunday stories, Sunday hymns, Sunday walks, Sunday talks, Sunday painting, Sunday knitting even, Sunday card-games, should all be special to the day,––quiet, glad, serene..." (Charlotte Mason Series, Vol. III, pg. 144)

So, in this group of posts dealing with Charlotte Mason and music, we have been inclined to substitute Charlotte Mason's phrase, 'the beautiful laws of harmony' with the more commonly used term 'music theory.'

Though the terms are not identical in meaning, there is much overlap. As such, for the purposes of this discussion, they will, at times, be used interchangeably.

Learn 'music theory' from singing?

Yes, most of us who study the writings of Charlotte Mason know that she believed that children should be singing children's level folk songs, rounds, as well as regular folk songs, and hymns.

Mrs. Curwen, Charlotte Mason's 'go-to-musician,' specified in her teacher's guide that singing was very useful, provided the following was true:

(1) The child wants to do it, and is physically fit.

(2) That we do not worry him about it, but teach him when he is inclined and leave off when, for the time, he has had enough.

(3) That suitable music can be found.

That is utterly lovely, and it is certainly gentle and thoughtful of the child.

But how might one conclude that there is any actual 'theory' learned through the singing of children's songs or even folk songs? More than that, if one can learn some theory through singing children's songs, can one do anything to bring the child's attention directly to what they are supposedly learning? Wouldn't children end up with more of a useful 'impression' upon their hearts and minds that way?

*Could* parents even springboard from simply singing songs and move into some lightweight music theory without having any formal training? Could they do so in a 'living way'? If so, what would that look like, and how do we keep in our minds and hearts that all of that living fun is, in truth, music theory?

Well, first, since the idea of learning music theory seems a bit unclear to a good number of parents in general, let's consider three things first:

(1) What is music theory?

(2) How does music theory fit into Mrs. Curwen's piano lessons?


(3) What does Miss Mason say about folk songs and children's songs that might illuminate to us the subject of how one might learn anything of 'theory' through .... ?singing?


So, first of all,


Now let's move on to the question of Mrs. Curwen's general guidance about the study of music theory.

Mrs. Curwen highlighted the relationship of "theory" and "practice" throughout all of the lessons that she taught. This relationship of theory and practice is something that she was intent upon from the very first lesson. That relationship between theory and practice is based on this principle:

"....every lesson, from the beginning, should contain two parts; something to remember, and something to do; or, in other words, 'Theory and Practice.'"

The something to remember was theory. The something to do was to be related to the theory learned.

Mrs. Curwen went on to say that one must not 'divorce' theory from the application of that theory, "for theory, if not illustrated and fixed by practice, is a deadening and unfruitful study."

Think about it! Remember Miss Mason's teachings that ideas are seed which produce fruit - and thus there is life in them. Any music 'idea' worth investigating has life in it as well.

So often, music theory lessons take that living thing called music and cut it up into all of its bits and pieces (by analyzing it into its parts). Then the lesson typically doesn't follow that analysis up with a solid effort to put those pieces back together.

What happens to the life of music which has been taken apart during such a theory lesson? Can those types of theory lessons produce fruit in the musical life of the student?

Of course not. The 'facts about theory,' as they are typically taught in theory lessons, are not really 'ideas' according to Miss Mason's wise standard at all. Therefore, those bits and pieces are not alive - which explains why so often, those facts do not bear the fruit we would like to see them produce.

How does an astute teacher keep those parts of the music in tact and still study them? how do we keep those elements of music alive for our children while still learning about them?

First we need to understand that the ideas interwoven into the living music, those ideas which are expressed by those musical elements building on each other...., those interweavings are alive.

In order to keep those musical ideas alive, in order to help preserve those ideas long enough for them to bear fruit in our children's lives, we must not take anything apart during a lesson that cannot be put back together and used in a living way.

That very fact indicates to us the nature of music theory:

The study of Music Theory is, in essence, the study of the life in the music.


Okay, in order to illustrate how one might study some aspect of music in the context of the music itself, let's recall quickly the story of Mozart, asleep on his couch, with his little wife nearby wishing that he would wake up. What would she do? She would play a bit of music on Mozart's keyboard, and then not play the last chord! The music needs that last chord because it creates a 'resting place' for the ideas int he music to come to a final conclusion. On the other hand, the notes just prior to that resting place are...., well, .... a non-resting poing! Mozart was one who could not rest without that final resting point being put into place. Thus, when his little wife would fail to play that last chord, he would arise, fly to the keyboard, and play the last chord himself. In no other way could heart heart find rest. (quite a little trick on the part of his wife.... eh?)

Now, with that illustration in place, let's discuss something of the life force in music.

Some notes/chords in music are resting points. Some notes/chords in music are 'tension points.' Some points of tension in music are greater than other points of tension in music. The study of music theory should, in great part, result in a growing understanding of those degrees of tension.

All too often, theory lessons skirt around the study of tension and rest in music. Those lessons might occasionally provide an example or two of tension vs. rest, but not convincingly for all students. The focus of those lessons is more on the names of those parts of the music which create tension or rest, rather than helping children listen to and experience and identify tension and rest in the songs they sing or study, all over the course of time.

Let's consider, instead, what might happen if Miss Mason were asked which should come first, a study of many musical examples of tension vs. rest over the course of time, or the naming of those parts of music which create tension and rest. What do you think she would say?

here is some evidence as to her mindset on related subjects:

"A Basis of Facts.--Of the teaching of Natural Philosophy, I will only remind the reader of what was said in an earlier chapter--that there is no part of a child's education more important than that he should lay, by his own observation, a wide basis of facts towards scientific knowledge in the future. ..... He must be accustoned to ask why--Why does the wind blow? Why does the river flow? Why is a leaf-bud sticky? And do not hurry to answer his questions for him; let him think his difficulties out so far as his small experience will carry him. above all, when you come to the rescue, let it not be in the 'cut and dried' formula of some miserable little text-book; let him have all the insight available and you will find that on many scientific questions the child may be brought at once to the level of modern thought. Do not embarrass him with too much scientific nomenclature. If he discover for himself (helped, perhaps, by a leading question or two), by comparing an oyster and his cat, that some animals have backbones and some have not, it is less important that he should learn the terms vertebrate and invertebrate than that he should class the animals he meets with according to this difference." (CMSeries, Vol I, pg. 264-265)

If one merely names those parts of the music which are most strongly associated with those tension points and those resting points (say, the leading tone and the dominant tone, as opposed to the tonal center), does the teaching of those names alone bring the 'life force' in the music to light? Of course not!

While musicians should and do value the terminology which is used with each other when studying the life of music, it is not the point for the young child.

Miss Mason knew that this principle is true throughout all of education.

From that we can confidently conclude that, once the idea of 'tension vs. resting points' in music has been explored in some initial examples of music, that such an idea should be attended to by the student - and observed in his own singing and/or playing on a regular basis!

That is not to say that Mrs. Curwen began her lessons at such a level. She did not. But she did bring the little bits of music which she was teaching into the light of life - into the life of music itself!


Can one learn to observe and appreciate some of these life forces (e.g. - of tension and rest) in music while simply singing? Of course one can.

Just try singing "Amazing Grace" but then leave off the last note! Really, stop and try it. You can more effectively understand this if you experience it. That is not only true of your children!

Okay, have you stopped and sung the tune, leaving off the last note? If so, please read on (but don't sing that last note....)!

That 'unfinished feeling' which you felt when you didint' sing that last note produces 'tension,' does it not?

Now, you may sing that last line again, and sing that last note this time, but not until you spend some time lingering on that second to last note - that note that emphasizes the tension.

When you do finally sing that last note this time, do you sense the resting point more fully than before? Most likely, you did. I am confident that your children are clever enough to do the same! After such lessons, they might even enjoy singing songs and leaving off that last note just to get a rise out of people. (introducing songs like, "The Song That Never Ends" in conjunction with this type of lesson is very valuable.....)

Again, Music Theory is really, in great part, the study of the relative degrees of rest and tension in the life force of music. Those different elements in music which we discussed above all lend to these degrees of rest and tension.

Back when music was first being written down, back in the middle ages, the music of the church was bent on establishing more of a sense of peace and less of a sense of tension. The composers of that day studied out those sounds which had the least tension in them, and used those types of sounds as much as possible, while excluding the sounds which evoked any significant amount of tension. Think of the music of a monastery. That music evokes peace, not tension.

Today's composers have studied out other types of things. On the one hand, because much of the music of today is being produced for film, and many of the scenes in film are filled with tension, the music of today is bent on understanding more and more how to evoke a sense of tension through the very musical force itself. On the other hand, because there are times when composers want to evoke a sense of peace, but they want to do so in a novel way which has not been used before, they have studied how to take groupings of sounds which have in the past seemed tense, and have worked with them in new ways to evoke peace and rest in spite of the inherent tension. If some of the new 'harmonies' of today's music were dropped into a measure of Bach or Haydn's music, it would clash and be uncomfortably tense. However, in different contexts, those sounds can be lush and beautiful. This illustrates just some of the remarkable flexibility of the mind of man, to be able to re-order sounds into utterly new, powerful, living ideas.

In summary: To illustrate your innate ability to grasp this idea of tension and rest, we have discussed two accessible examples: Mozart and the last chord of music, and medieval music and its contrast with music composed for films today. There are many other such simple exmaples of the degrees of rest and tension in music which can be discussed. In each circumstance, an attentive student would easily realize that those aspects of tension and rest are well within their grasp of understanding as well.

This sort of analysis is all about bringing the nature of the life of the music to light for children to apprehend more clearly. Because of that, this sort of analysis avoids all of the dangers of analysis.

A well crafted music theory lesson should explore the mechanisms of synthesis in music. When theory lessons do not do that, they have failed their long term purpose.

We must develop new and effective lessons.

For example, sort of study can often be done in relation to the singing of a song (e.g. - skipping the last note, or really listening more closely to last notes of other phrases, or even any pair of notes in the middle of a phrase).

Later, those lesson should be applied directly to the study of a scale or chord progression, or even the instrumental playing of a simple or complex piece of music.

Another type of lesson might be to simply play one chord over and over, say, one might play a C chord over and over in a pleasant way ont he guitar, while slowly singing a scale over that one chord. The student should then be listening to each tone over that chord, listening to the various degrees of tension or rest between the scale tone and the chord.

As another example, this sort of study could simply be examining the difference in sound between the 'amen' chords at the end of hymns as opposed to the chords which more typically end a hymn. (FYI, the last two to four chords in a musical idea are usually called a 'cadence.') However, just as a reminder for you few music theory lovers out there, no names (such as plagal cadence) needs to be applied for the young student at all - at least, not for a good while. Rather, the student might apply his own description of the type of tension/rest from the 'amen cadence' as compared to other cadences.

Many other examples can readily suggest themselves for lessons, and, again. As these come to mind, I will be happy to share them with you.


What priorities should we derive from this discussion thus far?

Before we concern ourselves too much with the teaching of music theory, let us learn how to more fully illustrate the life force in the music, let us learn how to better illustrate the 'putting together', or synthesis of music - at least, let us illustrate the nature of the parts that have been put together rather than taking those elements apart and divorcing them from each other. After all, we are not looking for a deadening education, but a living one.

In the meantime, let us familiarize children with many melodies which have an abundance of life in them. Those musical ideas, even without analysis, will bear more fruit than you might think, even in the 'study of music theory.'


So, on to what Miss mason says about singing children's songs, and what clues her writing might provide as to how to teach those 'elements of music' to our children in a living way!

The first use of the word 'music' in Volume I simply discusses Miss Mason's conclusion that music and math and history are not all functions of the same portions of the mind, and that changing up subjects during class time helps students to not wear out.

That particular discussion doesn't tell us much about this teaching of music theory. However, it does help us understand how nice it is to leave off math and explore some music in a living way!


As for other things which Miss Mason implied about the learning of music theory through the singing of folk songs, that's the subject of my next post.

Here's hoping this was helpful for some of you!


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