This term’s lessons for GCSE year 9 music are all about Harmony & Control. Control, though not an element of music, is one of the fundamental skills or levels of skill there is. Without it, the outcome is uncontrolled, messy or unintentional chaos. If we don’t model ‘control in music’, we should not be surprised when this is something our students struggle with later on.
We began 6 weeks ago by focusing on melody first, exploring how we can create a natural flow in our music, how we can split musical ideas into phrases and how a phrase usually sounds complete or incomplete at its end. From week 2, we used an ABAC melodic structure as a (Control) point of focus and decided on some other aspects of control, for example the B phrase sounding unfinished (imperfect) and C very definitely sounds finished (perfect), presenting an opportunity to discuss cadences and immediately showing connection between how melody and harmony have to be considered together.
Having composed a simple 8-bar melodic shape of the 4 phrases, we added a complementing bass line as described in my “Hot Chocolate” post.
In week 3 we discussed ‘texture’ as the layers that make up the harmony, and how we could change the relationship between how the layers worked together to vary the texture. It was also an opportunity to discuss instrumental timbre and range as we added a 2nd violin and viola to create the configuration of a string quartet. Having made these controlled (purposeful) decisions, and deciding for the moment to write diatonically in D Major and homophonically with the rhythm of the cello part, students found it very easy to ‘fill-in’ the inner voices, again using p244 of “How to Write Great Music” as below. Further interesting discussions could be heard around the class as to whether there were ‘better solutions’ of which notes to place in which instrument, which led them to independently discover how to control inner parts by making small (step-wise if possible) movements rather than larger leaps of unwanted intervals.
Still within that same lesson, about two thirds of the class continued to then create a development of their first 8 bars by incorporating scalic motifs and auxiliary and passing notes within their lower 3 parts. There was great excitement and beaming smiles around the room as students realised how straightforward it was to develop their own complex music by having a controlled consideration of melody, harmony and texture.
It is often difficult to comprehend the depth of musical understanding we can reach in any 11-16 lesson, but this new approach to harmony has this term, I feel, pushed the boundaries again. To have progressed from ‘not feeling confident about composing a simple melody’, to feeling confident enough about all of the above to independently compose beautiful music, is absolutely mind-blowing. Often our ‘high expectations’ is not enough. #youngpeopleareawesome
I decided for the moment however, that this level of depth was as far as was helpful to go in their exploration of harmony (for the moment!). Instead, from week 4, I presented a similar challenge but from a completely different angle, ensuring the task was new for everybody and completely out of their comfort zones. To succeed, they had to use the knowledge developed above and their experience of controlling music. They have to prove not only understanding, but ‘confident understanding’ to succeed in this new challenge.
In week 4 we were visited by the amazing Dr Kirsty Devaney (@KirstyDevaney) who has written a brilliant article about her time with us, including some very helpful thoughts on gender in music and technology. We are greatly appreciative of the time we were able to spend together and many of the students she met have been inspired by her time with us.
In that week, the new challenge began with a lead sheet for a song (above). Students had to study the chords in verse 2 and, using Sibelius, compose a 4-part string quartet arrangement for the 8 bars of the verse. This was to be a new timbre to be introduced in verse 2 as a development of texture in the overall production and students were encouraged to listen critically as they tried to develop a warm/rich ‘sound’ for their string parts. The second challenge was more practical, but of equal value in the composing process – they had to export the audio of their string arrangement (so now considering file format, sample rate and bit depth) and discover a secure method to transfer this into GarageBand on their iPad. I had specifically encouraged them to do this as ‘audio’ to challenge their critical listening of making sure the string parts worked before continuing. If they found there were clashes later on from not having control of the process, they would have to go through this extra part again to fix it.
Once into GarageBand, students now had to take a new risk. They had to maintain control of the harmony of their 8 bars, but compose and record parts for piano, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, drum kit and an extra drum kit track to use for fill-ins or cymbal crashes.
Some aspects of musical learning appear simpler to me, but I often learn that my understanding of simplicity or difficulty can be wrong. This was especially true in this situation – students had not realised that all instrumental parts follow the same harmony in the music. I’m not sure at which point in my own musical learning I first discovered this, but thinking about it, I’ve never taught this before. It was particularly poignant to see that even the most able seemed surprised. This discovery opened a door in their learning. It has especially given them more confidence in improvisation or recording when using unfamiliar instruments.
In her observations, Kirsty mentioned a student who had struggled with this task, becoming stuck on the development of the drum kit part. That student returned the next morning and after 3 or 4 minutes of intervention, she was creating music independently again and perhaps even more confidently than before. Often it’s so important to see moments when students ‘get stuck’ as positive. They’re opportunities for greater understanding.
Having now produced an arrangement of their verse including 4-part harmony strings, bass guitar, piano, acoustic guitar and drum kit, students this week were considering structure and texture. These are (with harmony) the most mis-understood elements of music at GCSE. The vocals for the song are still to be recorded and that will happen next half term. For now though students have to repeat the above for the chorus immediately following their ‘verse 2’.
At this point, I’m offering less controlled guidance. Students have to decide how the role of each instrument will remain consistent or develop as they go into the chorus. Which of the 8 instruments they will keep, how they will plan rhythmic changes in each part, will the energy of the music become greater or less? All of these decisions are now their own in these last two weeks. The harmonic progression is more complex in the chorus, with more changes of chord and the pattern or rate of harmonic change is also quite different. Due to an instrumental section after the chorus, that new section is also 11 bars instead of 8, so much more to consider. The video below shows my modelled example I made as they watched in yesterday’s lesson – the section you can hear took 10 minutes to model from blank screen including descriptions of where, why and how.
The song is “Oceans (Where Feet May Fall)” by Hillsong United.
Title Photo by Mike Giles on Unsplash