From Eye to Ear | Jay Albert

I’ve written before about students composing music utilizing their manual skills and their ears to make compositional choices. There is another approach to composition that seems almost the polar opposite and I’ve found the results equally invigorating. Given a sheet of paper and told to write a song, kids’ thinking becomes very pattern oriented. There is perhaps an irony here in that by composing music in this way they think mathematically and visually rather than aurally: initiating patterns of pitches organized along the fretboard of the guitar, writing them in numeric sequences and altering them imaginatively. This kind of patterned thinking grows valuable reasoning skills and allows access to some techniques of music composition wholly absent from standard elementary music education.

This approach of written composition, in this case tablature, allows my young students to play with pattern in whatever way they wish and in this way they are not limited by technical ability. The Tab approach is fundamentally different from composing by ear and it yields fascinating results.  Let’s take a look at Lotte’s composition:

The assignment here was simply to “write a song.” We had been learning the major scale and melodies which use it, and we had begun learning Tab and notation. For first composition assignments I generally keep the parameters to a minimum; kids can write what they will. Lotte simply played with the pattern of odd and even numbers of frets which may have been suggested to her by noticing the pattern of fret marker dots on her ukulele or, she may have had some other inspiration. What she composed is what we usually refer to as a whole tone scale. This structure is common in contemporary classical and jazz compositions, entirely absent from children’s music.

In writing Tab one merely marks the location of pitches on the instrument; rhythm is left out of the notation. I use it as a means to teach the location of pitches on the fret board, for which it is a perfect tool. Also, removing the element of rhythm from the notation cuts the complexity of the task in half, further enabling the composition process. It is exactly this limiting of parameters that I value in this exercise. Composition is normally not taught until a musician is quite accomplished, sometimes high school, more often not until college levels of proficiency. This method allows even beginners an opportunity to try their hand at creating their own musical ideas and developing them into complete statements.

Jane offers a more involved example:

Again the composer begins with an ordering of odd-numbered frets, but then she takes off on a completely new pattern: alternating between the 3rd string and 1st string on the same fret. This she does at 12, 9, 7, and 5. A short 3rd string melody follows and then more 12th fret alternating between strings. This musician tends to let her imagination wander where it will and her composition reflects that. The song goes on for five full lines of Tablature notation; the whole time she plays with the patterns she stated at the beginning.

In composing a visual/manual pattern, students think in a totally different way than they do when thinking aurally. In doing so they receive an added gift in the form of a surprise: they have no idea what it will sound like until they play it! It is my hunch that the above method will help to unite the sounds and symbols of music together into a fuller understanding of the whole. I haven’t got this built into an entire systematic approach yet but what I envision is combining two sides of music creation: first, making choices based on what one knows and can hear or play; and second making choices based on one’s understanding of the intellectual structures of music.

Leave a Reply