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April 9th, 2009
Lesson Plan 1: Experimental Music
Introductory Activity

1) To get the students thinking about the emotions they might relate to everyday things, post the three smileys in different parts of the classroom. Ask the students to describe the emotion conveyed by each (happy, sad, and scared). Tell the students you will name some foods. For each food, the students should gather under the sign that best describes how they would feel if that food item were all they had to eat for dinner one day. (Sample food items might include – ice cream, Brussels sprouts, cheeseburger, zucchini, oatmeal, curried grasshoppers, vegetable broth, extra spicy chili stew, chicken feet, etc).

2) Tell the students that just as this simple exercise shows, we often have emotional associations with everyday things – and we also have these associations with different pieces of music. Tell the students that this lesson will focus on what impact different elements of music have on our emotions.

3) First the students will see if they can use emotion words to describe basic combinations of notes – chords. Load the “Chord Structure Interactive” (or prepare to play chords on a piano). Without telling the students what you are playing, play a chord and ask them to use an adjective to describe it (accept all answers, which could include “happy,” “sad,” and “scared,” but also “rough,” “smooth,” “stable,” “wistful,” “aggressive,” or any other descriptive adjectives). Do the same for several other chords (for example: C Major, C Minor, C Dominant 7, C Minor 7). See if the class can come to a consensus on a few descriptive words for each chord, and tell the students which chords are eliciting these reactions. Make a note of these adjective-chord associations for use later.

4) Explain that in this lesson, the students will be exploring how it is that different music can be associated with different feelings and reactions. Write the heading “ELEMENTS OF MUSIC” on the board. Underneath this, write the words “pitch,” “tempo,” and “timbre”.

5) FRAME the beginning of the first Video Segment, “Elements of Music,” for the class: they will see a few seconds of a video where a scientist demonstrates these terms. FOCUS the students: ask them to listen for how the scientist uses his voice to demonstrate the meaning of the words. PLAY just the first few seconds of “Elements of Music,” and PAUSE it after Daniel Levitin says “variations in timbre.” FOLLOW UP by asking the students to recreate the demonstration. Have the class provide a definition of each term Levitin mentioned (pitch = high/low; tempo aka “timing” = fast/slow; timbre = the characteristic sound of an instrument or voice, e.g. the difference between how a note sounds on an oboe and a violin).

6) Explain that changes in basic elements of music like these are what enable one piece of music to sound different from another. These elements are also what make us feel differently about the music – for example, we tend to think that music in major keys sounds “happy,” and in minor keys more “sad.” Add “harmony = chords, like major/minor” to the list of definitions on the board.

7) FRAME the rest of the first video clip: tell the students that they will see musician Bobby McFerrin and scientist Daniel Levitin discussing how people respond to the basic elements of music. Provide a FOCUS: ask students to determine if Levitin thinks that our responses to music are due to instinct, or are learned.

8 ) PLAY the rest of Video Segment 1. FOLLOW UP with a discussion about whether the responses we have to, for example, major and minor keys are due to instinct or learned, and why? (There is evidence to support the role of both instinct and learning on our perception of music. While some basic aspects of musical perception may be common to all humans, this clip shows that our neurons are very flexible and are shaped by our experience. In other cultures, the associations between music and feeling may not be the same as in Western cultures. For example, much Middle Eastern music is in a “minor” key, but it is not always experienced as sad).

9) Add the following terms to the list on the board: “interval,” “chord,” “melody.” Ask the class for definitions of each (interval = distance between two notes; chord = combination of three or more notes; melody = a sequence of notes, or tune). FRAME Video Segment 2, “Expression in Music,” for the class: in this segment, McFerrin and Levitin will describe how these elements influence how we feel about music. Provide the students with a FOCUS: ask them to use the segment to explain whether our feelings about combinations of notes have changed over time.

10) PLAY Video Segment 2. FOLLOW UP by returning to the focus question (our assessments of certain combinations of notes have definitely changed over time. A major seventh chord would not have been considered “consonant” in Beethoven’s time, but today it fits easily into jazz and other musical styles. This is another example of context and culture’s influence on our musical tastes and feelings).

11) Review the elements of music that have been discussed, asking the students to provide an example of each one to enhance comprehension.

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