Category Archives: SQA Exams

Nominal Fallacy

There’s nothing as refreshing to one’s professionalism as a challenging shot across the bows, particularly if it comes from a distant field. The admiral of thought in this case was neuroscientist Stuart Firestein, (chair of the Dept of Biological Sciences, Columbia University). His excellent contributory chapter to This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking (edited by John Brockman of Edge fame) is entitled The Name Game. Early in the short chapter he cites a phenomenon which he and others call nominal fallicy – namely (pun intended) that being able to put a name to something equates to, increases or is the beginning of understanding. Often, in science, this can mean the end of investigation or, at least, a postponement in favour of nameless phenomena.

This caused me some alarm as, to say that naming is a big thing in my daily round, is an understatement. I always stress to pupils – and the younger the pupil, the more so – that without names things cannot be discussed. To offer young minds some context I ask if they would respect a teacher who knew all their names more than one who had to rely on descriptions like ‘the boy with the fair hair beside the window’. Without exception they unhesitatingly express a preference for the former.

Why am I so keen on names? Apart from belief in Wittgenstein’s assertion that “what can be said at all can be said clearly,” there are simply too many areas in music to survive otherwise. Pitches, durations and techniques cross the paths of new pupils from the outset. Later, myriad musical concepts – often in Italian appear. These feature heavily in SQA exams and it part of our job to support our classroom colleagues in this endeavour.

Soon, I began to relax as I realised that Firestein was referring solely to the naming and taming of unknowns. The elements of music which crop up in lessons have, in most cases, been established for centuries. So, crisis of confidence over – for the meantime. However, it was enlivening to experience a mirage of a fundamental shake-up.


Postscript: numeracy in music has its own taxonomy. We use the following:

Arabic numerals – fingering (left hand – as right hand uses initials for Spanish finger names)

Roman numerals – position e.g. 1st finger based at fret 5 = V

Circled numbers – string number

The above three are internationally used. We also use numbers written in a square to represent ‘phrase number’. To help pupils see and hear connections and variations we use, for example, 1, 2, 1, 2a.

Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP)

In October 2011 I applied to participate in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP). Under the mantle of Creative Learning Networks, the idea was to enhance creative learning in the (public sector) workplace – school, community etc. One spin-off would be that silos who have neither time not opportunity to communicate would have reason to come together, in the interest of learning. This very much appealed to my cross-curricular mind-set.

Under the leadership of Ruthanne Baxter – then Arts Education Officer and Manager for Creative Learning Network in East Lothian – I was paired with Caroline Mathers at the John Gray Centre in Haddington, soon to be moving into its new premises in Lodge Street. Various ideas were discussed and two projects were agreed:

  1. a short series of videos where working composers would give tips to pupils to help with the composing/arranging component of the SQA Music courses
  2. an online course in the basics of sound editing – using the free program, Audacity and aimed at oral historians

The latter idea seemed especially fitting for two reasons:

  1. the John Gray Centre is, among other things, a museum devoted to local history and community
  2. this seemed, to me, to fit the cross-sector brief

Five composers were initially scheduled to be involved in the video interviews but, due to various commitments, two were unable to take part. Nevertheless, I feel that the three videos we have will be invaluable to students of composition.

I shall post each of the two outcomes individually.

History of Music

While searching Youtube for a dynamic piece I’d heard on the radio the other day, I stumbled upon an excellent audio-visual history of music in 20 chapters. Each video features key works from the specified historical period, the composer’s dates and photograph (or portrait). Simple idea, excellently done – and ideal for SQA Listening revision. You can access all 20 videos below:

Now Westlin’ Winds

Continuing to experiment with video…here is a hurriedly shot, and appallingly lit, rendition of Now Westlin’ Winds. This is basically an instrumental version of what Dick Gaughan does with Burns’ original on his excellent Handful of Earth album. I did this arrangement a few years ago and a couple of pupils played it their Advanced Higher programmes. The tuning is DADGAD i.e. strings 1, 2 & 6 tuned down a tone (2 fret’s worth). [kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Just after writing this, I discovered that this is Dick Gaughan’s “favourite song of all time.”

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Of all the SQA Listening Concepts, the one* which arises most frequently in the world of instrumental teaching is sequence. This is one which pupils understand and can spot but find difficult to put into words. In the end, we often agree that a the following conditions have to be met:

  • that there is a pattern which can be spotted (seen and/or heard)
  • that, having spotted the pattern, we can predict what should come next (by playing and/or describing)
  • that we should be able to tell whether what actually came next was what we were expecting (by listening and/or reading)
  • that – on a good day – we should be able to pinpoint the deviant note, name it and say what we were expecting to be in its place (by pointing to the page and/or playing)

Here is an example of the longest sequence I know. Most sequences extend to 3 units and break away on the 4th. Some even break away on the 3rd. This familiar sequence has 5 complete units and even begins its 6th breakaway unit on the expected note: sequence 

The discussion of sequences and patterns in other subjects comes up e.g. maths, dance, art etc. Pupils are asked to listen to a numerical sequence and to add the next number:

  • 2, 4, 6, 8, ?
  • 1, 3, 5, 7, ?
  • 1, 4, 7, 10, ?
  • 1, 5, 9, 13, ?

An S1 pupil today offered extremely quick answers to the more challenging of these and when I commented on this he said that he enjoyed, and was quite good at, this sort of thing. For interest’s sake, he agreed to be timed reciting a times table of his choice – he chose the nine times table and we agreed that he should simply announce the products, omit the “nine ones are” prefixes and stop at 10 x 9. His time was 4” – impressive!

If you’re not convinced, try timing yourself simply reading the answers aloud:

9, 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72, 81, 90.

If you achieve a good time, why not try calculating and reciting the answers to another table?

* I’m excluding here the most straightforward ones e.g. ascending/descending or silence

Slow Down, You’re Going Too Fast

Many students across the country use the commendable repertoire from Rock School‘s graded books for the performing components of Standard Grade, Higher and Advanced Higher Music. One of the advantages of the CD which comes with each book is that pupils can play along with a professional accompaniment. This is only a snag when the song concerned is up tempo. By the time a pupil is sufficiently skilled to play along, the primary reason for doing so is no longer relevant. In such cases, I’d recommend slowing down the original track using two free programs:

  1. iTunes from Apple
  2. Audacity from Source Forge

Follow the steps below:

  • import CD track(s) into iTunes (free download from Apple)
  • to check that they will import as wav files (the best sound) follow the route below:
  • Edit / Preferences / Advanced / Importing
  • then check that the pull-down window is set to wav
  • mp3 would work too but the sound is not as good
  • Apple’s own format called AAC (advanced audio coding) will not work in this procedure!
  • download Audacity free of charge from Source Forge
  • Then open a track in Audacity
  • Before doing anything, the program needs to know which part you want to change – in this case it’s the whole track so Select All (short cut Ctrl+A)
  • Go to the Effect menu and go down to Change Tempo
  • be careful not to choose Change Speed – as this will alter the pitch of the notes too – it’s ok for a laugh, but you’ll be in the wrong key!
  • until you get used to this, I’d recommend just using the slider rather than entering figures in the dialogue boxes – you can see the figures change as you do it.
  • experiment a few times and you’ll see how much you need to go – the faster the original song the more you’ll need to slow it down to be able to play along
  • Remember that when you open a tune in Audacity you haven’t lost the original file – Audacity simply makes a copy in its own style e.g. song_name.aup – which then can’t be opened in any other program

Classical Net

It’s amazing what a dispute about composers’ dates can do. In an attempt to prove that Mozart was still alive when Beethoven was born, I entered “composers timeline” into Google and chanced upon a great resource at compiled by Dave Lampson together with a healthy team of reviewers and contributors.

On this very scholarly website, composers are categorised in:

master index, quick reference or a list of lists e.g. nationality, anniversary of birth/death, age at death etc.

There are pdf graphical timelines (very impressive – a feast for the eyes on a classroom wall) and text timelines (lists of dates). There is info on composers (including photos/portraits and biographical information) and a guide to basic repertoire – 7 historical periods: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century & Modern (the final two of which enjoy something of an overlap).

The site also sports links to books,  book reviews and websites.

For anyone interested in the history of western music, this site is well worth a visit.

Tomorrow sees the start of North Berwick High School’s Music Camp, after which wilderness experience I shall be on holiday. I’d like to wish a relaxing break to all those lucky enough to have one.

Pipe Dream?

At a recent in service there were requests from many of my colleagues for instructors to be issued with laptops (pre-loaded with Sibelius score writing software). Our co-ordinator, Peter Antonelli, asked that anyone who already uses their own laptop in lessons email him a description of use. It was agreed that I would post details here and send Peter a link.


  • Calendar (including reminder function) for noting report deadlines, quality assurance, exams, concerts, East Lothian rehearsals
  • Reporting (preparing txt to paste into Filemaker) – we need to save time as access to intranet via school computer (the only route) can be extremely limited
  • Auxiliary record of work – speed of typing and the impossibility of running out of space means that more detail can be included – abbreviations, whose meaning are lost to PTs (and sometimes after the event even to me) can be avoided. Copy/paste as relevant here as it is elsewhere.
  • Compiling SQA programmes including timings, negotiating order of pieces with pupil etc.

Solo repertoire

  • Having own edition of music with preferred fingering, written technical advice/reminders, personal layout choices for ease of reading – e.g. section numbers for ease of finding place – new phrases beginning at the left of the page
  • highlighting or excluding any passage e.g. a paraphrase of the great Scottish folk song “O you play the blue notes and I’ll play the black ones, And I’ll reach bar sixteen before you….”
  • highlighting top or bass notes
  • moving all notes to single pitch to concentrate solely on rhythm
  • having and altering a metronome (click track) for play-along
  • extracting midi file for pupils (usually several at a variety of speeds)
  • extracting passages to create exercises for specific technical points which arise
  • ties – one version with only played notes visible – another with played and held notes visible (sorry for the jargon – no way round this one)

Ensemble repertoire

  • using a file as virtual ensemble in lessons
  • being able to add to or subtract from pupils individual part with their agreement (resaving under their name before extracting to print)
  • preparation of midi files for pupils to take home and also for posting on Exc-el


  • playing pupils an extract of a professional recording of a piece on which they are working e.g. in iTunes
  • playing interesting while tidying up – things which may have come up in conversation in the lesson
  • preparation of supplementary theory handouts
  • preventing pupils from excluding an unpractised piece from the lesson by “forgetting it”
  • Countdown spelling game for concepts and musical terms i.e. spell out the word letter by letter in the hope that someone will recognise it before you get too far into the word

This final use often leads to short discussion about the component parts of the word where separating them out with the spacebar is a great help. I feel that those with an interest in language are more likely to retain the word thereafter. Were we connected to the internet in our rooms, I should love to access my favourite etymological website so that pupils might see from where some the names of concepts arise. Here are a few examples for your delectation:

syncopation   anacrusis   harmony   melody   rhythm   cadence   counterpoint

(I can see a new idea for an additional page on the blog emerging)


As the SQA practical exams approach we are learning more about the exact procedures for “sampling.” For Higher Music, pupils prepare ten minutes of music – of which six are heard. The rationale behind this was presented to us (at an in service last session) as an endeavour to make these exams more like those of pupils’ other subjects e.g. not every topic studied features. Little was made of the 40% saving which also results from these changes and that the difficulty in securing sufficient examining time could be alleviated by these new measures.

We are led to believe that the examiner will select the first piece which is to be played in its entirety. Thereafter, they choose piece after piece, indicating where they would like the candidate to stop. In all cases the pupil begins at the beginning as it is deemed too difficult to begin at random points. The fact that this is precisely how we teach and rehearse seems to hold little sway here.

Most colleagues to whom I have spoken are unhappy with one aspect of this regime Continue reading Sampling

The Full Monty

Yesterday, I experience the widest range of musical experience possible in a single day.

I spent the day at NBHS where the youngest pupils’ reading range is around a dozen notes. Others were putting the finishing touches to their Standard Grade programmes (we now know the examiner’s visit to be in early March).

From there I went to Edinburgh University’s Faculty of Music to rehearse with a postgraduate student from Vigo in Galicia (Northern Spain). We are putting together a short programme of Scottish and Galician traditional music for a concert put on by City of Edinburgh Council – the idea of which is to welcome immigrants to the city. It had been 25 years since I last entered a warren of practice rooms and the cacophonous endeavour brought on a wave of nostalgia.

From there we went to The Queen’s Hall for a concert by Mr. McFall’s Chamber – the pinnacle of writing, arranging and performing. The programme featured musicians from Edinburgh and Newcastle/Northumbria and the (no doubt) minimal rehearsal time was belied by the fantastic musicianship. At that level, one can’t help feeling that music is the first language of those involved.