Tag Archives: analogy

Analogy is key

The depth in which a new musical concept is explained varies greatly depending on the age of the pupils. Often, the first encounter of a concept contains little in the way of technical data, the main concern being to see whether or not the pupils can hear the concept.

One such concept is tonality – or the idea of a piece of music being in a certain key. In the first instance I mention no more than the fact that in most pieces have there exists one note which is the leader, the centre and the foundation of the piece. This seems to do the trick. I play a short extract and pupils then rummage around the fingerboard until they locate the centre of the piece. The gravitational pull is usually sufficiently strong to ensure that most will eventually get there. In fact, the pull is so strong that the key note does not even have to be present in the tune. If you play this extract, you will hear what the key note (aka tonic) should be and that, in fact, should have been present as the final note: click

This fact bewilders most pupils. An implied planet cannot exert a gravitational pull, so how can a note do it? Normally an analogy would be pulled out here to illustrate the point. The problem is that I can’t think of a convincing one. The nearest I can get is that in certain sentences, a missing verb is so obvious that it feels more or less present:

He ****** the ball so hard that it broke the crossbar

But even this sentence has room for doubt.

Can anyone out there think of a parallel situation in another subject?


When I was younger, so much younger than today, a friend said that it was his choice not to read music as he felt it would remove feeling from the picture. I wonder how he would have coped with the assertion that, as a result of playing along with a computer, pupils would more quickly approach the right feel of a piece – even although the computer-generated file was devoid of dynamic variation (see Thoroughly Modern Midi) and flexibility of tempo. But such is the paradoxical world of IT and instrumental music. In a situation where the file will not only produce the written parts but also play-along audio files, it’s important to be fussy about articulation. Many pupils do not acknowledge written articulation but very few do not intuitively go along with it – if it’s contained in, say, a Sibelius or midi file. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising in a subject where the ears of many take in more than the eyes.

What is surprising is that, seated in a mixed group, most pupils will pick out the appropriate feel for their part even in a passage of mixed articulations, such as the one between 0:33 and 0:48 of this midi file-  Jealousy – where the legato notes of the tune and bass parts sandwich the detached notes of the three harmony parts; or between 1:03 and 1:55 where there are three simultaneous articulations:

  • legato tune

  • bass and lowest harmony part employing full-length notes, rests and detached notes

  • upper harmony parts restricted to on detached notes

Also surprising is that when discussing the (as yet unnamed) phenomenon of articulation in lessons, if you ask what aspect of music is being discussed, hardly anyone will guess correctly. Some will suggest, “rhythm” until you point out that, whether this aspect is observed or not, the notes all start at the right time, which is what many people consider rhythm to mean. However, when I say, “I’ll start to spell it out on this laptop screen and you try to guess before I get to the end of the word,” I rarely get passed “articu——”

Many pupils, baffled by the whole idea of articulation, find a way in through the following analogy:

  • detached notes – detached houses

  • legato notes – terraced houses

  • over-laping notes (chords or broken chords) – flats

The reason this topic occupies my thoughts at the moment is that yesterday, in the East Lothian Guitar Ensemble’s rehearsal for the Showcase Concert* I was delighted to see the group knock our arrangement of the Jacob Gade‘s 1925 tango tune, Jealousy into shape in pretty much one go – articulation and all – pretty impressive for a Friday afternoon! Ironically, it has more varied articulation per part than the other two pieces put together. Sometimes things just work out on their own.

* East Lothian Showcase Concert – Friday 27 March at 19:30 in Musselburgh Grammar School.

Floating analogies

Arguments will no doubt rage forever about whether music is a language; whether music is a subset of language; whether language is a subset of music, but one thing seems clear: you can’t use the language of music to explain music to pupils who don’t already play music. Therefore analogy is our currency. The same ones rarely work for every pupil given that their life experiences, hobbies and course choices are so varied. But when one does, it’s a kind of magic.

On Monday and Tuesday evenings, the NBHS Guitar Ensemble played the traditional Catalan Christmas song, El Noy de la Mare. Although the performance on the first night was successful, it felt as though it might be thinking about bordering on rushing – as if people felt that they shouldn’t hang around at the end of a phrase but get on to the next without delay. I found myself saying in lessons the following day that the phrases should feel as though they are floating rather than marching or running. Justifiably, a pupil asked, “what do you mean, floating?” The only thing I could think of was to compare the landing of hurried feet on the ground to the falling of a leaf or a feather – the essential difference being that the latter will not be rushed but rather lands gently in its own time – a moment which can be difficult for an onlooker to predict.

It may simply have been that the pupils felt more confident and relaxed on the second night and that this analogy played no part – but the difference in feel was huge. The piece seemed to drift forward at its own unhurried pace with plenty of breathing space between phrases. I felt as though in the company of professionals and that there was genuine listening and communication taking place (the ensemble is not conducted).

If the analogy did play a significant part, then why has it taken me so long to come up with such an effective one? To where could I have turned earlier? How about using a wiki as a kind of database of analogies? Would Instrumental Instructors and Music Teachers contribute or consult?