Repetition in music

August 6, 2008

One of the biggest challenges that the common music lover has with so-called “modern” or “atonal” music is its lack of repetition. I came out early and confessed to the world that I have a terrible memory and prefer music that incorporates elements of repetition. I put my money where my mouth was and my music has reflected this decision ever since.

Yesterday the professor of music education in our department came running into my office, bouncing with joy like a kid. My 60-something year old colleague had just come from a conference where a major discovery was made about how people best learn rhythms and showed me graphs of the results. The bottom line was that humans learn rhythm best through repetition, and as I looked at the music examples, I realized that the music was very loop oriented. (The term “loop” refers to the era of recording tape where a stretch of magnetic tape was spliced and taped into a loop and it is played. The result is that the sound or music is repeated over and over until someone presses the stop button. So to loop something means to repeat it over and over as though it were a tape loop.)

Today, music software packages include thousands of little musical and rhythmic loops. Even a musical novice could have fun and compose a certain amount of instant music with loops.

As I continue to brainstorm about offering a new core music theory course for an incoming class of Freshmen who are music, world music, and music history majors, I see this as an integral part of our learning method. I am ordering a whole book of African rhythms. I can imagine starting a class with a call and response teaching the class the rhythm, and once they have it memorized, they keep repeating it. Then I ask different class members to do something over the loop whether it be another rhythm, an improvised melody, or a shout.

A few months ago I complained about the youth of the world forgetting its own so-called folk music. To remedy that it occurs to me that it would be fun to alternate classes where we deal with rhythm, with days where we start with a melody. I have the class sing a folk melody — just the melody, and then repeat it 10 times. Then with each repetition, class members are free to find harmony notes, they are free to add claps, or other punctuations, loops and counterloops. This will function effectively in several ways: it will help wake up the student at 9 am (they are not all early risers); it will teach a generation of musicians great folk tunes from around the world; it will instill in them the courage and ability to harmonize a tune, and it will instill the gravity of a musical community.

My colleagues in musicology and ethnomusicology have sent me terrific suggestions of music from around the world to study and sing that is in 1 and 2 parts. Melody of drones from around the world will be sung. Then the students will all compose their own melody-over-a-drone piece.

This will be a perfect set up for teaching species counterpoint, which I will teach to the whole class. But after studying that rule laden endeavor, I’ll have them compose 2 part compositions with no rules, but the rules of their ears.

The biggest challenge in teaching this class is the wide difference in musical abilities. There can be students who have been playing classical music since they were five sitting next to a student who may know 500 songs, but not read a note of music. They may both be outstanding musicians but our traditional educational logic would put the student with less notational abilities in a remedial class. What we have decided to do is to create six simultaneous musicianship sections that range from “I don’t read music at all” to “I can sight read orchestral scores” and we put students with similar abilities into groups together.

These are all ideas I’m tossing around for the class that begins the last week in September. Very exciting to rethink how music can be taught.

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