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Off the Page, Part 2: Explore Simple Melodies by Ear

In part 1 of this series, we looked at five ways to go “off the page” and use pop music to teach musical principles. In part 2, we will look at ear training.

To encourage students to engage with melodies beyond the confines of sheet music and go off the page, consider having them decipher melodies by ear. This approach can be scaffolded to gradually build upon student success. Begin with a “fill-in-the-blank” melody exercise, where a portion of the melody is notated in standard notation, leaving a measure blank. Challenge students to use their ears and musical memory to fill in the missing measure. For this exercise, you can choose a familiar folk melody or a children’s song that everyone knows.

The next step in this process is to have students play a melody they hear from a recording. Select a popular melody that students are familiar with and loop a section at the start of the class. Display it on the board for students to work on while they assemble their instruments as part of their warm-up routine. Play the melody together as a class using the loop, then turn the loop off and have students play the melody independently. Encourage students to infuse style into the melody by experimenting with articulation and dynamics when they play it. Finally, have students share their stylized melodies with the class. This approach encourages students to be more expressive with their single-note playing and helps them better understand melodies when reading them from sheet music.

Notation of the song "Let it Go"

Melody Tab

When playing melodies from memory, it’s helpful to consider where the melody aligns with the underlying chords. Most often, melodies start on chord tones like the third or fifth. To introduce this concept to students, use melody tab notation. In melody tab, chord tones are represented by numbers in place of note heads, and the rhythms are indicated using beams and flags.

notation of the song "Jingle Bells"

Display chord spellings on the board for various instruments in different keys and have students practice these melodies while paying attention to chord tones. To delve deeper into this, encourage students to memorize chord spellings and play melodies using their memorized chord knowledge. This approach not only teaches them about melody theory but also serves as a foundation for improvisation.

Melodic Transcription

Transcription is a challenging yet rewarding skill for composers, improvisers and musicians who play off the page. Beginning with a blank page can be daunting, so guided transcription provides students with a structured approach to learning melodies. Divide students into small groups and provide them with melodies, along with supplied rhythms and starting pitches to assist them in transcribing. Students can use notation software like Dorico or traditional paper and pencil for this exercise. Start with simpler songs, such as Blink-182‘s “All the Small Things” and gradually progress to more complex jazz solos.

notation of the song "Sunflower"

Harmonize a Melody

Teach harmonization in two ways: by ear and through theory. When teaching harmonization by ear, consider it like lanes of traffic. Identify a lane, which represents a chord tone either above or below the melody, and follow the direction of the melody while staying within the harmonic lane. Play a simple melody for students to learn by ear, play chords underneath with a piano or guitar, and have students experiment with chord tones above or below the melody. Let them discover the notes that fit harmonically while following the melody’s contour. Remind them to stay in their lane and find notes that sound good.

For a more theory-based approach, introduce students to harmonization through chord tone analysis. This sample score brings students through an approach of writing harmonies in a more traditional manner. Combine both strategies to create a solid foundation for writing harmonies.


notation about harmonizing a melody, page 1


notation about harmonizing a melody, page 2

Download this Harmonizing A Melody score and view the video here.

Put It All Together

Once students can write their own chordal parts, learn melodies by ear and harmonize melodies off the page, they can create their own complete arrangements. Encourage students to listen to horn arrangements by different artists to understand how timbre changes through instrumental texture and how harmony can be added or removed to create varying textures. Have students select a tune and arrange it together as a call.

Start by collectively storyboarding and narratively planning the melody, harmony and instrumental parts of a song. Then, experiment with different combinations of timbres, ranges and instrument families for the chords, melodies and harmony parts. Perform the song at a concert and explain the creative process to the audience. With practice, students will be able to craft their own arrangements of songs, fostering creativity and expression in a student-centered, project-based environment.

See Part 1 of this series about bringing creativity into the band room.

The materials and methodologies shown in this blog are available in shedthemusic’s Rewire Theory curriculum. Click here to learn more.

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