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Help Your Students Discover the “Why” in Music

While it’s important for students to recognize dynamic and expression markings, it’s more important that they understand why those markings are there.

To really tell the story behind every piece of music, students must know the “why” as well as the “how.” A common example is when students play what the music says because it says to do so. When we ask them, “Why are you playing loudly there?” they’ll likely respond, “Because it’s marked forte.”

In doing so, they are reading an abstract marking, not responding to the musical purpose of that marking.  While it’s important for our students to recognize dynamic and expression markings, it’s even more important that they understand why those markings are there and that they represent musical ideas.


trumpet unsplashTake dynamic markings, for instance. It’s important for students to understand the purpose of volume in music. It can create tension, lead to resolution or release tension. Volume also is used to highlight musical layers within sections of music.

Students must learn that dynamic markings are relative to the purpose of the music. Rather than asking about what dynamic marking is used on their part, ask students, “How important is your part here?” or “Is the tension increasing or decreasing?”

The latter helps students understand the concept of musical arrival at a point of resolution or climax, while the former may help them determine the appropriate volume for their part, compared to others.

I call this their “me” volume (how loudly they should play) as opposed to our “we” volume (what the overall ensemble volume should be).

Tonal Changes

Accidentals and key changes often alter the tonal center of a section of music. If we provide students with the knowledge of where the harmonic structure is leading, they might be able to better anticipate and understand accidentals that occur in a piece.

For instance, when a melody is restated in the key of F after being played in Eb for most of the work, it usually is heightening the tension and excitement of the piece by raising the tonal center. A lowered third could signal the change of modality from major to minor, thereby altering the overall mood of the piece from light to dark. This may also affect the style being used. Helping students understand the purpose of tonal changes will increase their awareness of accidentals and key changes.

Expressive Articulation

Style and expressive markings give human emotional qualities to music. Students must understand the techniques necessary to produce these articulations, as well as understand why they are being used, so they can apply them appropriately.

Because many of these terms are often derived from a foreign language, it’s important to define them well. For instance, staccato is usually interpreted as “short, light and separated,” but many young musicians will only play the notes short.  Once they understand that the intended emotion is light, like walking on tiptoes or lightly tapping one’s shoulder, they can usually employ the appropriate amount of volume as well as note length.

Similarly, you might try having the students stomp in time to feel and better understand the effect of marcato.

Accents and Emphasis

You can help students understand how accents change the emphasis of a phrase with the following demonstration:

  • pointing finger pexelsWrite the sentence “You must leave now” on the board and ask students to read it aloud.
  • Then underline the word “you” and ask the students to shout the underlined word when reading the sentence. “YOU must leave now” (pointing at them while saying the word).
  • Erase that line and then underline “must” and have them read the sentence again. “You MUST leave now” (shake your index finger for emphasis).
  • Next, underline “leave,” and have students say, “You must LEAVE now” (while pointing at the door).
  • Finally, underline the word “now,” and have them say, “You must leave NOW” (perhaps pointing at a clock or watch).

Discuss how the change in emphasis changes the purpose of the statement, and how in the same way accents can affect musical emphasis.

Melody, Accompaniment and Counter Melody

watch movie unsplashOther important musical concepts for students to understand are melody, accompaniment and counter melody. One example that helps students understand how the elements of melody and accompaniment work together is to watch a movie scene that focuses on one character but has other characters in the background. The main character is usually in tight focus, while the others are not as much. You might also point out that it is the presence of the other characters that fills in the scene. The background elements that are not characters also help to define a sense of place or time. In this way, students can come to understand how background elements of accompaniment and harmonic structure are important to establish the character of a section of music, while at the same time supporting the main character, or the melody.

A similar point can be made with counterpoint by comparing it to a musical conversation that takes place within a scene.

Musical Line

Probably one of the finer skills for musicians to learn is the concept of a musical line. Every line has a beginning, a middle and an end. Every line always comes from somewhere and leads to somewhere else.

I often use the description of a roller coaster ride, even graphically depicting a phrase of music on the board, to help students grasp the overall picture of where they’re taking the music. The more hills and valleys, the more interesting the ride is!

All of this can help students understand that notes and rhythms themselves aren’t music.

Music is what we make of it!

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