Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Peanut Butter and Jelly of Western Harmony

Rice and ____. Burgers and ____. Bread and _____. Milk and _____. Fish and ____ . “You’ve got 40 seconds to gets kids’ attention” is the prevailing wisdom and so began my 6th grade music lesson on harmony. The kids were immediately hooked as they filled in the blanks with “Beans! Fries! Chips! Butter! Cookies!” At least most of them did. Some said “Vegetables. Buns, Roses. Coffee, Bananas (a SF School joke—it's the way I teach kids to take off the F and B bars on the xylophones).” Trained to honor divergent thinking, these answers were also accepted.

I went on:  “Batman and _____. Lilo and ______. Simon and _______. Abbot and _______.” And that’s when I lost them,  “???? !!!” was the collective look they gave me, their way of saying “Dude, is that some geezer trivia? “I didn’t dare go on to Laurel and _______, Burns and _______, Gilbert and _______, Rodgers and ________ (two answers here), Fred and ________. Never mind dip into history with Lewis and _______, Antony and ______” Isis and _____. (And, dear readers, how are you doing? Feel free to send in your answers via the comment section. Or offer more pairings of your own.)

Having slipped through the back door into the main theme of the lesson, their attention now turned to the two xylophones I brought out. While I played a C drone on the bass, a volunteer played each note of the scale several times. The group had to rate with their “thumb-o-meter” the relative compatibility of each note with the bass. C and G turned out to be as natural a mix as Peanut Butter and Jelly and E was as good match as Batman and Robin. A and F were interesting, but D and B seemed like they should never sit together in class with C. Just too much tension.

The idea of comparing relationships between notes as if they were compatible food groups or duo teams of people is an intriguing way to discuss Western harmony— more playful, more relevant, more real for kids then the usual dry and abstract rules. After that little exercise, I sang the song we were to learn while playing C in the bass. Early on the melody lands squarely on a B. It was clear that it didn’t fit with the bass. What to do?

“Change the B” is one logical answer, but the song is the song. We don’t get to change it anymore that we get to kick out Barry from the class just because he doesn’t get along with Cathy. So what if the chemistry between Barry and Cathy is a bit tense? Can’t be helped. But it turns out that Barry and George hit it off famously. So when the B comes in the melody, the bass note needs to change from C to G. Welcome to Western harmonic theory! From here, the relationships get as complex as a Shakespeare farce or the characters in Downton Abbey, but the cornerstone are the notes that get along with the I chord and those that prefer the V chord. (And lest you think it’s simple, the fact is that put an E and G in-between the C and B and things are suddenly hunky-dory— a perfectly compatible Major 7th chord.)

With notes, there are some scientific laws of acoustics that do a reasonable job of explaining consanances and dissonances. (Though, as often happens, science falls short of explaining why Bulgarians might consider the interval of the 2nd pleasing to the ear and the Germans prefer the 3rd.) But how to explain the attractions between people, the chemistry of groups, the way some things please us and others disgust us? And why even bother to explain? We walk through this world in a tangled web of relationships, leaning toward this person or thing that brings us alive and avoiding that which shuts us down. And to make matters more complex, the ones we pledge undying love to, certain we have found our soul-mate, are a moving target. They change, we change, the times change, our needs change and suddenly the once-consonant chord doesn’t please us like it used to.

Now the 6th graders and I have a new vocabulary. "Hey, Tom! You're being a bit B to my C right now. Can you come up to C or at least drop down to G?"As good a classroom management tip as any. 

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