Steps To Construct a Seating Chart

At the end of the last school year, what did I do? I cut and pasted all my students’ information from their seating charts into 6 documents (one for each grade, 1st grade through 6th grade). Naturally, last year’s 2nd graders have become this year’s 3rd graders; the problem is, I didn’t know, back in June, which 3rd grade class each former 2nd grader would be placed in.  We music teachers face this problem every year.  The only way to maintain a record of my students’ progress from year to year is to store their information at the end of each school year in alphabetical documents.

You can see part of such a document just below this paragraph.  My end-of-year lists—and I have one for each grade—look something like this, with the lists not stopping at C, but going all the way down to Z, and containing roughly 120 students per grade:

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Sarah Albinoni is an in-tune singer who can perform with almost consistent accuracy in duple and triple meters.

Nikki Albrechtsberger is an in-tune singer who can perform with consistent tempo in triple meter, but not duple.

Mia Brahms is quite musical, but she tended to be a behavior problem last year. She is on my “watch list” for this year. I will make sure to seat her away from other kids who might distract her, and I will look for improvement.

Kimarie Bruckner (who pronounces her first name with the stress on the second syllable, mah) cannot quite perform tonal or rhythm patterns accurately, but she is quite adept at performing folk dance steps.

Christopher Bartok rarely performed last year and I often marked him as “not participating.” I will make a point to keep encouraging him.

Aiden Chopin is a wonderful student all the way around.

And Joelle Cherubini has not shown a high level of music achievement… yet. As with Christopher Bartok, I will make a point, this year, to keep encouraging her.

In late August, I got my roster; and that’s when I put my alphabetical lists to work.  Just as I transferred information from the June 2019 seating charts to alphabetical lists, now I transfer information from those alphabetical lists to create new September 2019 seating charts.  Here are the steps I follow:

Step 1: I place kids (regardless of musical achievement) in 4 rows and 8 columns with a bit of space in the middle:

Girl Boy Girl Boy         Girl Boy Girl Boy

Boy Girl Boy Girl         Boy Girl Boy Girl

Girl Boy Girl Boy         Girl Boy Girl Boy

Boy Girl Boy Girl         Boy Girl Boy Girl

(If you alternate boys and girls, you will prevent countless behavior problems.)

Step 2: I arrange the kids by TONAL development so that each quadrant has kids who sing in tune, something like the following:

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I try to balance the 2 sides of the room so that each side, left and right, has an equal number of in-tune singers.  Certain students are marked “TONAL” but are not in choir, perhaps because they sing with too narrow a range, or because they are not quite accurate enough yet.  If I’m working with older students in choir, I might divide the class so that sopranos are all on one side, and altos are on the other side. But this is optional.  Also—and this is a quirk of mine—you don’t have to do it—I like to place more high achievers in the 2nd and 3rd rows, and fewer in the 1st and 4th rows.

Step 3:

I arrange kids by their DUPLE meter achievement, so that each quadrant has an equal number of students who can perform with consistent tempo in duple meter, something like the following:

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As you complete step 3, make sure you maintain the TONAL balance you achieved in Step 2.

Step 4:

I arrange kids by their TRIPLE meter achievement, something like the following:

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As you complete step 4, make sure you maintain the TONAL and DUPLE balance you achieved in steps 2 and 3.

Step 5:

Finally, I look for the dancers, those students who can perform folk dance steps with accurate coordination. I arrange them something like this:

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Why all this hard work?  Because I don’t want my high achievers to be clustered in one corner of the room, leaving the lower achievers to fend for themselves.  Children will learn more from each other than they will ever learn from me; and in my classroom, everyone sings, everyone performs rhythm patterns, and everyone performs folk dances.  And my students teach each other.

The finished seating chart looks like this.

That’s basically it.  At the header of the seating chart, I include a complete list of rote songs the students will learn that year.  (The songs in red are in triple meter; the songs in grey highlight are in minor tonality.)  At the footer, I include the tonal and rhythm exercises and dance steps the kids will work on, and a broad sequence of activities I intend to cover that period.  You may have noticed that the names of some choir kids are highlighted in green, while others are not.  The “green” kids are in choir; the kids not highlighted in green are the ones who got accepted to choir, but opted out.  They still sing beautifully, so of course I put them to work to help other students.

Each seating chart takes between 30 to 45 minutes to construct; but once I have it, I keep it, basically as it is, for the rest of the school year.  Sometimes I have change a child’s seat, usually for behavioral reasons; but mostly what changes week to week is each child’s tonal and rhythm achievement.  As children grow in their skill levels, I simply make a note of their achievement each week.

But enough about that.  Record keeping is for a whole other blog post, which you can read here:

Addendum #1:  Here is a question regarding this post that just appeared on facebook:

“So many questions! Would you consider this a part of your lesson plan for each class that you teach? Also, how often do you see your kids?”

Here is my reply:  I usually see classes once a week. I print out new, revised seating charts for each class each week. (Lots of ink, but it’s worth it.) The seating charts not only help me keep track of each child’s tonal and rhythm achievement, but also give me quick visual reminders of what songs and activities I’m teaching that period.

Addendum #2:  Here is another question that appeared on facebook:

Are these your actual student names? If so, do you think it is smart to have their individual info on a website?

Here is my reply:  I’m smiling, because I thought of the same thing. Read the seating chart carefully, and you’ll see how I licked that problem.

Addendum #3:  Here is another reply, this one from the American Orff-Schulwerk Association Discussion Group facebook thread:  Kudos to you, but does anyone else think this is a bit over-the-top? I mean… interesting, but changing it every week too? Wow! I don’t have time for this. But if someone out there does, and it works for you, go for it. I don’t see the need for all of this. My students barely stay in their seats long enough for it to matter anyway. 😁

Here is my response:  Hi _____, Thanks for your reply. I revise each seating chart in subtle ways every week because the kids’ achievement might change from week to week. One week, a child is an out-of-tune singer; the next week, she’s in tune. As a teacher, I have to make a note of that. I see roughly 700 students a week, and to keep track of students’ tonal and rhythm achievement without a system is simply out of the question. I don’t rearrange kids’ placements every week, except during a rare situation when kids don’t get along and I have to separate them. It’s a lot of work, true. I’m anxious to hear what other general music teachers do to track their students’ tonal and rhythm achievement. Please share.

Addendum #4: Here is yet another reply, again from someone posting on the American Orff-Schulwerk Association Discussion Group facebook page:  I personally find the more I work on a seating chart, the more it flops. The last two years I had kids pull a popsicle stick as they walked into class the first day and sit on that number and it was as successful as ones I have labored over…

Here is my response:  I appreciate the feedback. Just to be clear, I don’t change the placement of the kids unless kids who sit together don’t get along, or they are causing behavior problems. What changes for me are the comments I write under their names — whether their singing is improving, or whether they can perform with consistent tempo in duple or triple meter. Having kids sit where they want usually causes a ton of behavior problems; plus, I typically find that, unless I place them myself, the in-tune singers will get clustered together along with the kids with accurate rhythm. And the out-of-tune, and out-of-tempo kids don’t get to rely on them as easily as roll models. Because I follow a Gordon MLT approach, where every child sings and chants rhythm patterns individually, I have accurate kids perform first for the less accurate kids. This works best when they’re in close proximity to each other. And I can get this only when the high music achievers are evenly placed around the room.

And finally…My wife read my blog post and said that what I’m really creating are “progress” charts; only in the beginning of the year are they seating charts. The seating placements pretty much stay the same all year. The kids’ progress changes from week to week.  When I tell her, “I’m working on my seating charts,” she know I mean progress charts.

Beethoven – Sonata #1 in f minor, Op. 2 #1, 2nd mvmt.

One of my students recently started working on this movement.  I thought I’d play it, just to give her some ideas about it.

You’ll notice in this performance that I take certain liberties with tempo.  And some listeners might find my use of rubato to be excessive.  It’s marked adagio, but my overall tempo is slightly faster.  And yes, there are a few missing notes in the left hand, and the passage work (again, in the left hand) could have been cleaner.  But the essence of the piece is there.

That said, please let me know what you think.

Tonal and Rhythm Rating Scales

There’s a difference between measuring student achievement and assigning students grades.  The way I measure student achievement and growth is rather involved; the way I grade is simple.  I live in a world of A’s and B’s. I rarely give C’s, and I never give a student lower than a 70 (which is a C minus.)  For more information about record keeping, please see the following blogpost:

Here are 2 rating scales I use.

Music Education Domains Revisited

In a recent blogpost, I speculated that formal instruction in music could be divided into 11 domains:

1) Expression/Style,

2) Folk Dance,

3) Form,

4) Genre,

5) History,

6) Melodic/Motivic Phrase Structure,

7) Poetry,

8) Rhythm Musicianship,

9) Texture,

10) Timbre/Register,

11) Tonal Musicianship.

After listing these, I went on to explain 1) what I mean by “history,” and 2) why I do not include “culture” or multiculturalism.  Basicially, I wrote that culture is embedded in music itself.  There’s no need to isolate it.  As for multiculturalism, when you expose students to music that features a variety of styles, textures, forms, genres, timbres, dynamics, tonalities, meters, and so on, such music must inevitably come from many cultures and time periods.  To include multiculturalism as a separate domain would be redundant.

Then I talked about “history,” by which I mean the evolution of music over time.

Here is the blogpost I’m referring to:

I’ve been thinking about this in the last few days, and I’m on the verge of reconsidering a few things.

First, where does harmonic understanding fit in?  Mostly, it belongs under the heading of Tonal Musicianship, but we can certainly reinforce students’ understanding of harmony when we teach “texture.”

Second, where does music literacy fit in?  Reading and writing music notation are parts of tonal and rhythm musicianship, but we must also teach students how to read and write stylistic and expressive cues.  And we also must teach students to read tonal and rhythm notation combined.  (This topic deserves lots of attention, and lots of blogposts.)

A third issue — and maybe the thorniest — has to do with musical development.  Yes, “history” covers musical development on a macro level, over many decades, and even centuries.  But we can’t overlook the micro level — the way a single piece of music unfolds from start to finish.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to think about how a piece develops:  The first way is to isolate a single element in the work (tonality, key, meter, tempo, motivic manipulation, etc.), and then chart the course of that one element.  The second way, the more advanced and intriguing way, is to see how two or more elements develop in tandem.

Let’s take the simpler way first: one element in a single piece of music, and let’s make it… tonality.  If a piece remains in one tonality throughout, fine.  But if a piece modulates (or seems to modulate), then we have some thinking to do.  It might seem counter-intuitive, but ambiguity can show up even when you’re focused on a single domain:  Is this Chopin Mazurka in major tonality most of the way through (with a brief episode in minor)?  Are those frequent B naturals merely raised 4ths borrowed from lydian? Or does the piece modulate to the lydian mode, and then modulate back to major?  Each answer is valid.  (And yes, I’m performing.)

Chopin – Mazurka #15 in C major, Op. 24 #2


Now, let’s think about the more complex way a piece unfolds, by examining two elements developing in tandem.  Take a moment to listen to part of the Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby.”  (This time, the Beatles are performing.)


The song is in duple meter throughout. Or more exactly, the music is in duple meter.  The lyrics, on the other hand, reveal something different.  “Picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been.”  If you analyze the lyrics, you’ll notice that, much of the time, they are in dactylic pentameter.  A dactylic foot in poetry is a grouping of 3 syllables in which the stress falls on the first syllable (as in the words “totally” or “privatize”). Place 5 such syllable groupings in a row and you have dactylic pentameter:

Picks up the  / rice in a / church where a / wedding has / been.

(The final foot has only one syllable.  It’s called a catalexis — a metrical foot in which one or two syllables do not appear at the end of a line, even though you expect them to be there.)

Many of the lyrics in “Eleanor Rigby” are in triple-ish meter.  True, some lines are not.  “I look at all the lonely people.”

I look / at all / the lone– / -ly people.

Iambic tetameter with a hypersyllabic final foot.  Quite duple-ish.  If you were to analyze the lyrics in “Eleanor Rigby,” you’d find frequent metrical modulations occurring.

Not so with the music; the music is in duple meter throughout.  So, is “Eleanor Rigby” in duple meter or some form of combined meter?  The answer is that each way of understanding the song is valid, and — here’s the important point — one reason the song has remained a memorable classic (when so many songs from the 60s have sunk beneath the waves) is the ambiguity it presents between the musical domains.  Yes, the string quartet is cool, the syncopated rhythms are funky, the poetic imagery is tantalizing.  But the ambiguity between the musical meter and the poetic meter is what makes it great!

If you want to read more about poetic meter, please see the following blogpost:

Unambiguous art — art free of conflict — doesn’t hold our interest across generations, across decades, across centuries.  Teaching our students to understand conflict in a piece of music, the push and pull of elements working in tandem, whether it resides in a Beatles song or in a Chopin Mazurka, is crucial to music education.

So then, the word “development” should be on my list of domains, but it’s too involved to be mentioned just once.  What I ought to do is to make two broad categories:  basic domains and complex domains.  If I remove “history” from the basic domain list (and save it for later), then we have this:


1) Expression/Style

2) Form

3) Folk Dance

4) Genre

5) Melodic/Motivic Phrase Structure

6) Poetry

7) Rhythm Musicianship

8) Texture

9) Timbre/Register

10) Tonal Musicianship



1) Development of one domain in one piece of music, perhaps resulting in ambiguity within a single domain (as in the Chopin example above).

2) Development of two or more domains in one piece of music, perhaps resulting in ambiguity between domains (as in the Beatles example above).

3) Comparison of how a single domain develops in more than one piece (which is basically Gordon’s 5th stage of audiation).

4) Historical development of domains over time.

Now it’s starting to make more sense.  But it’s still very much a work in progress.  Those of you well steeped in Gordon’s Music Learning Theory will notice that #1, development of one domain, is Gordon’s Stage 4 of audiation; and #3, comparing a single element in more than one piece is Stage 5 of audiation.

One glaring omission in Gordon’s work, in my opinion, is that he never accounted for the ways two or more musical elements develop in tandem.  But that’s for a whole other blogpost.

“Foundational” skills

On a recent music education facebook page, someone wrote the following:

“List for me, as it relates to elementary general music, the basic and most foundational skills we as music teachers should pass down to our students.”

Here is my response:

Skills are inseparable from content. (In theory, you can separate them, and sequence them, but in practice, they must go together.) If you want to teach the skill of singing, kids have to sing something. Will they sing in major, will they sing in minor, or dorian, or lydian? Or let’s say you want to teach them the content of triple meter. But what will they do with that content? Will they perform in triple, create in triple, improvise in triple, read in triple, write from dictation in triple, compose in triple, theorize about triple?

Ideally, if you want your students to get the most out of tonal and rhythm instruction, they should have the chance to move through stages of — brace yourself — preparatory audiation. They should receive informal guidance in music, before they receive formal instruction.  When you talk of “foundational skills,” the stages of informal guidance are really what you want.

Once students are ready for formal music instruction, you’ll want to base your curriculum on 11 domains: 1) Expression/Style, 2) Form, 3) Genre, 4) History, 5) Melodic/Motivic Phrase Structure, 6) Texture, 7) Timbre/Register, 8) Poetry, 9) Folk Dance, 10) Rhythm Audiation, 11) Tonal Audiation.  Hope this helps.

Let me now expand on this a bit.  I wrote a blog post many years ago that explains why I include poetry and folk dance in my curriculum.  Here is the link to it:

I should explain what I mean by history; or perhaps I should explain what I don’t mean.  I don’t think it’s our job, as music teachers, to delve into the Civil War, the Great Depression, or any other historical period, and then play music that coincided with that period.  I am not saying we should avoid all references to general history.  What I am saying is that we make a mistake if we design our general music lessons to focus on social studies, general history, or any subject unrelated to music or the other arts.  To teach general history (with a few music examples sprinkled into our lesson, almost as an afterthought) is not a way to present music in its cultural context.  Instead, it’s a way for music teachers to avoid the hard job of teaching music!  Musically educated students understand that music is not merely a byproduct of culture or an addendum to history; music is culture. There’s no better way to learn about Jewish culture than to hear and understand the frequently changing tonalities in the music sung during a Friday night service.

Now, let me say what I do mean by “history.” Music, itself, has a distinguished history and evolution.  The stylistic features of much Baroque music are different from those in Renaissance music.  But there is still much overlap.  Contrapuntal procedures (inversion, retrograde, and so on) were in use centuries before Bach and Handel wrote fugues.  Renaissance composers such as Dufay, Janequin, Marenzio, and Byrd (just to name 4 of my favorites) used these devices with great sophistication to produce sublime music.  To teach our students that music evolved (without necessarily becoming “better”) is a profound gift we should give them.

Tonality Test (Original Version)

It’s been a busy time.  My kids have rehearsals and concerts and martial arts practice, and I’m driving them all over the place, and loving every minute of it, but what can I do to clear my head?  The answer’s all too clear:  Write a tonality test.  It’s finished, at least in its initial form.  In final form, the test will be much shorter.  (It’s 23 minutes long, even without verbal instructions.)

Please take a moment to listen to each example.  I’ve included commentary after the music, and intend to write more extensive commentary after I wake up from a long, deep sleep.

Here are the test directions, which I intend to record in the next few days.

You will hear some short pieces of music.  Listen carefully, because you will be asked to indicate whether each passage is in major or minor tonality.  If the piece of music you hear is in major tonality, circle the word major.  If the piece of music you hear is in minor tonality, circle the word minor.  Look at your answer sheet and find Example #1. Now listen to Example #1.

(Play Example #1)

Gould, Morton – Holocaust Miniseries (opening theme)


There is a circle drawn around the word Minor because the piece of music you just heard is in minor tonality.  Now listen to Example #2, and then circle your answer.

(Play Example #2)

Bach – Brandenburg Concerto No. 1 In F Major, BWV 1046: IV. Menuetto


You should have circled the word Major because the music is in major tonality.  We will now begin with question number 1.  The number of each piece of music will be announced before the music is played.  Each piece of music will be performed only once.  Listen to the entire piece before circling your answer.


Bach, Johann Christian – Concerto, Op. I. No. 6 in D Major: Allegro Moderato

Peter, Paul, and Mary –  “Polly Von”

Haydn – Symphony No. 95 In C Minor, Hob.I:95: III. Menuet

Scarlatti – Sonata In C Major, Longo 104, K. 159.

Chad Mitchell Trio, “Dona Dona”

Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto In D, Op. 35 – 3. Finale: Allegro Vivacissimo

The Moscow Male Jewish Choir – Modim Anachnu Loch

Vivaldi – The 4 Seasons, Op. 8/1, RV 269, “Spring” – 1. Allegro

Sweet Honey in the Rock – “Silvie”

Bach – Suite No.2 in B minor, BWV 1067 Rondeau

Chopin – Prelude #10 in c sharp minor (Marian Filar, pianist)

The Weavers – “Yerakina”

Bach – Concerto BWV 593: I. Allegro Moderate (arranged for woodwind ensemble)

Handel – Imeneo – Act 2 – “Consolami mio bene”

Nielsen, Carl – Quintet for Winds, Op. 43: IV. Tema con variazioni

Handel – Hercules Act 2 –  “Wanton god of amorous fires”

Beethoven – Ecossaises, WoO 83

Bach – Brandenburg Concerto #4, 1st mvmt.

Aviva Duo – “B’Arvot Hanegev”

Beethoven – Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68, “Pastoral”, 1st mvmt.

Mozart – Requiem Mass In D Minor, K. 626: III. Dies Irae

Haydn – String Quartet #62 In C, Op. 76/3, “Emperor” – 2. Poco Adagio, Cantabile

Telemann – St Mark Passion – Aria “Lieblich’s Wort aus Jesu Munde”

Mendelssohn – Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49. 1st mvmt, Molto Allegro E Agitato

Bach – Partita #3 in E major – Gavotte En Rondeaux

Handel – Israel in Egypt – “He Smote All the First-born of Egypt”

Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass – “Zorba the Greek”

“Hey, Ho, the wind and the rain” (Alfred Dellar, countertenor)

Handel: Suite #3 In D Minor, HWV 428 – 6. Presto

Vienna Boys Choir – “Edelweiss”

Southern Sons – “Above My Head, I Hear The Music In The Air”

Mozart – Symphony No. 25 in G minor, 1st mvmt.

The Armstrong Family – “How Can I Keep from Singing?”

Handel – Belshazzar, “And War and Slavery Be No More”

Vivaldi – Concerto, RV 108 for Guitar, String Orchestra, and Bassoon in A Minor (Originally for Flute, 2 Violins, and Basso Continuo), 3rd mvmt.

John Denver – “Matthew”

Mendelssohn – Lied Ohne Worte (Songs Without Words) No. 32 in F Sharp Minor, Op. 67, No. 2 (arr. F. Hermann)

Handel: Parnasso In Festa, HWV 73 – Aria: Del Nume Lieo

Buddy Holly – “Everyday”

Beethoven – Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67: I. Allegro con brio


Each item in this test has 2 options: Major tonality or minor tonality.  The test shows—I hope you’ll agree—great stylistic variety. But achieving that wasn’t easy!  I tried to choose items that were musically engaging in their meter, tempo, dynamics, style, articulation, timbre, and texture.  But much music was closed off to me.  Much Renaissance and early Baroque music is sort of major-ish, but the harmonies dance around the resting tone without that push-to-the-dominant quality, which is one of the defining characteristics of the major/minor system.

Let me go into this a bit.  I’m not knocking the importance of teaching kids to audiate other modes; I’m just saying that major and minor are qualitatively different from other modes.  In dorian, for instance, you have the tonic, subtonic, and major subdominant with its raised 6th; but somehow… there’s no push to arrive at 3rd base, which, in turn, urges you on to home plate.  The push toward the dominant, and the dominant/tonic relationship are the two things that set major and minor apart from the other modes.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, much music was closed off to me. Medieval?  Renaissance?  Forget about it.  My test items start with the late Baroque—with Bach, Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi, and Scarlatti.  (And even with these guys, I faced the scourge of every tonality test designer: the dreaded Picardy Third!)  Much of the test is an aural cross-section of the 18th century.

By the time we get into the 19th century, passed Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, new problems creep in.  True, the Chopin prelude and the Mendelssohn Song Without Words are explicitly in the minor mode.  But so much of 19th century music features dense chromaticism and frequent modulations.  Let me interrupt myself again just to offer this opinion that when you arrange Chopin’s incomparably gorgeous piano music for other instruments, the results are always terrible.  His melodies suggest a bel canto singer, or a violin, or often a cello, but when you transcribe his music, you only butcher it.  By making explicit what’s implicit, you end up killing it.  Mendelssohn is the opposite.  His piano writing, to me, always cries out to be transcribed for chamber instruments.  So I hope that this violin/piano version of his F sharp minor Song Without Words will not offend anyone.

But getting back to the test… What’s a test writer to do with all these restrictions?  Seek out folk music, naturally.  Jewish, African American, Greek.  I included some great stuff, music I’ve listened to and been devoted to my whole life.

You may have noticed, as you listened to the excerpts, that there are almost an equal number of vocal and instrumental items.  I never placed more than 2 vocal items in a row, and I never places more than 2 instrumental items in a row.  And the order of the tonalities follows the same rationale that I used for the Meter Test.  I arranged the test so that no more than 2 items with the same tonality appear consecutively.

That’s about it.  I’ll leave you with just this last thought.  Bennett Reimer was right (sort of) in his notorious debate with Gordon, during which he chastised Gordon for focusing too heavily on songs and patterns to the almost total exclusion of … how shall I describe them?… masterpieces.  He was wrong by suggesting that MLT must work this way, but I still think he discerned a disturbing trend.  Let me put it this way:  Major is not just major; minor is not just minor.  Or to put it still another way, my students have not adequately learned to audiate minor tonality just because I’ve taught them functional patterns and a few rinky-dink rote songs in the minor mode that I made up in my car while driving to work.  Mozart’s minor is different—and better—than Bluestine’s minor.  Why?  Because Mozart surrounds his minor tonality with form, timbre, texture, phrasing, dynamics, tempo, meter; and those elements work in cooperation, or… they don’t! They may conflict with each other; and such conflict—meter telling us one thing, timbre telling us something else— often makes a masterpiece a masterpiece.

But musical aesthetics is for a whole other series of blogposts.  It’s late and I’m tired.  Goodnight, and thanks for listening.