Should We Measure Our Students’ Musical Growth?

An Unnecessary Introduction

            Back in 1943, the linguist and all-around genius Rudolf Flesch created a readability formula. Basically, it’s a mathematical formula you can apply to a piece of writing to measure how readable it is. In 1948, Flesch revised the formula; and you can still find this revised version in Microsoft Word if you 1) click on “tools” at the top of your screen, 2) scroll down to “spelling and grammar,” 3) click on “editor,” and then 4) click on “document stats” at the bottom of the page. A window called “Readability Statistics” will pop up telling you, among other things, your document’s Flesch Reading Ease score, which is a number between 0 and 100.

            I won’t go into too much detail about what the reading ease score means—mainly because no one writes about Flesch’s work better than Flesch himself, and I hope all of you will seek out his books and read them. For now, I’ll simply say that if your piece of writing scores around 60, then it’s readable without being flippant or sophomoric. Is a higher score closer to 100 automatically better? No. If samples of your writing consistently score above 70, then your writing may not sound mature enough to be taken seriously by the adult audience you want to reach. If, on the other hand, your writing dips below 50 or, heaven forbid, creeps into the low 40s or (shudder) the 30s, then few readers will persevere through your prose. A score in the low 60s is, for me, the Goldilocks ideal.

            Random samples of my book The Ways Children Learn Music average a Flesch Reading Ease score of 62—a home run into the left field bleachers! This was not by chance. I revised my book dozens of times, tested dozens of 100-word samples, until I got the Reading Ease score I wanted.

            What’s the readability score of this blog post? Read the whole post to find out.

            Will Flesch’s readability formula, by itself, make you a good writer? Is it a short-cut that can replace years of writing practice? Of course not. Flesch (1954, p. 18) had this to say: “If you feel that your writing or speaking is not up to par and you apply my formula, it won’t make you feel better like a drug; but it will measure how sick you are—like a thermometer.”


            Why am I going into this? To show that you can love writing, love music, love the arts, but still use measuring tools to improve your work. I see no contradiction there.

            The same thing applies to measurement in the music classroom. We can measure our students’ music aptitudes; we can chart their growth with achievement tests and rating scales. And we can do so without turning into data-driven robots who treat kids like cogs in a machine in some dystopian nightmare.

            What got me started on all this was a thread about assessment on a music education facebook page. I will not mention the name of the page or the names of any respondents, of course. But most of the colleagues who weighed in were flatly against measuring student growth. A few of them suggested, perhaps half-jokingly, that music teachers should simply walk around the classroom with a clipboard and pretend to make notes when the principal is watching.

            I wasn’t amused. I have devoted my professional life to measuring student achievement with tests and rating scales—tools I use to help students grow. Some colleagues were, it seemed to me, making light of my life’s work.

            At one point, I thanked the music teacher who started the thread, and then I went on to say the following:

            “Outside of Gordon MLT circles, music education measurement is a tough sell. I never quite got why many music education colleagues are turned off to measuring and evaluating student progress. It seems like we want to have it both ways. We hate it when we’re treated as if we’re not “real” teachers, as if we’re somehow beneath the homeroom teachers. Still, we refuse to put our grown-up pants on by measuring student growth with rigorous assessment. If we’re not going to measure and chart student achievement, then we can’t complain when we’re not taken seriously by our administration, by parents, and by non-music colleagues. The good news is that we can assess rigorously and still make our classes fun!”

            My words fell on deaf ears. And soon the anti-assessment excuses (shown in italics below) started to pour in. My responses are in plain text. Incidentally, I did not respond to these statements on facebook. Not my venue. But this blog is mine, and I’ll say anything I damn please!

  • “I’ve seen Gordon’s tests administered a thousand times. They’re just not for me.”

Have you really seen them administered a thousand times? By whom? Have you seen music teachers use the test results to improve instruction? If you’re so against measuring student aptitude, then why did you waste your time watching another teacher administer aptitude tests a thousand times?

  • “I excelled in music classes. I didn’t become a music teacher or fall in love with music because of my growth in tonal or rhythmic knowledge or increase in music literacy though. I just loved how I FELT in the music room. That’s the only assessment I need or want to give.”

You loved how you felt in the music room. Well, good for you. Now, what about your students? Don’t they deserve to feel good in the music room too? Surely you will acknowledge that if kids have poor tonal and rhythm skills, then they won’t feel good about their music ability in your classroom for very long. Perhaps you find it easier just to ignore the kids who struggle; instead, you choose to focus, spuriously, on the kids who love participating. Did you stop to think that there may be a connection between 1) how often kids participate in music, and 2) whether their performance skills are improving?

  • “I do assess student growth. I just don’t feel a need to formally write it down.”

Since this music teacher clearly went down the rabbit hole, I’ll respond by quoting from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

“The horror of that moment,” the King went on. “I shall never, never forget!”

“You will though,” the Queen said, “if you don’t make a memorandum of it.”

Take a lesson from the Queen. If you’re serious about assessment, don’t rely on your memory. Write it down!

  • We have so little time for assessment.

You and me both, my friend! My belief is that we have time for what we value. Back in the 1980s, when Joe Biden was a senator, he said to his colleagues, “Don’t tell me your values. Show me your budget.” I say something similar to my colleagues and administrators: Don’t tell me your values. Show me your schedule. If you value measurement and assessment, you’ll make time; and you’ll also learn to assess your students’ music growth efficiently. And you’ll chart the growth of every child, not just the ones who are eager to participate.


            Is measuring growth the same as grading? Let me put it this way. I love assessment; I hate grading. Charting individual student growth over weeks, months, and years (!) helps to make me a better teacher. Grading, on the other hand, is a necessary evil. I wish I didn’t have to grade students at all. In fact, I don’t believe in grades. I think it’s immoral for one human being to “grade” another. When we grade, we essentially tell a student what they’re worth. And I find that abhorrent. But, of course, I grade students (with mostly As and Bs) because I must, to keep my job. If grades were completely abolished—and I hope, one day, the human race will be enlightened enough to do that—I’d still measure and evaluate each student’s progress.

            So where are we? Some teachers say they don’t have time to assess student growth; others believe assessment interferes with classroom fun. Are other factors at play? While I was writing this post, a colleague, Heather Shouldice, sent me a link to a study she recently conducted (2022). Her findings showed a provocative correlation: those music teachers who don’t believe assessment is important are more likely to believe in the idea of innate musical talent—the notion that some students have it, while others don’t. And by extension, if some students lack innate musical talent (and therefore cannot grow tonally and rhythmically no matter how hard they try), then why should music teachers bother with assessment?

            Here is my response to her: “Hi Heather, I never thought of it before, but you’re raising a good point: it could be that the MLT folk may be at odds with a high percentage of the rest of the music education community. We MLTers take as a given that all students can achieve musically; no one has zero music aptitude; and because all students can grow, we have a professional obligation to chart the growth of each student.”

            MLT folks do something most music teachers don’t do: We ask every child 1) to sing by themselves, and 2) to perform rhythm patterns by themselves. We shift from a group activity to individual assessment. Then group, then individual, then group, and on and on.

            And how should we communicate with administrators about assessment? My experience is that administrators want to know what we do rather than what and how we measure growth. To that end, I make audio and video documents of students’ music activities, and I share them with my principal. If my principal knows that my students 1) perform group folk dances with consistent tempo, 2) sing with gorgeous in-tune head voice, and 3) love doing it, then the administration is more inclined to listen to me about assessment. But even then, I never delve too deeply into it. I tell my principal something like the following:

            “In my classes, I ask every child to sing and to perform rhythms individually. I go first; they go second. If kids are good at singing and keeping a beat, then they get to perform the tough melodies and rhythms; if a child can’t do the tough melodies and rhythms, I ask them to perform the easy ones. Sometimes 2 or 3 kids will perform together if a student is shy about performing alone. It’s all about meeting the individual needs of each child. And I keep careful records of each child’s achievement so I can meet their individual needs. This way, the high achievers won’t grow bored, and the low achievers won’t grow frustrated.”

            No reasonable administrator can argue with that.


            We music teachers seem to differ from each other about our versions of success. There may be music teachers reading this post who don’t put much stock in assessment. I’ll leave them with this thought:

            Music teachers who say that a lesson was a success based on student engagement are looking only at the kids who are happy and engaged. Those teachers, I believe, turn a blind eye to the kids who are unengaged; they focus too much attention on the forest, with hardly any attention devoted to the trees—the students as individuals. Group engagement in a music class is often an illusion. Those teachers committed to educational measurement and evaluation know that individual assessment plus whole-class involvement is the only way to gauge how well a lesson worked.


PS. The Flesch Reading Ease Score of this blogpost is 66, which means it’s on an 8th grade reading level. It also means that this post was written in a way that’s serious enough to sound serious; but it’s not so densely packed to cause most readers to struggle with the style.


Bluestine, Eric. (2000) The Ways Children Learn Music:  An Introduction and Practical Guide to Music Learning Theory.  Chicago:  GIA.

Flesch, Rudolf. (1943) Marks of Readable Style: A Study in Adult Education. New York: Bur. of Publ., Teachers College, Columbia University.

Flesch, Rudolf. (1948) “A New Readability Yardstick”. Journal of Applied Psychology. 32 (3): 221–233.

Flesch, Rudolf. (1954) How to Make Sense.  New York:  Harper and Brothers.

Shouldice, Heather N. (2022) “An Exploratory Study of the Relationships Between Teachers’ Beliefs About Musical Ability, Assessment, and the Purpose of Elementary General Music,” Visions of Research in Music Education: Vol. 39, Article 6.

My First Adventures With Gordon’s Musical Aptitude Profile

My 5th graders will soon start learning to hear, compare, and write poetic lines in various meters. And they’ll start writing, manipulating, toying with various metrical feet. As far as I know, no aptitude test exists to measure their potential to create poetry.

The incongruity of the last sentence is not lost on me.

How cold and ridiculous it sounds to measure a person’s potential to understand poetry. Poets care about being poetic, not prosaically numerical; they care about metaphor, not means and standard deviations. But I want to be poetic and numerical. I want each child to succeed in my poetry unit; and for that to happen, I must, as Gordon put it (1995, p. 9) “adapt instruction to meet the individual needs of students.” I don’t want students with low aptitude for understanding poetic meter to grow frustrated; and I don’t want students with high aptitude to become bored. I want to find out in advance each student’s potential to succeed so that I can forestall these problems.

But like I said, no test of poetic meter aptitude exists; so I had to use the closest tests available: the Meter and Balance subtests of Gordon’s Musical Aptitude Profile (MAP).

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is my first deep encounter with MAP! I have years of experience with the Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation (IMMA). But I never measured the music aptitudes of upper elementary kids before.

I decided to take the test myself—just the Meter and Balance subtests, the ones that best suit my purpose. I was surprised that the meter test was all about same vs. different, not like vs. different. And I was intrigued by the metrical variety of the test items. Do the musical meters of the test items correspond perfectly with the poetic meters my students will encounter? Of course not. How could they? My students will learn to write in duple-ish meters (iambic and trochaic) and triple-ish meters (dactylic and anapestic). The test includes many items in uneven (unusual) musical meters that students simply won’t encounter in language (unless students write in a sort of multimetric free verse). Even so, my gut tells me that the Meter test will reveal and predict which kids will have loads of difficulty with the poetry unit, and which kids will ace it.

What about the Balance subtest? I found it fascinating. Two melodies start the same. Ah, but which has the better ending? You decide. And so I did. I took the subtest myself, just to see what my kids will face. The Balance subtest is made up of 30 questions—actually, 30 antecedent and consequent phrases. It seemed to me, as I listened to the test, that I was hearing a series of parallel and double parallel periods. I scored 27 out of 30, which ticked me off, because I don’t like the thought of some psychoacoustic tool challenging 3 of my sterling musical choices! Seriously though, I believe the test results will predict my students’ abilities to write extended poetic forms, such as couplets and quatrains.

In October 2022, fifth grade students from the Stephen Decatur School in Philadelphia, PA took the Meter subtest (N = 82) and the Balance subtest (N = 81). In Table 1 below, you’ll see how my students compared with those 5th grade students who participated in the standardization program for MAP roughly 60 years ago.

Table 1:

Let’s first look at the Meter subtest results. The standard deviation (the extent that the whole group deviated in relation to the mean) I obtained from my kids was virtually identical to the standard deviation reported by Gordon. What’s good enough for him is good enough for me. But look at the mean scores. My kids scored a bit higher, on average, than those test subjects Gordon reported on back in the early 1960s. This surprised me because I’m used to students scoring generally lower on IMMA than those reported in the IMMA test manual.

Now let’s have a look at the Balance subtest results. Here comes trouble. The standard deviation shows that my students tended to cluster a bit too much around the mean for my taste. Not enough variability. But the real problem is not the standard deviation; it’s the mean. My kids tended to cluster around the chance score of 15. What happened? Did one class have a bad day, and did they simply drag the whole sample down? Not so. I looked carefully at the results of each of the 4 classes that took the test. The mean scores of each class separately are as follows: 15.41, 13.94, 15.9, and 13.95. Different from each other, yes; but not different enough for one class to have knocked the others out of orbit.

What can I say? The population from which I drew my sample may simply not be developmentally ready for such a preference test. The correct answers were determined decades ago by adults (and adult musicians at that). My kids, at this point in their young lives, are just too far removed from that reality. Just for fun though, I’ll see how well the few high scoring kids—and there were a few—do with the poetry unit, especially when they’re called upon to write antecedent and consequent poetic phrases.

One last thing: With the test results in front of me, on the operating table so to speak, I decided to perform one more quick calculation. How great was the correlation between the two subtests? I compared the subtests based not on my students’ raw scores, but on a conversion to standard scores that Gordon provided in his test manual. I expected a positive, moderate correlation between the Meter and Balance subtests. And that’s just what I got: r = .41, which tells me that 1) the two tests measure different aptitudes, 2) results on one test cannot predict results on the other, and 3) neither test is a suitable replacement for the other.


Gordon, Edwin. Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation. Chicago: GIA, 1982.

Gordon, Edwin. Musical Aptitude Profile. Chicago: GIA, 1965, 1988, 1995.

A Dissenting Opinion About the Music Learning Theory “BIG 9”

The student should be shown how to recognize the meter of a poem, a short sentence, or a name.

Emphasize for the student rhythmic balance through the examination and reading of poetry.

Here we have 2 of my favorite sentences in all of Edwin Gordon’s writing. They appear in Gordon’s Musical Aptitude Profile test manual (on pages 60 and 62 respectively). And they’re not particularly lyrical or poetic. But I love these sentences, first, because they contain the words poem and poetry, and second, because they have nothing to do with what I call THE MLT BIG 9:


Musical meter



Root melodies

Rote songs




How brazen and daring I feel right now by proclaiming the obvious: there’s more to music, more to education, more to audiation, more to life than tonality, musical meter, patterns, solfège, root melodies, rote songs, improvisation, babble, and aptitude.

Several years ago, I submitted a proposal to speak at an MLT conference. I believed I had something important to offer my colleagues. What would my talk consist of? Forty-five minutes of singing and chanting “bah bah bah bah bah bah bah bah” (with the occasional “bum” thrown in to break up the monotony)? Bean bag readiness? Parachute and stretch-band circle activities? Yet another series of songs without words in 5/8 time and the phrygian mode? No. I wanted to blaze a new trail, to speak about something close to my heart: Interdisciplinary music education with a focus on poetry.


My proposal was…coolly received. But after a few back-and-forth emails (during which I felt like I was pleading to include poetry in the MLT universe), I was allowed to go on.

I started my talk with an MLT icebreaker, the tired old chestnut that we learn what something is by learning what it’s not. If that’s the case, I suggested, then maybe if we teach kids to compare music with other disciplines—especially other art forms—we’re engaging students in generalization on a grand scale. I then talked about music education’s closest neighbors: dance and poetry. I pointed out that most of us teach dance with confidence. But what about poetry? Most MLTers probably know very little about it. I then went on to talk passionately about poetic meter, phrasing, and balance. Maybe, I concluded, kids will understand musical meter, phrasing, and balance if we teach them to understand music’s poetic counterparts.

Was I sad that my presentation was scheduled for the clean-up position, at the end of the final day of the conference, around 4pm, when roughly half the attendees had left to make their way to the airport? Certainly. But that’s life. And you have to get over that crap. And besides someone had to go last.

What saddens me still, to this day, is that no MLTers followed up my talk, in discussion or in print, even after many years, with anything remotely like it. And why haven’t they? One reason might be that many of us are secretly afraid of Dr. Gordon’s disapproving voice. What would he say if he knew we were teaching poetry in our music classrooms? After all, poetry seems like a big departure from the BIG 9 that Gordon wrote about incessantly and almost invariantly for his entire career. By talking about poetry in an MLT forum, are we, in fact, betraying Gordon’s legacy?

I offer my MLT colleagues the following 2 answers to this question (after which I’ll shut up and fade away):

First, betraying a brilliant academic’s legacy—especially if we do so with nuance and well-reasoned argument—is a good thing, a noble enterprise, an even greater praise than stealing, the necessary 2nd part of the Hegelian dialectic, and loads of damn good fun!

Second, we’re betraying nothing. I started this post with my favorite Gordonian sentences. In a few inspired, all-too-brief moments, Gordon freed himself from the shackles of the BIG 9 by mentioning poetry.

We who do likewise are in the clear.

PS. Here is a link to a blogpost I wrote many years ago about interdisciplinary arts education:


Gordon, Edwin. Musical Aptitude Profile (test manual). Chicago: GIA, 1965, 1988, 1995.


Second Grade — Dynamics Unit: Lessons, Objectives, Procedures, and Content

Phase 1: Same or Different

Lesson 1

Objective: Students will be able to listen to pairs of musical examples, and then decide if those pieces sound the same or different.


Students listen to the following pairs of musical examples.  After listening to each pair, students respond by saying whether the pair sounded the same or different. (The “S” stands for same; the “D” stands for different. The “F” stands for forte; the “P” stands for piano.)

1.    S          F – Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto, 1st mvmt / F – Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto, 1st mvmt,

2.    D          P – “I Shall be Released” – Bobby McFerrin / F – “I Shall be Released” – Peter, Paul, and Mary,  

3.    S          F – Bernstein – On the Town / F – Bernstein – On the Town,

4.    S          P – Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto, 1st mvmt / P – Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto, 1st mvmt,

5.    D          F – Bernstein – On the Town / P – Bernstein – Cha Cha from West Side Story,

6.    S          I – “I Shall be Released” – Bobby McFerrin / V – “I Shall be Released” – Bobby McFerrin,

7.    D          P – Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto, 1st mvmt / F – Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto, 1st mvmt,

8.    S          F – I Shall be Released – Peter, Paul, and Mary / F – I Shall be Released – Peter, Paul, and Mary,

9.    S          P – Bernstein – Cha Cha from West Side Story / P – Bernstein – Cha Cha from West Side Story,

Sample worksheet created using Google docs:

Lesson 2

Objective: Students will be able to listen to pairs of musical examples, and then decide if those pieces sound the same or different.


Students listen to the following pairs of musical examples.  After listening to each pair, students respond by saying whether the pair sounded the same or different. (The “S” stands for same; the “D” stands for different. The “F” stands for forte; the “P” stands for piano.)

1.    S          F – Beethoven – Symphony No. 7, 2nd mvmt / F – Beethoven – Symphony No. 7, 2nd mvmt,

2.    D          P – “Cry Me a River” – Natalie Cole / F – “Cry Me a River” – Sylvester James Jr.,

3.    S          F – Stravinsky – Le Sacre du Printemps / F – Stravinsky – Le Sacre du Printemps,

4.    S          P – Beethoven – Symphony No. 7, 2nd mvmt. / P – Beethoven – Symphony No. 7, 2nd mvmt.,

5.    S          P – “Cry Me a River” – Natalie Cole / P – “Cry Me a River” – Natalie Cole,

6.    D          F – Stravinsky – Le Sacre du Printemps / P – Stravinsky – Le Sacre du Printemps,

7.    S          F – “Cry Me a River” – Sylvester James Jr. / F – “Cry Me a River” – Sylvester James Jr.,

8.    S          S – Stravinsky – Le Sacre du Printemps / S – Stravinsky – Le Sacre du Printemps,

9.    D          P – Beethoven – Symphony No. 7, 2nd mvmt / F – Beethoven – Symphony No. 7, 2nd mvmt,

Dynamics Unit: Introduction

If you ever hear music teachers tell you that teaching dynamics is a waste of time, don’t believe them. I hear this claim sometimes. When I tell my colleagues — even MLT folks — that I’m writing a unit to teach kids to discriminate aurally between forte and piano, I get puzzled looks. And then a colleague might start talking about fire engines. Seriously, fire engines.

“Kids have heard loud fire engines all their lives,” my colleague insists. “And they’ve heard whispers too. What a pointless waste of time to teach them dynamics! Instead, our kids should learn to audiate harmonic changes while they sing the root melodies of rote songs.”

I can’t argue with that. Among MLTers, teaching root melodies is a big thing (although teaching bass melodies strikes me as a more useful and sensible thing to do, but that’s a discussion for another time). And teaching kids to audiate harmonic changes is a big thing. And so is teaching kids to audiate tonality and meter. You’ll get no argument from me about that. Meter is important, but so is poetry. Recognizing tonalities by ear is important, but so is recognizing vocal registers. And hearing and understanding harmonic changes is important, but so is hearing and understanding dynamics.

I’m not impressed by the fire engine/whisper argument, mainly because fire engines and whispers do not (except on rare occasions) find their way into the music kids listen to. And what does find its way into the music they listen to? I won’t judge pop music, but I will say that what little I hear of it is pretty restrictive dynamically. Songs tend to hover somewhere between mezzo forte and forte; some songs begin at fortissimo and stay at that dynamic level. And the slow ballad that begins mezzo piano, tends to remain there.

Yes, let’s teach kids to audiate a variety of tonalities and meters; let’s teach them to audiate harmonic changes, so that when they grow up they can improvise with other musicians. But let’s not forget that the art of music is multifaceted, and our teaching must reflect that.

And so I’ve created a Dynamics Unit. It has 5 phases:

Phase 1 – Simply compare.

Objective: Students listen to pairs of musical examples and identify whether they are the same or different.

Phase 2 — Introduce “2nd” as a big deal.

Objective: Students listen to pairs of musical examples (familiar and unfamiliar) and then indicate whether the second was quieter or louder than the first.

Phase 3 – Introduce the term “dynamic level”.

Objective: Students listen to familiar and unfamiliar pairs of examples and use the term “dynamic level” to describe whether the 2nd of each pair was quieter or louder than the first.

Phase 4 – Introduce the term “forte”.

Objective: Students listen to familiar and unfamiliar pairs of examples and use the terms “dynamic level,” “soft,” and “forte” to describe the second of each pair.

Phase 5 – Introduce the term “piano”.

Objective: Students listen to familiar and unfamiliar pairs of examples and use the terms “dynamic level,” “piano,” and “forte.”

Each phase has 2-4 lessons. There are 15 lessons in all, spanning about half a school year. Here is an overview of the contents of the unit. (The letter L stands for the word lesson.)

I based my choices of music on the following 4 criteria:

1. Each musical selection must reveal a dynamic level (piano or forte) unambiguously.

2. Each pair of music selections must vary in dynamics, with other stylistic features remaining (as much as possible) the same.

3. The musical selections, taken together, must vary not only in dynamics, but also in genres, performers, styles, nationalities, tempi, timbres, and time periods.

4. The musical selections must not consist exclusively of musicians who are of white, European descent.

In the next blogpost, I’ll talk about each of the 15 lessons (and the music) in detail.

“Same and Different” in 1st and 2nd Grade Music Class

If you’re like most people reading this post, you have not, I feel safe to assume, read Edwin Gordon’s monograph The Manifestation of Developmental Music Aptitude in the Audiation of “Same” and “Different” as Sound in Music. (G.I.A., 1981). I didn’t read it for a long time myself—not because I resisted it, but because I just couldn’t get my hands on it. For years, it was unavailable.

This monograph always loomed in a dusty corner of my mind. “Someday I’ll find a copy and dig into it,” I’d think to myself. But for decades, I never even saw it. And then at a music education conference a few years ago, I caught sight of it for sale in a bin. I knew it was time for me to buy it (the last copy in the box!), read it, and absorb as much of it as I could.

For those of you who plan to read it and don’t want me to spoil the ending, read this post no further! But I feel I must talk about it a little because my 1st and 2nd grade units are largely based on it. So here I go, spoiling the ending: For little kids, it’s a big deal whether two things are the same or different. There. That’s Gordon’s monograph in a nutshell. For more detail on this, I’ll yield the floor—at great length—to Dr. Gordon himself:

There are no two things that are in fact the same; even if two objects, ideas, or sounds could be found that were identical, they would be perceived differently by two human minds or by one human mind on different occasions. In their own way, very young children are probably aware of this. As a result, they become confused when adults speak of sameness.  The very young child must soon learn on his own what constitutes “just unnoticeable differences” between two sounds which the adult accepts as being the same. He must learn that differences in sound may be so slight that adults hear or accept those sounds as being the same. It would seem reasonable that the role of the teacher is to help the young child as soon as possible to determine how much difference must be audiated before one can no longer call two sounds the same.  Only by learning what the adult considers the same can the young child understand what should be interpreted as being different. (p. 45)

It is not unreasonable to speculate that direct concern for sameness and difference in music is substantial during the first three years of life. By age nine, the concern for sameness and difference in music becomes indirect. It is imperative that music educators should know more about concern for sameness and difference in music and how it changes with chronological age. (p. 46)

Here’s what I get out of this passage: Infants have no concept of “same and different”; on the other hand, older kids, ages 5, 6, and 7, place a great premium on whether two things are the same or different; and kids age 9 and older see no need to dwell on such obvious matters.

What does all this mean to the music teacher? A great deal. Let’s explore these stages a little further.

Imagine you’re living at the north pole—I mean exactly at the most northern place on earth. From where you are, what’s north? From your vantage point, “northness” is meaningless. Now imagine yourself starting at the north pole, and then walking south. Keep walking. Keep walking. Now look behind you. Ah, north! It’s just as true for infants and toddlers hearing music: Because everything is different to them, the notion of “difference” just isn’t a part of their lives. Gordon’s listening game Audie catches 2- and 3-year-old children just at that precious time when they’re beginning to tell unlike things apart.

What happens as children get older? The notions of same and different fascinate them. I used to administer the Intermediate Measures of Music Audiation (IMMA) to my 1st and 2nd graders. To prepare them, I’d hold up a pencil and say “first.” Then I’d hold up a different object (a stapler, let’s say) and I’d say “second.” Then I’d ask, “Are these the same or different?” The kids of course would answer “different,” but what amazed me, year after year, was that no 1st or 2nd grader ever thought it was a ridiculous question! They treated it with the utmost seriousness.

What about kids in 4th and 5th grade? At this age, kids start to think conceptually, categorically; in other words, they put musical content in a mental filing cabinet and label it. And the “label” might be tonic major, or alto register, or duple meter, or woodwind chamber music. Two different tonic patterns will sound different; but on a deeper level, they belong together in the same category. (And now I’m starting to think that the MLT inference level called Generalization-Aural/Oral might be as much a stage of musical development as it is a level of learning. But that’s for another blogpost.)

What does all this have to do with how music teachers should teach? Please take a look at my Genre Unit for 1st grade:

You’ll see I introduce each new bit of content by asking children to compare two items, and then tell me whether they were the same or different. I ask my 1st graders to do this throughout the unit, which takes place throughout most of the school year.

What about the Dynamics Unit (which I’ll be posting in the next day or so)? It’s designed for 2nd graders, who are starting…just starting…to outgrow their fascination with “same and different.” You’ll notice I still ask them to attend to sameness and difference in the music they hear, but only at the beginning of the unit. By the end, “same and different” has disappeared.

In my units for older students, I expect them to think categorically: Is the tempo of the piece they’re hearing andante, adagio, or allegro? Is the singer’s vocal register soprano, alto, tenor, or bass? For younger kids, such a unit would be ridiculously inappropriate.

And now we come to why I wrote this blogpost. I wanted to prepare you for my Dynamics Unit, which catches kids at a transition moment (the 2nd half of 2nd grade), when they’re leaving “same and different” behind, and just beginning to group content into categories.

Vocal Register Unit, Phase 2: Alto vs. Bass

As you scan the various music links below, you’ll see nothing new in the bass examples. This may seem like unnecessary repetition, but I find it helps most students. Even if some students can learn at a faster clip, I still believe in introducing one new bit of content at a time—in this case, the alto register. During this phase, students compare new alto examples with familiar bass examples. And once again, I start with “Greensleeves” and “Danny Boy.”

Lesson 4

Typically, I begin Phase 2, Lesson 4 by asking students to listen to the following 2 musical examples, one after the other.

1. Bass – “Greensleeves / What Child is This? (Paul Robeson),

2 Alto – “Greensleeves” / “What Child Is This?” (Alfred Deller, countertenor),

Students are, by this time, familiar enough with the lessons, that I no longer have to ask, “How were they different?” I still require that students name the registers they hear by reading one of the following sentences:

The singer we are hearing sings in an alto register. 

The singer we are hearing sings in a bass register.

In classic MLT fashion, students learn what the alto register sounds like by hearing that it sound different from the bass register. Often, students will comment that the alto voice sounds like a soprano. I tell them that they’re right: Sopranos and altos do sound similar, but a soprano can usually sing high notes more easily, and an alto can usually sing low, deep notes more easily. I keep the explanation as basic as that. One or two students might ask, at this point, will we ever have to compare sopranos with altos. Yes we will, I tell them. But I reassure them that they won’t have to do that today.

I then play the following musical examples.

3 Alto – “Danny Boy” (Sarah Vaughan),

4 Bass – “Danny Boy” (Paul Robeson),

After students listen to each example, I call on individual students to name the correct register. As before, they read one of the following sentences:

The singer we are hearing sings in an alto register. 

The singer we are hearing sings in a bass register.

Here is a screen shot of the worksheet students are to complete for homework. I created it, like all the others in this unit, using Google Forms; I hope it helps you as you design your own assessment tool.

Lesson 5

In class, I tend to play only the first 2 music items—one bass, one alto. I ask individual students to name the register they hear by reading one of these sentences.

The singer we are hearing sings in an alto register. 

The singer we are hearing sings in a bass register.

Once I’m satisfied that most of the students can do this, I move on to another activity. Students are required to listen to and identify the remaining examples for homework.

1Bass – Song of the Volga Boatmen (Paul Robeson),

2Alto – Handel – Jephtha – In gentle murmurs will I mourn (Anne Sofie von Otter),

3Alto – Gershwin – Our Love Is Here to Stay (Ella Fitzgerald),

4Bass – Mozart – Marriage of Figaro – ‘Non più andrai’ (Samuel Ramey),

5Alto – Jerome Kern – “Yesterdays” (Billy Holiday),

6Bass – Handel – Serse – “Del Ciel d’amore sorte si bella” (Andrea Mastroni),

Lesson 6

1Alto – Walter Schumann – “Hush, Little One Hush” (Kitty White),

2Bass – Mozart – Marriage of Figaro – “Se vuol ballare, signor Contino” (Hermann Prey),

3Bass – Bizet – Carmen – Toreador’s Song (Nicolai Ghiaurov),

4Alto – “Tiny Sparrow” (Mary Travers),

5Bass – “Every Time I feel the Spirit” (Paul Robeson),

6Alto – Handel – Messiah – “Oh Thou that Tellest” (Catherine Robin),

Quiz 2

1Bass – Handel – Serse – “Del Ciel d’amore sorte si bella” (Andrea Mastroni),

2Alto – “Tiny Sparrow” (Mary Travers),

3Bass – Mozart – Marriage of Figaro – “Se vuol ballare, signor Contino” (Hermann Prey),

4Alto – Gershwin – Our Love Is Here to Stay (Ella Fitzgerald),

5Alto – Walter Schumann – “Hush, Little One Hush” (Kitty White),

6Bass – Song of the Volga Boatmen (Paul Robeson),

7Bass – Bizet – Carmen – Toreador’s Song (Nicolai Ghiaurov),

8Alto – Handel – Jephtha – In gentle murmurs will I mourn (Anne Sofie von Otter),

9Bass – “Every Time I feel the Spirit” (Paul Robeson),

10Alto – Handel – Messiah – “Oh Thou that Tellest” (Catherine Robin),

11Alto – Jerome Kern – “Yesterdays” (Billy Holiday),

12Bass – Mozart – Marriage of Figaro – ‘Non più andrai’ (Samuel Ramey),

Polonaise #4 in c minor, op. 40 #2

What a ride it’s been learning this piece along with my student! My performance, as usual, is rough around the edges. But then, it’s a rough piece. There’s not a whole lot of tenderness in this work. Even the relatively mild middle section has its jagged moments. Arthur Rubinstein once said that the Polonaise in A major is the symbol of Polish glory, while the Polonaise in C minor (this one) is the symbol of Polish tragedy. The harsh dissonance of those minor ninth intervals in the main theme’s final appearance (marked fortissimo) are more brutal than tragic, and I tried not to hold back! My overall approach to this piece was to keep it moving. It’s marked allegro maestoso, which I take to mean that it must never get mired in sluggish sentimentality.

My impression, as I rehear my performance, is that it’s too headlong, too breathless in places. I’ll leave that for my student to judge when I play it for her during her next lesson.

Polonaise #4 in c minor, op. 40 #2, performed by Eric Bluestine

Vocal Register Unit, Phase 1: Soprano vs. Bass

For the past week or so, I’ve been revising my Vocal Register Unit. I removed many of the vocal items kids found confusing or ambiguous, and I’ve replaced them with (I hope) easier examples. This unit is a monster! An unwieldy beast! And yet my students don’t really seem to mind it. Some really enjoy this unit—maybe because kids find the human voice more accessible and more compelling than instrumental timbres—or maybe because they know the terms alto and soprano from choir.  Kids in upper elementary grades do especially well with this unit.

Because it’s so involved, I won’t present the whole thing to you in this blogpost. Instead, I’ll give you a least a rough sense of what the whole unit is about. And I’ll go into Phase 1 in detail.

Many years ago, when I first taught kids to compare vocal registers, I assumed they could do it easily.  They might need, I thought, two or three lessons to really have it down.  Now I’m older and wiser.  Yes, kids can easily discriminate between a soprano and a bass.  Even very young children can do that.  But the sound of a tenor versus that of an alto is a whole other matter.  Middle vocal registers are not easy for kids to tell apart.

In this post and others that follow, I’ll show how I teach students to discriminate among all 4 vocal registers — soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Double click below to see an overview of this unit.

As you can see, the unit takes roughly 24 weeks (the bulk of the school year) to complete. In this blogpost, you’ll see a fairly detailed description of the first lesson; then, you will find audio files of each musical example the students hear during the first 4 weeks of the unit. I’ll be posting Phases 2 through 6 in the next several weeks. For now, let me take you through Phase 1, which consists of 3 worksheets and a final quiz.

Lesson 1

First, students compare extreme registers, which, as I said before, is easy for them to do.  (No student yet has mistaken Paul Robeson’s bass voice for that of a tenor, alto, or soprano!)  You’ll notice I keep the pieces the same at first:  two versions of the song “Greensleeves/What Child is This?” and two versions of the song “Danny Boy.” As students advance through the unit, they hear greater stylistic variety, but in the beginning, kids need help focusing on vocal register; and the only way I can do that is to vary only the register, but keep everything else (as much as I can) constant.

Throughout this unit, whenever I introduce a register, I make sure kids hear several versions of “Greensleeves/What Child is This?” and several versions of “Danny Boy.”

Typically, I begin Phase 1, Lesson 1 by asking students to listen to the following 2 musical examples, one after the other.

1. Bass – “Greensleeves / What Child is This? (Paul Robeson),

2 Soprano – “Greensleeves” / “What Child Is This?” (Méav Ni Mhaolchatha),

After students have heard these examples, I ask the class, “How were they the same?”  Students invariably answer that the melody was the same.  Then I ask, “What was different about the two pieces?” Typically, the students will say, “The words were different.”

“What else?” I ask. Then they say, “The singers were different.”

I press the point.  “How do you know the singers were different?”  Eventually, the kids will give me the simple, correct answer: one singer sang high, and the other singer sang low.

And that’s when I introduce the term register.  “A singer who sings high is singing in a high register; a singer who sings low is singing in a low register.  These registers have names, and we’re going to learn the names of two registers today.  What you’re about to hear is a singer who sings in a soprano register.”  Then I put the words soprano register on the board as I play the version of “Danny Boy” sung by Méav Ni Mhaolchatha. (Look her up. She’s marvelous!)

3 Soprano – “Danny Boy” (Méav Ni Mhaolchatha),

When that musical example is finished, I say to students, “Now you will hear a singer who sings in the bass register.”  I show students the words bass register as I play the version of “Danny Boy” sung by Paul Robeson.

4 Bass – “Danny Boy” (Paul Robeson),

When that musical excerpt is finished, I tell students, “Now I will play the two examples we started with. Your job is to tell me, after you hear each one, which vocal register you heard — soprano or bass.”

The students, when called on, must choose one of the following sentences to read from the whiteboard in the front of the classroom:

The singer we are hearing sings in a soprano register. 

The singer we are hearing sings in a bass register.

After I ask roughly 5 or 6 students to compare the examples (and of course, I insist they read the sentences correctly), I move on to another activity.

After students are introduced to each new weekly lesson, they must complete a worksheet for homework. I created all the weekly homework forms using Google Forms; each form is a 2-option, multiple choice quiz. Here is a screen shot that I hope will guide you as you create your own form. Each homework assignment looks basically like this:

Readers of this blog may be familiar with other units I’ve written. If so, you may recognize a pattern to how I teach:  I never introduce one thing, and then tell students, “This is called such-and-such because I say so.”  Instead, I follow a basic tenet of Gordon’s Music Learning Theory:  we learn by making comparisons.  In this case, students learn what the soprano register sounds like by comparing it with the bass register, and vice versa.

During weeks 2 and 3, I usually play only the first 2 examples in class. After students listen to each example, I ask them which vocal register they heard. They generally answer correctly; and they complete the remaining examples for homework. If a particular class is having trouble, I’ll take a few extra minutes in class to reteach the material from the previous week.

Lesson 2:

During weeks 2 and 3, I tend not to maintain sameness across examples. I may begin a lesson by replaying “Greensleeves/What Child is This?” or “Danny Boy” (my go-to “same” pieces), but I don’t dwell on those pieces for long. I move quickly to examples that vary not only in vocal registers, but also in tempi, dynamics, styles, time periods and genres. My experience is that students can aurally discriminate between soprano and bass registers well enough that I need not hold other musical factors constant.

In class, I tend to play only the first 2 music items—one bass, one soprano. I ask individual students to name the register they hear by reading one of these sentences.

The singer we are hearing sings in a soprano register. 

The singer we are hearing sings in a bass register.

Once I’m satisfied that most of the students can do this, I move on to another activity. Students are required to listen to and identify the remaining examples for homework.

Let me say a word about the musical items and how I order them. I learned long ago that if I simply alternate examples, or if I play too many of the same examples in a row, students will figure out my pattern, and they’ll stop concentrating. (They might think to themselves: “The last singer was a bass; the next one has to be a soprano.”) To make sure that doesn’t happen, I deliberately avoid placing examples in a predictable order: soprano, soprano, soprano, bass, bass, bass; or soprano, bass, soprano, bass, soprano, bass. Instead, I vary the order, perhaps this way : Bass, Soprano, Soprano, Bass, Bass, Soprano.  The following week, I might change the order as follows:  Bass, Soprano, Bass, Soprano, Soprano, Bass.

Here are the vocal register examples that students are to listen to for homework. As they listen, they must fill out a worksheet that I created using Google Forms. Here is a screenshot of a typical worksheet, which I hope will give you some guidance as you construct your own worksheet for your students:

1Bass – Bizet: Carmen – Toreador’s Song (Nicolai Ghiaurov),

2Soprano – My Fair Lady – “I Could Have Danced All Night” (Julie Andrews),

3Bass – Mozart – Marriage of Figaro – ‘Non più andrai’ (Samuel Ramey),

4Soprano – O Holy Night (Leontyne Price),

5Soprano – Mozart: The Magic Flute – “Queen of the Night” (Roberta Peters),

6Bass – Handel – Serse – “Del Ciel d’amore sorte si bella” (Andrea Mastroni),

Lesson 3:

1Soprano – Ave Maria (Kathleen Battle),

2Bass – “Volga Boatmen” Russian folk song. (Paul Robeson),

3Soprano – Bach – Cantata #208 – Schafe können sicher weiden (Emma Kirkby),

4Bass – Mozart – Marriage of Figaro – “Se vuol ballare, signor Contino” (Hermann Prey),

5Bass – “Every Time I feel the Spirit” (Paul Robeson),

6Soprano – Handel – Alcina – “Tornami a Vagheggiar” (Natalie Dessay),

The quiz that concludes Phase 1 consists of musical items students have heard before, but in different order. It is not a homework assignment: students complete it during class. I play each of the examples, one at a time; then students fill in the answers on their chromebooks. Then they press the submit button when they’re finished.

Quiz 1

1Soprano – Bach – Cantata #208 – Schafe können sicher weiden,

2Bass – “Volga Boatmen” Russian folk song,

3Bass – Bizet: Carmen – “Toreador’s Song”,

4Soprano – Handel – Alcina – “Tornami a Vagheggiar”,

5Soprano – O Holy Night,

6Bass – Handel – Serse – “Del Ciel d’amore sorte si bella”,

7Soprano – Mozart: The Magic Flute – “Queen of the Night”,

8Soprano – Ave Maria,

9Bass – “Every Time I feel the Spirit”,

10Bass – Mozart – Marriage of Figaro – ‘Non più andrai’,

11Soprano – My Fair Lady – “I Could Have Danced All Night”,

12Bass – Mozart – Marriage of Figaro – “Se vuol ballare, signor Contino”,

Here is a recap of what happens in Phase 1:

Students learn two vocal registers in tandem so they can make comparisons.

Students learn the two most extreme registers—soprano and bass—because these registers are incontrovertibly different from each other; and as such, students can easily distinguish between them.

Students begin by comparing vocal examples that are almost identical, except for the crucial difference of vocal register.

Students hear the selections and compare them before they name the vocal registers — which is another tenet of Music Learning Theory:  hear it first; name it second.

Students learn first through my direct instruction; after that, they name (without my help) the vocal registers of unfamiliar examples they hear. Another MLT tenet: students draw inferences about music that’s new to them based on music familiar to them.

Be on the lookout for Phases 2 through 6 appearing in the next week or so.