Translating musical phenomena into verbal language can be tricky. Most adults are familiar with the use of the words high and low as applied to musical pitch. Specifically, these words refer to the frequency of the musical tone. Higher tones have a more frequent wavelength than lower tones. When physicalizing these concepts, we take advantage of the other meanings of high and low, which refer to points in space. While adults may take this type of synesthesia (mapping of one sense onto another) for granted, these concepts may be beyond the immediate intellectual grasp of young children. In the Dalcroze class, physical experiences can draw their attention to this very elemental musical phenomenon. After a while, many can intuitively demonstrate the awareness of high and low frequency sounds through high and low gestures in space.
To encourage this kind of perception, we have gone apple picking. As they walk around the apple orchard, accented sounds in the upper register of the piano ask them to ‘pick’ an apple from way up high in the tree. Accents in the lower end of the piano ask them to scoop up apples from the ground. This focuses their awareness on specific registers of the piano: high, middle and low in very general terms.
Further exploration of pitch begins with the scale. From the beginning of the year, I have asked them to stand up using the first five notes of the major scale while singing, “Will you please stand up?” Lately, I have been able to drop the singing and just used the piano, the Pavlovian response of standing shows me that they are beginning to hear scale degrees.
I have also used a poem called, “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There” as a way to apply the idea of scale to a dramatic situation. Many of them know it by now – you might ask them to sing it for you. It begins, “As I was walking up the stairs…” As the melody slowly ascends the minor scale (this is the version I sing, there are actually old swing band renditions of this poem), a mystery unfolds. For the older children, we have dipped our toes into scales other than major and minor. Using the xylophone, they have been asked to choose a starting note, other than C, and climb up 8 steps (as the song does). Each new starting point provides a different scale, known as a mode. These modes each have a very different feeling, and I like to give children an aural experience of them, even if they are not quite ready to grasp the music theory behind the concept. As the play up the new scale on the xylophone, the class shows the man ‘climbing up the stairs’, while I provide an accompaniment on the piano that gives them a feeling of whatever mode they have chosen.
Many well known pieces of music use modes. One that the children have been hearing in class include Sleeping Beauty’s Pavane by Ravel.
Finally, older children might enjoy this educational video of Tchaikovsky’s march from the Nutcracker. As the music plays it highlights some of the instrumental and pitch events as they unfold.
Enjoy, and enjoy the holiday season!