Picturing Music

I’ve been thinking about representation lately.

No, I don’t need a lawyer. I’m talking about how we ‘picture’ music. As an experiment last week, I asked my kids to draw a picture of rhythms we were working with during the session. I didn’t ask them to use notation. Some of them are too young to know any notation anyway (the older ones have basic reading skills). I just said, “Draw a picture of the two’s on one side and the three’s on the other,” which had been the focus of the day’s activities.

A few drew groupings of lines or shapes, but most simply drew whatever it is they liked to draw. There were human figures, airplanes, even a well-shaded piece of fruit. I asked them to hold up the side that matched the music they heard, and I improvised music in two or in three. In most cases, I would have been unable to discern which drawing was which by merely looking. I needed an explanation from the artist. When it seemed to me to that there was an identical piece of fruit on both sides of the paper, the student explained to me that the one with more empty space was for the two’s. Of course, the words ‘draw’ and ‘picture’ naturally send kids into a particular mindset. Interestingly, this mindset is usually representational in some way. We don’t always draw what we really see.

Our minds are built to associate meaning with symbol, and musical notation takes advantage of this proclivity. All of the words and symbols on this page are mostly arbitrary. We have agreed on their meaning, and so I am able to communicate with you. It has without question made possible some profound and glorious combinations of sound throughout its history, and yet I find myself wary of placing too much emphasis on it in my teaching. Notation creates a hierarchical grid that is not part of my experience of so much of the music that I make and that is important to me. Making things worse, the names in American English are highly problematic. Four-quarter time? Sure, makes sense. One quarter is 1/4th of a measure of four beats. So how can one “quarter” note stand in for 1/3rd of a bar in three-quarter time? And on and on. (In naming their rhythm units after knitting needles, the British have an advantage here.)

I experience a rich interplay of pulse levels and even meters when I listen to, for example, a Sonny Rollins recording. There is great pleasure to be found in the play of two’s and three’s (on many levels) as my perception shifts from one to another. The musicians communicate through a dynamic, flexible and somehow simultaneously precise and ambiguous rhythmic language. Of course, students learning a Haydn Sonata need to be able to decode the shift from eighths to sixteenths to triplets and then to thirty-seconds, but I am loathe to lock them into that too soon via notation.

When a quarter becomes the de facto representation of a beat, something is lost. Anything can represent a beat: a quarter, an eighth, an apple… In the Dalcroze classroom I try to split the difference between my natural inclination to avoid reducing music to representation too soon and my responsibility to make sure my students are prepared for their music lessons. I want to create musical experiences that will be solid, tangible, lived, felt and authentic. If I am doing that, I can feel more at ease showing them a quarter note and telling them that it represents—or can represent—a beat.

I made the drawings some time ago to help myself visualize a couple poly-meters and cross-rhythms. Some will be easy to see, some less so.

But I’m ok with that.




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