Sunday, October 16, 2011

Brain-Compatible Music Teaching Part 2: Teaching “Nongame” Songs – Susan Kenney, 2010 23: 31General Music Today


The article begins with a summary of the previous article entitled “Brain-Compatible Music Teaching”. She revisits the idea of whole song learning instead of breaking it down into phrases and students echoing the musical material. This methodology allows the brain to make meaningful connections through patterning when singing.

In this article, the author explores the brain-compatible assumptions that are consistent with the way we learn music. Firstly, in order to learn a song the brain must hear it many times. This is validated through popular music on the radio, where the listener starts to sing along after multiple listenings. Secondly, the repetition must be meaningful to the learner. This means that students learn songs best through games or activities instead of simply singing. Yes students make take longer to learn the song itself, but their learning will be more meaningful in the end with a focus on the process instead of the product. Finally, the best way to learn a song is through whole song learning, which encourages the brain to find meaningful patterns within parts of the whole.

Children may learn music in these three ways, but what about songs that do not easily lend themselves to actions or games? For these songs, educators can encourage movement to the beat. As the teacher models the whole song, encourage tapping games on different parts of the body. After students are comfortable with the beat, start to develop skills through metre by modeling tapping with an accented beat and conducting a pattern to the song, all while singing the whole song. Remember to take time for repetition, as the brain needs to process all of the new movements along with the melody, and do not be discouraged if some students have not yet sung along with the tune.

Another method of instruction is antiphoning, where the teacher begins the phrase and drops out as the student finishes it. This is more effective then echoing because it encourages students to finish the pattern rather then mirror it. The entire lesson must be rather brief to keep the students attention, but it can be continued next class with the following additions.

One is the use of instruments, where students are invited to play the drum on the accented first beat and move to the weaker beats. Or, if drums are not available, students can play along with the rhythm on rhythm sticks. Auditory Figure-Ground is the next technique used. Here the teacher gives clues about an important word in the song and encourages students to discover it. Once it is discovered, the students start to recognize similar patterns within the music. This exercise could also be done with rhythm patters, where the teacher shows a pattern in the music and students must hunt to find where it occurs again. Finally, you need to give students an opportunity for solo singing whenever possible so you know where they need help.

An important aspect of brain-compatible teaching is how many different skills students can build through learning a song. Instead of just reaching one expectation, the student is achieving multiple expectations at the same time. As long as we remember the cycle of learning a new song (sensing information, integrating information into meaningful wholes, and transforming the meaningful wholes into action) then we can use this brain-compatible teaching technique in each of our classes.


Since reading the first article in this series I have started to incorporate whole song learning in my primary music classroom. Students were frustrated at first because it was not simple echoing, but they were also engaged in learning to “figure out” the patterns within the music. There were points however where I reverted back to echoing to correct mistakes and secure pitches. Now I am going to incorporate some of these techniques, such as antiphoning and auditory figure-ground, in place of simple echoing to check for understanding.

I’ve already begun incorporating movement through beat and rhythm in my classes and encourage students to move along with the music. I also emphasize the accented beat one through use of passing a bean bag around the circle, shakers, and tennis balls bouncing on the down beat. The students have really enjoyed these activities and my next step is to incorporate accapella singing during them. We’ve started to locate patterns in the music already, but it’s mostly teacher lead at this point. I think my next step will be asking the students to find and identify the rhythmic and/or melodic patterns as suggested in the article.

I enjoyed reading this article because it already aligns with my way of teaching. I don’t have to question her motives and whether or not the methods work because I’ve seen them in action. I like that I can pull new, practical ideas from this article that encourage music literacy with scientific support. In my music classroom I try and align our topics with our school-wide math and language program to re-enforce those concepts while teaching musical ones. The response from my colleagues has been positive as the students demonstrate their understanding in their homerooms. I look forward to adding these new techniques to my repertoire and discovering more in the classroom.

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