The Week in a Nutshell, Friday Sept. 30, 2011, Intermediates

In our district the music department is responsible for teaching the science of sound to 3rd and 4th graders. They take a state science test in the spring of 4th grade, so we start in grade 3 and review in grade 4, to be sure that they have a solid grasp of vibration, pitch, volume, echo, hearing and vocal production. Frankly, after the first year I ditched all of the experiments with different sized nails and plastic cups with fishing line attached, and now teach the science of sound as it applies to instruments, the voice and music.

In 3rd grade I begin by sitting the kids on the floor in front of me and reading “Moses Goes to a Concert” by Isaac Millman. ISBN: 978-0-374-45366-4.

Moses Goes to a Concert

I like it because it covers SO many aspects of sound and music. Moses is deaf and attends a school for the deaf, so individual differences are easy to address, as well as how hearing works and why it might not work. He and his class attend an orchestral concert, and experience sound by holding balloons in their laps and feeling vibration. The percussionist also happens to be deaf, providing an opportunity for discussing percussion instruments and the importance of watching the conductor. I use the moment to teach a 4 pattern, telling the students that the percussionist can tell exactly when to play by watching the beat pattern. If she’s supposed to play on 3, she watches the downbeat, across the body, (2), and plays on beat 3, away from the body. The characters communicate using sign language, and sign illustrations are included, so it provides an opportunity to teach some signing.

After reading the book I ask the students to show me with their hands what they think a vibration would look like if they could see it. They usually do something like wiggle their hands up and down. I then give them the definition of vibration: a repeated back and forth motion. To emphasize “repeated” I move my hand one time and ask if that is a vibration. Of course, they know that it isn’t, but I want to be sure that they know why: it must happen repeatedly….more than once….in order to be a vibration.

Vibrations are a difficult concept, because you can’t always see them. I place a piece of paper on the stereo speaker, put on “Born to be Wild” and turn it up. The vibrations move the paper right off of the speaker. Principal: Vibrations create sound. Sound is energy…it can move things!

Next I have 7 students at a time join me around a kettle drum. (The others wait quietly because they want to be sure that they get their turn.) This instrument is not always in the music room, so they aren’t used to seeing it. Therefore, it represents something special and different just by being there. I ask them to hold the palms of their hands about an inch above the drum head. When I strike the drum head with the mallet, they can easily feel the vibrations coming off of it. (This always gets oohs and ahhs.) Next I ask them to gently lay the palms of their hands on the drum head. This time when I strike it the sound is muted. If the drum had cannot vibrate, there’s a lot less sound. Principal: stop the vibration and you stop the sound.

So, they have seen vibration, (paper), and felt vibration. ( kettle drum.)

I want to introduce the connection between sound and hearing, so at this point I address “sympathetic vibration” and the way in which it causes their ear drums to vibrate. First I explain it by striking the kettle drum directly in the center, and asking them to imagine the vibrations coming off of it like ripples in a pond. I move toward one of the students making a rippling motion with the mallet, until I’m in the proximity of their outer ear. I show them how the outer ear funnels the vibration into the ear canal by pretending that the mallet is going round and round and into the ear. Once there, the ear drum picks up the vibration, sending a signal to the brain which they experience as hearing. To actually demonstrate sympathetic vibration, I sing a rather high pitch into the opened piano while holding the sustain pedal down with my foot.


If they’re quiet, (which I tell them to be,) they can hear the piano “play” without my ever touching it. This is because the strings vibrate just like their eardrum does when contacted by sound waves. (vibrations). The same thing happens even more dramatically when you sing a pitch onto the head if the kettle drum. I can then explain that their ear drum is like a tiny kettle drum inside their ear, and it does exactly the same thing as the big kettle drum.

The other thing that I address in this lesson is the relationship between the size of a musical instrument and its pitch.

bass guitar, acoustic guitar,violin, tymp

I pick up the bass guitar, tell them to watch for the vibration, and pull the biggest string. Of course, they can see it vibrating, but because it’s an electric guitar, they can’t hear much. I ask for observations about the guitar…it has 4 strings, they are larger than any of the strings on the “regular” guitar, and the body of the bass is solid. The 6 string guitar is called “acoustic” because it does not need any additional amplification to be heard. They’re pretty good at figuring out that the reason is that the guitar is hollow. I explain that the hole in the front of the guitar allows the vibrations to get inside and rattle around, making the body of the guitar a natural amplifier.

When I turn on the amp and pull on the largest string again, it’s obvious that the bass plays lower pitches than the acoustic. We deduce from this that larger strings produce lower pitches. (Pitch is defined as the highness or lowness of a sound, and I demonstrate with my voice what I mean, since they so easily confuse high and low with loud and soft). Since I have the piano all apart, I can show them the length and thickness of the lower strings as opposed to the shortness and thinness of the upper strings.
They identify by pointimg which end of the piano plays low pitches and which end lays high pitches.
Principal: Smaller = higher pitched. Larger = lower pitched.

Since we’ve talked about vibrating strings and percussion instruments, I ask them to identify one more family of instruments that can be made to vibrate in a different way: wind instruments, which they must blow through in order to produce a sound. Hidden behind my keyboard I have a sopranino recorder, a soprano, a tenor and a bass. As I demonstrate each one for them, I ask a student to hold it, and then bring out the next larger size. As I continue to reveal larger and larger instruments, their attemtion is easily focused on me because they want to see just how big these things can get. They have, by this time, definitely gotten the idea that larger means lower pitched, and smaller means higher pitched.

L-R: bass, tenor, soprano, sopranino

All of this is review for the 4th graders, so I have them write the principals into their music journals. (Intro to note taking. :0) )

I know this seems like a lot, but it goes quickly, and serves to demonstrate just a few principals in a variety of ways. Next week, and then at various times throughout the year I will return to science and elaborate on individual concepts.

In 5th grade I added “sol” to the “do re mi fa” that we were working on last week, and worked on “I’m a Fine Musician.”

I'm a Fine Musician

We’re still using hand signals to review d,r,m,f,s, and still reviewing line and space notes. I note that the bottom note is a line note with a leger line…something you can add if you run out of lines on the staff, and also that the notes alternate line, space, line, space line. We sing do mi sol, line line line, noting that do mi and sol are all line notes. Re and fa are the 2 space notes. This is also a review of repeat marks, and of course, the rhythm. We go through it slowly. When they need help I give it, but try to let them sing as much as they can on their own. This is fairly difficult for them. Once we’ve read through it at least twice, I teach them the words to this echo song: I sing the first phrase, you sing the repeat; I get the second phrase, you repeat etc. They must sing and do whatever I sing and do.

//:I’m a fine musician, I travel through the land ://
d d m m s m m f f r r d

//: I can play a violin://
s s m m ff r

//: Fiddle fiddle fiddle dee, fiddle fiddle dee.://
d d m m s s m f f r r d

When I sing “fiddle fiddle fiddle dee” I play air violin, and they must imitate. Then we add other instruments: clarinet: doodle doodle doodle doo; trombone: wah wah wha wha wha wha wha, with motions and slide effects. flute: held in the transverse position and sung up an octave…doot doot doot.
Drum: boom boom boom with the chhhh for crash cymbal at the end. Trumpet: blah blah blah, rather harsh tone quality. Oboe: hold your nose and sing ee ee ee ee ee ee ee. “I can sing an opera”….hold my hands together in front of me and sing in my best opera quality…la la la la. Use your imagination…you can come up with lots of stuff. I end with “I can sing the rests…” and cover my mouth.

Well friends, I think post is long enough. Next post will be primaries. :0)


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Friday, October 28, The Week in a Nutshell, Intermediate « Tuesday Music

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