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Summary: Confusion about Musical Theory - Care must be taken when defining musical terms, choose a definition that is appropriate to the student's level of understanding.

Defining musical terms

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At first glance this may seem to be one of those things that is pretty obvious and pretty simple. However, like many aspects of the subject of learning, there is more to it than meets the eye.

A person's understanding of a complex subject like music could be said to be made up of their understanding of each of many thousands of separate concepts. In other words concepts form the building blocks of a subject.

A word is a label that we attach to a concept. By labelling concepts we can communicate more efficiently with one another. So when you use a particular word in your communication with your student you are not using a concept you are just using a label.

Two things are then essential if successful communication is to take place:

1. The student must already have a concept to apply the label to and
2. It must be the same concept that you apply the label to.

The label is the word. The concept is described by the definition of the word.

So My Golden Rule Number 8 says:

Do all you can to avoid using words your student does not understand

There are both negative and positive applications of this rule.

The negative application is that you avoid using words unless you are certain your student understands them.

The positive application is that you make a point of increasing your students 'musical vocabulary' so that they constantly expand the range of words for which they have full and correct definitions.

Now defining a new musical term for your student, especially when they are still fairly new to the subject, carries with it a certain liability. That is, that it is often difficult to provide a thorough definition of a term without including words in the definition that are themselves in need of definition.

For example your student asks the meaning of the phrase 'transpose'. You tell him it means:

"To change a piece of music from one key to another"
They say
"errr what's a key?" You say:
"Its like how many sharps or flats there are in a piece of music" .. begs the response:
"Sharps and flats, what are they?"

You're in pretty deep and there's a great danger of the rest of the lesson being spent in a discussion leading the student into ever deeper layers of complexity, incomprehension and confusion.

So you have to be very careful how you present definitions of a new musical term. Early on, until your student has built a solid base of definitions of key musical terms, make a point of defining words using everyday concepts thus:


"What's it mean to transpose something?"

You, after a bit of careful consideration:

"Well sometimes you play a song with a singer who has a particularly low voice, say, and he complains that the song is too high for him to sing, the way you're playing it. Its possible to change all the chords and notes you're playing so that everything sounds lower by the same amount. This means the song is still recognizable, but easier for the guy to sing. It takes a certain level of musical understanding to be able to change a song like that. We call the process of changing a song in that way 'transposing'. You can transpose up or down."

You go on to demonstrate by playing a simple song in a hard to sing key then changing it into one that's more comfortable.

The student now has a definition he can live with. He knows what transposing is even if he doesn't yet know how to do it. That's sufficient for the time being. At a later stage you will have helped them understand the concepts of notes, scales, sharps, flats, keys, major, minor, chords, harmony, melody, key signature, intervals, circle of fifths, circle of fourths. At this stage they ask the question:

"What does transpose mean?" You can safely answer:
"To change a piece of music from one key to another"

Not only will they instantly understand what it means from that simple definition, but if you have taught them carefully, they will quickly figure out ways of doing it as well!

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Related Pages
 From the Bottom Up
 The Importance of the Major Scale
 Don't believe a word your student says
 Correct Sequence
 Use it or Lose it
 Don't Waste Time Explaining
 The Importance of Repeated Use
 Motivate before Mystifying
 Examine, Revise, Consolidate
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