Misconceptions abound

Post twenty-seven in our (re)learning to teach music series. This is the second of two posts this week responding to the tasks in chapter four in Learning to Teach Music in the Secondary School. This is week six of the collaborative blogging. 

What examples of misconceptions and confusions have you encountered when talking about music in the classroom?

Liz Gleed @MrsGleedMusic

Below are two common confusions I have seen occuring in my music classroom across all key stages and I often try to address them early on. I do find that even misunderstood observations can often be valid and worth a discussion, not to be framed too strongly as right or wrong. Temptation to do the latter can often be led by an exam board context but should not necessarily be viewed as an absolute in understanding music.

Rhythm and tempo I find rhythm can be commonly misunderstood when it is being described. The most common misconception is when a student defines a rhythm as fast or slow instead of describing or identifying the rhythmic values. For example a passage of semiquavers changing to a passage of minims can be misconstrued as going from fast to slow. The misconception often leads to me modeling the clapping of the pulse underneath and asking questions about whether the pulse itself changes.

Texture I find texture to be the most frequently misunderstood of the elements of music. I think one reason is that textures can change so frequently and a passage of music cannot always be pigeonholed into one or even two terms. You can even have simultaneous textural things. The most common error I encounter with texture involves clarity on what is meant by polyphonic. The trap being that students misconstrue having many different instruments at once as being polyphonic, not how those instruments are actually put together in relation to each other.

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

I find the relationship between intuitive language and technical language in Music Education to be really fascinating. In a similar vein to that discussed in the chapter, there are some clear areas where how we describe things in our non-music lives clash with how we tend to describe things in the technical music language context. The more I work in the Primary setting, the more these clashes become regularly apparent.

Here are some examples (that I can think of today) that I encounter on a daily basis:

There are more that present themselves on a daily basis, however these are the most common that I come across. The thing I find fascinating is that every time these words are used to describe music, they only become confusing when looked at through the technical language lens. They make perfect sense when used in the intuitive context, and therefore, we need to be careful not to correct our pupils or make them feel that they’ve used the wrong language. They’ve used the correct words for them at that stage of their development and in that context. The challenge for us is to blend the intuitive with the technical.

Mike Morgan @MikeMMusicED

Describe the volume of the music? “It gets Higher”. But that is mainly left for Pitch. Describe the Pitch? “Its Low, but also high” I find a lot of the misconceptions when talking about music is having the binary option. So many times I have heard the answers above. Music changes and develops, and it is important that pupils are able to recognise that and discuss it. Encouraging them to talk about the shape of a melody, if the music increases or decreases in speed/volume is something which should be encouraged as soon as possible. Debate will be had over if it should be the technical language. Should the pupils be able to use the word crescendo, or is getting louder sufficient? I think that is the most important aspect. Even if adding time in lessons for these discussion also helps with the performing and composition aspects. Especially when giving feedback A powerful question I find when talking about music is asking “What makes you say that?” If a pupils says the music sounds evil, asking them “What makes you say that?” opens up the discussion into the musical terms. Stating the above becomes more personal instead of “whys that?” This has helped a lot in my own teaching.

David House @House_dg

What examples of misconceptions and confusions have you encountered when talking about music in the classroom? There are many, many confusions met with on a daily basis from spelling [saxophone and rhythm are my top two] to a clear understanding of terms and words [rhythm again and syncopation being two examples]. If I highlight a few others: frequently any piece of music, whether it has lyrics or not, is referred to as a “song”; talking about the “beat” will often really refer to the mood; off-beat quavers are usually cited as examples of “syncopation”; generalisations such as “build up” substitute for detailed description of texture, in fact texture itself is a minefield even between music teachers and certainly in exam-style answers even between different exam boards; a piece of music must be Baroque because there is a “harpsichord”; and possibly my biggest bugbear, endemic among sports commentators too, is the misuse of “crescendo” referring to the climactic moment rather than the build up towards it.

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

I think that misconceptions change and develop as students mature as learners. When the students arrive in Year 7, main misconceptions seem to be using the word beat to mean none rhythmic things as well as getting high and low mixed up for pitch and dynamics ( the dynamics were high). Lots of cultural misconceptions also arise as many students are hearing Western Art music for the first time and therefore find it difficult to use the language they have acquired to accurately describe new music.

As they progress, at KS4 texture becomes an area where many misconceptions occur. One of the problems with texture is that the standard GCSE textures, monophonic, polyphonic, homophonic are not quite accurate enough to accurately be used for some of the music that pupils are asked to write about. This comes from many pupils at KS3 being taught about thick and thin for texture, as in number of parts. These blunt tool words become very hard for pupils to distinguish between different textures especially polyphonic one with counter melodies. These misconceptions prove to be very hard for pupils to break out of for when they get to A level and more distinction and nuance is needed to describe texture. 

However the largest place for misconception comes in our favourite French term, timbre. This ‘tone colour’ is one of the most misunderstood and misused terms in music education. Many exam boards use it as a term for instrumentation, which is isn’t. It is how the instrument sounds when played, which is to do with register, dynamics and many other things. Describing the timbre is a very personal thing as different people may use different words and terms to describe what they can hear; it is like wine tasting, some people taste berries, some people just taste wine. Again the blunt tool of the exam board mark schemes means that this term is usually misapplied when used.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

Texture seems to be the one term where the most confusion arises. When we consider what texture can mean in other parts of a pupil’s life (the ‘feel’ of something) it is hard to then explain it is how the different layers of music interact. I always describe it as musical ‘Catchphrase’ – say what you here. But then we have some other words to describe particular textural scenarios (homophonic etc) and then even these are confusing as pupils can often confuse contrapuntal and homophonic (if you describe contrapuntal textures as ‘two more independent lines’ if can be confusing when it doesn’t apply in seemingly independent lines found in homophony). 

I have to admit the terminology can feel very crude; a blunt instrument (forgive the pun) for describing music. But it is a useful code for speeding up the sharing of musical information between a community of musicians, and we are allowing our pupils to gain a broader understanding of music through the careful deployment of these terms. They’re incredibly confusing though, and remain so. 


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