The Rules and Creativity of Music

Factory based learning

I’ve been reading a lot of articles in the last 12 months about how the way we teach kids in schools is all wrong; that we’ve ended up with a factory way of teaching kids.

There is a push (especially amongst those involved in the tech industry) to promote a more problem solving, team based, creative thinking form of learning. This makes sense for the tech community as they rely on ‘outside the box’ thinking to create wonderful new products and solve unusual problems. Prescribed, memorised learning helps little for that kind of work.

“Left-brained”, “Right-brained”

Music is supposed to use/promote both the artistic and creative “right-brain” thinking and the logic and rule based “left-brain”. It’s become obvious to me though, that music taught one-on-one tends to follow a formulaic (left-brained) approach. Music notation are the rules and formulas (it’s a musical recipe) and one just memorises the patterns through repetitive practise.

I find that most students tend to learn best formulaically and I’ve adopted this form of teaching. Essentially the lessons have become a series of: here is a new piece of music, let’s go through it and figure out how it works. It’s basically problem solving, but with rules. Like math, there is a wrong to play written music; the rhythms and notes are either played correctly or not.

It’s only once the student becomes more advanced and understands these rules that they begin to free themselves from left-brained (logic/rule thinking) and start to experiment more (be more creative). Written music can’t notate absolutely everything; it’s not going to show musical shape, phrasing and dynamics to fine detail. That’s up to the musician to embellish.

The famous clarinet composer Carl Maria von Weber only wrote minimal articulation in his clarinet pieces because he left it up to his clarinet soloist friend Heinrich Baermann to bring out all the creative flare.

This is what I try to encourage when students get to a more advanced level but what can there be done before this happens?

Making Short Compositions

On Thursday I tried something I haven’t done for a while and I wrote a short piece with one of my students who’s been studying grade 2 theory. This was a chance to exercise some of the creative thinking that My student was pretty keen (not all are, but you could tell she was) and I got out the manuscript. I had her draw out a treble clef and a common time signature and we started.

Now, it’s hard to just come up with something out of thin air so I proposed a two bar motif. I picked C major and played a simple tune where the only tricky part was a syncopated rhythm at the end.

First she (we) wrote down the rhythm on the manuscript; just writing all the notes on the same line. Counting aloud the 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & helped with the syncopation. Then we took that rhythn and rewrote with the correct pitch.

Great, so far so good.

Then came the creative part. “…how about you create another two bars based on what we’ve just written down?”

And that’s what we did, almost, because we ran out of time. It will be interesting to see what creativity my student can come up with for next week. At the end of the lesson she was busy trying to think of a title. Maybe I’ll even offer to take the finished work and copy it into Sibelius so there’s a printed copy.


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