Of Bushisms, Banjos, and 20th Century Music

By Hess, Juliet | The Canadian Music Educator, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Of Bushisms, Banjos, and 20th Century Music


Hess, Juliet, The Canadian Music Educator


Every year, my grade eight students and I explore some of the techniques used by twentieth century composers in their compositions. In the following article, I will outline a unit that I do with the students that I teach. In the five years that I have done this project, the level of work and the quality of music that has come out of this unit has been exceptional and the level of success the students have had has been very high.

The Ontario curriculum follows a natural historical progression of western classical music beginning with the Medieval time period in grade four, followed by the Renaissance period in grade five, the Baroque and Classical periods in grade six, and the Romantic period in grade seven. The historical expectation in grade eight, however, refers to the distinction between absolute music and program music, which can unquestionably be explored through twentieth century music, but is certainly not limited to this time period. In my grade eight program, I have chosen to create an expectation that continues the historical progression that began in grade four with medieval music and focus on a time period that has a great deal of creative potential.

I begin the unit by introducing three different techniques from the twentieth century time period: serialism (or twelve-tone approach), aleatory music (or random music), and phasing. We discuss different composers and I explain each approach. We write a short example as a class as a check for understanding. The first portion of this unit is quite teacher-directed and I do not consider this to be a bad thing. Music history is something that I have a great passion for and my enthusiasm always carries over to the students.

Beginning with serialism, I explain the idea of a tone row and we write one together. This is a great way to double check for understanding of chromaticism (i.e. that E-flat really is the same as D-sharp). I use Webern's Op. 28 as an example because it is a piece that I know quite thoroughly, but any twelve-tone piece with a thinner texture would make a good example. We look at the possibilities for composition and we look at the four different forms of rows: prime, inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion. We also discuss the fact that all of these rows can be moved up and down on the staff. I begin with serialism because it is a shock. For many students, it is their first experience of music that does not "sound good" or even intend to sound good. Their disbelief is always apparent after we have done the background and they have heard the recording. Considering the fact that this is a composition project and they know this, hearing the startling result of something that is mathematically brilliant is liberating. Admittedly, serialism is not the most accessible of all of the techniques that I introduce simply from a theoretical standpoint. The reason I continue to use it is because I find the students who have theoretical background tend to like the challenge. As we all remember from grade two rudiments, inverting intervals in and of itself is far from thrilling and this project finally puts to use the skills that many of them have previously considered meaningless. The piece that I use as a model (Webern's Op. 28) is an homage to Bach, and as such the first tetrachord consists of Bb - A - C - B-natural. Many of the students who choose this as their technique with which to compose opt to embed a message of some sort into their tone row. Use of this technique is a way to provide a challenge to students who are often bored in beginner level theory classes because of their studies outside of school.

Aleatory (random) music is the music that I find to be most accessible for this project. We discuss taking the human element out of composition and leaving everything to chance and finding a way to systemize so that every note is decided by external forces. The classic examples for ways to create aleatory music are the use of the deck of cards or a set of dice where the numbers or cards are assigned to notes or note values so that the simple turning of a card or roll of the dice will create the composition without human interference. …

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