A few days week ago, my friend (if I may be so presumptuous) over at Blue Cereal threw down the gauntlet for #oklaed bloggers to talk some content. I’ll admit, I’ve struggled with bringing this post to fruition. But, he is my favorite-person-I’ve-never-met, so I’d hate to disappoint.
I teach music. That’s a PK-12 certification*. When I first started teaching, it was K-12. Upon finishing my master’s degree in music education, I was rewarded by the state of Oklahoma by being asked to fork over another $25 to have a new certificate issued that listed my new master status. Lucky me. Upon its arrival, I was surprised to see that in addition to my new level of education, I had also been certified to teach another grade level. I must have done that in my sleep.
All of this is to say that PK-12 Music Vocal/General is a lot of content. I found it difficult to narrow it down to one concept, or performance skill, or piece of literature, or curriculum resource…
I’ve been using this lesson on the first day of school for a few years now, and it’s always been a big hit.
We start by defining beat. Beat is the steady pulse underlying all music. I ask students to put their hand over their hearts or take their pulse at their necks. The conversation usually goes something like this:
“Can you feel your heart beat?”
“Is it constant and steady? Or random and irregular?”
*constant and steady*
“Does your heart always beat at the same speed (tempo)?”
“What are some times when your heart beats at a slower speed (tempo)?”
*sitting, resting, sleeping*
“What are some times when your heart beats at a faster speed (tempo)?”
*running, playing, lifting heavy things, being nervous/anxious*
“Just like your heart, music has a steady pulse called beat. And just like your heart beats at different speeds, different music may also have a fast or slow beat depending on the song.”
We then listen to several songs and I ask them to “find the beat” by tapping or patting it somewhere on the body. It’s very important that they feel the beat, not just hear it. I use music that they know and like. You should hear the middle-schooler’s excitement when I start with Ariana Grande or One Direction. I also throw in a few “oldies”, like Fleetwood Mac and Journey because they tend to have very strung percussion and/or bass so it makes the beat very apparent. New bands like OneRepublic and Imagine Dragons also have very strong rhythmic pulse.
Here are some of the selections from my “first day” playlist this year:
- Gotye—Somebody That I Used to Know
- Fleetwood Mac–Chains
- The Killers—All These Things That I’ve Done
- American Authors—Best Day of My Life
- Young MC—Bust a Move
- Journey—Don’t Stop Believin’
- Lady Antebellum—Compass
- Imagine Dragons—I Bet My Life
- Michael Jackson—Smooth Criminal
- Avril Lavigne—Keep Holdin’ On
- Pitbull (feat. Ke$ha)—Timber
- Coldplay—A Sky Full of Stars
- Ellie Goulding—Anything Could Happen
- Cupid—Cupid Shuffle (I make them dance to this one!)
- One Republic—Good Life
- Paul McCartney—Dance Tonight
- Disclosure (feat. Sam Smith)—Latch
- One Direction—Story of My Life
Obviously, we don’t have time to listen to all of these. I usually play about the first 20-30 seconds. Just enough time for them discover the pulse, and before we get to the whatever isn’t “school appropriate” in some of them.
Once we understand beat, I use it as a springboard to talk about meter.
Some teachers will use the terms “time signature” and “meter” interchangeably. I have been guilty of this in the past, and I’ve seen some texts that do this. However, this is incorrect. “Time signature” and “meter” are related, but they are NOT the same. A time signature is two numbers found in the score (at the beginning, and sometimes in the middle if it changes) that tell us the number of beats in each measure and the value of each beat.
Meter is MUCH broader. Simply put, meter is the organization of the beat. Unlike time signatures, of which there are many, there are only TWO meters, or two different ways to organize the beat: simple and compound. In simple meter, the beat is divided into two equal parts. In compound meter, the beat is divided into three equal parts.
So now, we go back to the music. I play the songs again, and first we find the beat. Then, I ask them to listen for how the beat is divided. If it’s divided equally into TWO parts, the word “apple” fits on every beat. If it’s divided equally into THREE parts, the word “strawberry” fits on every beat. Once we figure out how the beat is divided, we can identify the meter: Simple (or “apple”) Meter or Compound (or “Strawberry”) Meter.
This song from OneRepublic is a great one to start with because you hear a strong beat at the beginning. When the piano enters at :08, you hear the subdivision of the beat very clearly (ap-ple, ap-ple, ap-ple, ap-ple…). This song is in simple meter.
Simple meter is much more common than compound, especially in pop music. You have to search hard to find current songs in compound meter, but they’re out there. “Latch”, by Disclosure was pretty popular at the beginning of the year, but it’s quick. I usually start with something a little slower where the triple division is very easy to hear, like this one (that also happens to be my favorite Journey song, which makes it required listening in my class). It’s very easy for the students to hear the “straw-ber-ry, straw-ber-y, straw-ber-y, straw-ber-y” on every slow beat. The waltz-like feel (1-2-3, 1-2-3) is very apparent at this tempo. This song is in compound meter because the beat is divided into three equal parts.
So what’s the purpose of this?
I’ve been using this activity for a few years now on the first day of school. I wish I could confess to some grand pedagogical scheme. Although I use it as a springboard for rhythm reading exercises (we even count eighth notes as “apple”), the reason for it is just that the kids like it, and it gets them thinking about music in a different way. It’s also easily adaptable for multiple grade levels. I currently teach 6th-12th grade and every class was engaged and enjoyed it.
There you have it! And now, you too, can teach simple and compound meter to budding young musicians! And in less than 1200 words (1193).
*[Random Gripe: Honestly, it sort of perturbs me that this is the way music certifications work. I understand that in Oklahoma, some small districts require one music teacher to do it all—from the Kindergarten Christmas pageant to the middle school show choir to the high school marching band. However, elementary and secondary music are so different in both purpose and pedagogy, that I believe they each deserve their own certification, awarded to teachers who receive the training to meet the unique challenges of each.]