April 8, 2020

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Aural/Oral: Laying the Foundation for Musical Understanding

By Andy Mullen ‚Äč

MLT, Theory

Aural/Oral (abbreviated A/O) is the most fundamental level in the Skill Learning Sequence

This level is far-reaching, as not only does it cover a level in the Skill Learning Sequence, it is also all-encompassing for instruction in preparatory audiation. Everything that we do in early childhood instruction, according to the principles of preparatory audiation, happens at the Aural/Oral level. 

Connection to Language

Although music isn’t a language in the strictest sense, the parallels between how we learn music and how we acquire language skills are striking. (See my article The Music/Language Parallel.) 

Aural/Oral

The Aural/Oral process is exemplified when we see parents teaching their children to speak. First, the child listens for a long time - a whole year - before he tries to speak. Then, when the parent intuits that the child is ready, the parent speaks a word for a child and encourages the child to imitate. When the child is ready, she will imitate. 

This is the same fundamental process in music. As a teacher, you first provide ample listening opportunities for your students to bathe them in the language of music. When they are ready, you say a musical word (a pattern!) to the student in the hopes that they repeat the pattern.

Aural/Oral Can-Do Objectives

  • Students can move with Continuous Flow in Space (CFS) 
  • Students can listen to the teacher sing or chant
  • Students can move to macro/microbeats
  • Students can echo tonal and rhythm patterns
  • Students can sing first pitch of tonal patterns
  • Students can sing resting tone after listening to tonic and dominant chords

The Aural/Oral Process

The teacher sings or chants a pattern (Oral) which is heard by the student (Aural), who then repeats the pattern (Oral), and then hears himself performing the pattern (Aural), and subconsciously checks his “Oral” against the teacher’s “Oral” using his own “Aural.” So this cyclical process really could be called Oral/Aural/Oral/Aural. But that isn’t very catchy. 

Neutral Syllables

At this level, we use a neutral syllable because we want students to hear the pure sound of music first. Gordon insists that the sound itself is fundamental. In this workshop, this is what Dr. Gordon had to say in defense of Aural/Oral:

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Dr. Edwin E. Gordon

“It’s very difficult for students to learn patterns with solfege before they have learned (the patterns themselves). They have to hear what it sounds like. The reason for this is that if you give children syllables too soon, they tend to pay attention to the syllables and not to the sound of the pattern. The syllables become a crutch for learning the patterns. And if you offer someone a crutch before they need it, they’re going to use it, and then not learn the patterns themselves. So it’s very important that you start off at the Aural/Oral level without syllables. The important thing is to learn the pattern, not the syllables. If you teach the patterns with the syllables to begin with, students never learn the pattern or the syllables very well.”

~Moving Image Research Collection,  Anoka Ramsey Community College. August 31, 1987 – Tape 2 

Any time we learn (or teach) new tonal or rhythm content, we always return to Aural/Oral and learn the sound first without any solfege syllables (even if we have already been to Verbal Association). 

Learning Sequence Activities vs. Classroom Activities

Remember: there are always two Teaching Modalities in an MLT-inspired classroom. The first is Learning Sequence Activities where we are actively teaching musicianship, and the other is the broad descriptor Classroom Activities where we are engaged with all of the other aspects of our curriculum (songs, movement, games, etc.), all the while making connections between the two in a Whole-Part-Whole manner.  

Learning Sequence Activities at the Aural/Oral Level

At this level, everything we do, as Dr. Gordon suggested above, uses a neutral syllable. For tonal LSAs, Dr. Gordon advises using the syllable “BUM.” And for rhythm LSAs, “BAH” is suggested. 

Again, we are trying to accomplish two main objectives at this level: building a vocabulary of tonal patterns and rhythm patterns; and fostering the development of skills in audiation. 

Rhythm LSAs

Once students are out of rhythm babble and can keep a steady beat, teachers can begin pattern instruction by having students echo patterns with macrobeat and microbeats at the Aural/Oral level in duple and triple meters. 

Here are some examples from my course, “The Literate Musician,” of rhythm instruction at the Aural/Oral level.

In the next level, Verbal Association, students apply syllables to the same patterns they have learned at the Aural/Oral level. However, any time new content is introduced, instruction bridges backwards to the Aural/Oral level to learn the fundamental sound of a pattern before applying syllables. 

Tonal LSAs

Tonal Learning Sequence Activities are a bit more involved because Dr. Gordon has created several sub-skills within the Aural/Oral level. Those sub-skills are: 

  • First Pitch
  • Resting Tone
  • Whole Pattern
First Pitch

In this sub-skill, the teacher sings a pattern, and the students respond by only singing the first pitch of the pattern they heard. Although this is a challenging sub-skill, Gordon included it to try to break students from imitation, and force them to audiate. In order for a student to sing only the first pitch, they must retain it in their audiation while hearing other pitches. 

Resting Tone

Again, this is another sub-skill put in place by Dr. Gordon to break the cycle of imitation and spark students’ audiation. Everything we do tonally is informed by resting tone. Nothing is in a vacuum. Our entire sense of intonation is contextual, and is always in comparison to something else. Gordon wants us to always be intuitively comparing any pattern we hear with the resting tone to provide tonal context. 

Whole Pattern

Once the cycle of imitation is broken with first pitch and resting tone exercises, students can echo the whole pattern. Some MLT teachers use the patterns in the register books, while others use a series of familiar patterns in a familiar order (FPIFO). For my teaching purposes, I champion the latter. 

Check out this video from my free course, The Literate Musician. In this video, I teach the 3 sub-skills. 

Here are the familiar patterns in their familiar order (FPIFO) I use at the Aural/Oral level in major and minor tonalities.

Major-I&V Patterns
Minor i&V

Classroom Activities at the Aural/Oral Level

A reminder about a Whole-Part-Whole curriculum: both of the Wholes consist of classroom activities. The first whole immerses students in tonal or rhythmic contexts and sets the stage for the Parts, which are Learning Sequence Activities. In the second Whole, the patterns are reinforced again in classroom activities. 

There are countless ways to engage with students during classroom activities at the Aural/Oral level. Here are a few ideas:

Rote Song Procedure

When introducing songs to students, try using Rote Song Procedure. (See Jennifer Bailey’s wonderful article, Teaching New Songs - The MLT Way.) Here are some examples of Rote Song Procedure at the Aural/Oral level:

Singing Bass Lines 

You do not necessarily have to be at Verbal Association to introduce the concept of singing a bass line. (But when you are at Verbal Association, check out my Singing Bass Lines YouTube series!) This introduces the concept of functional harmony in a very powerful way to younger students. 

In this video, GIML faculty member Dr. Heather Shouldice has her students singing bass lines (aka chord root melodies) to her students in Dorian!

You may also wish to peruse my Tonal Acculturation YouTube series. These videos, all at the Aural/Oral level, give students an opportunity to sing a simple bass line on a neutral syllable while listening to the melody. Here is one video example in Phrygian:

Informal Patterning in Classroom Activities

In between repetitions of a song, reinforce the Part of Whole-Part-Whole in one of the Wholes by having students engage in informal patterning. (By informal, I simply mean that it is not a Learning Sequence Activity, per se, where you are marking students in a formal assessment. Instead, you are informally assessing class and individual achievement.) 

Reinforcement of resting tone in all songs you do, both in major and minor, is crucial. Students need to make connections between the instructional outcomes of Learning Sequence Activities and so called “real music.” Teachers need to demonstrate this to students in their classroom activities, and provide a model for students to think for themselves.

See my Whole-Part-Whole series on Bucket Drumming for examples of informal rhythm patterns within the context of a classroom activity.  

Movement is Aural/Oral

An important point to consider is that movement is part of the Aural/Oral experience. 

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“What we experience in our bodies we bring to our musicianship.”

- Heather Kirby, GIML Faculty Member -

Movement Ideas
  • Have students move with Continuous Flow in Space (CFS). Gordon (through Laban’s work) says that moving through space is a prerequisite for learning musical time. (“The brain best understands time, whereas the body is more capable of understanding both time and space, with space giving meaning to time. Space can exist outside musical time, but time in all forms is dependent upon space.”)
  • Have students purposefully move to macrobeats or microbeats while listening to a piece of music. You could divide the class in half, and have one side move to macrobeats and the other side move to microbeats. When you hit a cowbell, they could switch. Try this in duple and in triple.
  • Move to unusual meter. See blog post Look At All the Happy Faces
  • Phyllis Weikart’s movement ideas have been adapted by music educators all around the world. See her amazing book Teaching Movement and Dance. The accompanying CDs, Rhythmically Moving, are an absolute treasure trove of musical inspiration.
  • Try out some of the Laban movement efforts of Time, Weight, Space and Flow. Here is a wonderful video of a 1st grade class exploring all four continuums.

Instrumental Reinforcement and Props

Aural/Oral can be easily applied to classroom instruments and props. Some ideas to spark your imagination:

Scarves

Students can move around the room with flow using a scarf. Give students some imagery, like telling them they are the wind, or a leaf falling off a tree. In addition, bouncing scarves on the macrobeat gives a very distinct visual for the amount of space in between the beats! 

Bean Bags

Bean bags are amazing tools. Students can keep microbeats by gently tapping the bean bag on the opposite hand. Other students can play macrobeats with another instrument. Here is master MLT Natasha Sigmund demonstrating acculturation with bean bags at a GIML workshop:

Percussion

This one seems obvious, but putting an instrument in the hands of a child - with proper explanation - can keep their attention! Remember, though: an instrument is an extension of a person’s audiation. You need to connect what they’re playing to the musicianship you have taught them. 

Barred Instruments

Any kind of barred instrument can be a wonderful extension of tonal audiation. Students can keep a macrobeat resting tone drone while others sing the song. Students can be taught a simple bass line to accompany a song. This works especially well when the song only has two harmonic functions (like a tonic and dominant, or a tonic and subtonic).  

The Parachute

Whenever I bring out the parachute in my general music classes, you know it’s going to be a good day! Students of any age beam with excitement! (I recently did an MLT demo lesson at a noted conservatory, and you should have seen students’ faces when I revealed the beloved parachute!) The parachute is wonderful for feeling the space in between the beat, and anticipating the downbeat. See one of my go to parachute lessons here:

The Stretchy Band

Along with the parachute, the stretchy band is one of the most especial treats for classroom music! This prop is particularly useful for getting everyone to feel the macrobeat together. Here is a particularly jaunty group of 6th graders experiencing the stretchy band for the first time. 

Learn More

For more information about Aural/Oral and Music Learning Theory, become a member of GIML, the Gordon Institute for Music Learning at www.GIML.org. There are many members-only videos and resources to further your knowledge about MLT! 

References


Bailey, J. & Reese, J. (2018). GIML Certification Course in Elementary General Level 2. Baldwin Wallace University. Berea, OH.


Gordon, E. E. (2012). Learning Sequences in Music: A Contemporary Music Learning Theory. Chicago: GIA.


Kirby, H. & Sigmund N. (2016). GIML Certification Course in Early Childhood Music, Level 1. Bridgewater State University. Bridgewater, MA.


Reynolds, A. & Burton, S.L. (2016). GIML Certification Course in Elementary General Level 1. Temple University. Philadelphia, PA.


Shouldice, H. & Taggart, C. (2019). GIML Certification Course in Elementary General Level 2. Michigan State University. Lansing, MI.

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About the author Andy Mullen

Andy Mullen is a teacher, folk musician, multi-instrumentalist, recovering songwriter, and lifelong learner. He has taught all levels of students in a number of subjects, and is currently a middle school general music and choir teacher in Burlington, Massachusetts. Mr Mullen holds Masters degrees in Music Education and School Administration, as well as certification from the Gordon Institute of Music Learning (GIML) in Elementary General Level 2 and Early Childhood Music. He is the author of "The Literate Musician" and "Fifty Tunes for Teaching," the creator of The Literate Musician podcast, and the composer of the children's album, "Chucka Chucka Wawa."

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