Partial Synthesis, The Enigma of the Skill Learning Sequence

Partial Synthesis, The Enigma of the Skill Learning Sequence (Part 1, Learning Sequence Activities)

By Andy Mullen 

MLT, Theory

And now, we come to the enigma of the Skill Learning Sequence, Partial Synthesis. 

Most people can wrap their heads around Aural/Oral and Verbal Association, the first two levels of the Skill Learning Sequence, because the words of their respective descriptors make sense, and actually describe their levels. But when it comes to Partial Synthesis, the individual and collective words of the name of this level do nothing to help us. Jennifer Bailey explains beautifully: 

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The hard part is...

JENNIFER BAILEY - GIML FACULTY

The hard part is that we have zero context for the words 'partial' or 'synthesis.' We have context for them separately, but together...?

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The Crux of Partial Synthesis

At this level, students are able to recognize the difference between contexts (tonalities and meters) of a series of familiar patterns. The teacher explains how to tell the difference between, for example, major and minor tonalities (by recognizing the resting tone or quality of the tonic chord) or between duple and triple meters (by pairing the patterns with the correct microbeats).

So, if that is Partial Synthesis, then I've often wondered if the level was unfortunately named. Eric Bluestine, in his book The Ways Children Learn Music, thought the same thing. He proposed that the level be called Chaining/Chunking.

After much thought, I'm not sure that this name really cuts to the core of this level. For me, the essence of this level is that students bring context (either tonal or rhythm) to the music they are hearing. So, maybe an appropriate name for this level might be contextualization. Chew on that one, MLT universe. 

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Partial Synthesis Can-Do Objectives

  • Students can aurally recognize tonality or meter of familiar patterns with teacher guidance.
  • Students can audiate the difference between Duple and Triple meters using familiar patterns.
  • Students can audiate the difference between Major and Minor tonalities using familiar patterns.

Rhythm Learning Sequence Activities at the Partial Synthesis Level

There are as many variations of Partial Synthesis Learning Sequence Activities as there are MLT practitioners. Each of us has our own interpretation and our own spin. But the essence of these variations all hold true: set students up with two series of familiar patterns in contrasting contexts (to begin with, major and minor, or duple and triple), and guide students in how to tell the difference between the two.  

The basic gist of Rhythm LSAs at the Partial Synthesis level is that students listen to two musical “sentences”in contrasting contexts. To begin with, students will listen to one sentence in duple meter and one sentence in triple meter, and are guided into understanding which sentence was in which context and why. Here is a basic script you might follow:

“Listen to these two musical sentences. First:

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(Chant this using the neutral syllable BAH.)

“Second:

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(Chant this using the neutral syllable BAH. Keep the macrobeat tempo consistent with number one.)

“In the first musical sentence [repeat it], I was audiating duple meter because I was audiating DU DE as the microbeats. 

In the second musical sentence [repeat it], I was audiating triple meter because I was audiating DU DA DI as the microbeats.

Your task is to tell me what meter you’re audiating by stating the microbeat of the meter. If you’re audiating duple meter, take a breath and say DU DE. If you’re audiating triple meter, take a breath and say DU DA DI. Let’s try a few together.”

Watch this video from my course, The Literate Musician, and see one way to do Rhythm LSAs:

It's worth noting that Partial Synthesis is not a one-and-done activity. The above might be considered partial Partial Synthesis. (Sigh...) Just because one can discriminate between the two meters with macrobeats and microbeats does not mean that one can do the same thing when other rhythmic functions (like divisions, for example) are added. 

For example, when I first meet my students in 6th grade, they have a good working knowledge of macrobeats and microbeats in duple and triple meters. One of the first LSAs I do in October (after some review and we have gotten to know each other) is the above LSA where I only compare macrobeats and microbeats. 

At the beginning of 8th grade (I no longer teach 7th grade), I do another Partial Synthesis LSA, but this time, duple divisions are added. In this LSA, students are comparing the following two musical sentences: 

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In this LSA, I am making sure they can discriminate between duple and triple by seeing if they can bring context to DU DE-ta and DU-Ta DE vs. DU DA DI. 

Later, after I teach Triple Divisions, I do one more Partial Synthesis LSA. That LSA looks and sounds like this video from The Literate Musician series. 

Here is a video of me demonstrating a Rhythm LSA in my classroom in 2019. Let it be heard: everything I know about Partial Synthesis LSAs I learned from Jennifer Bailey and Heather Shouldice in my Elementary General Level 2 course with GIML, the Gordon Institute for Music Learning. This video is highly influenced by the way Jennifer demonstrated them. 

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Tonal Learning Sequence Activities at the Partial Synthesis Level

As with rhythm, the basic gist of Learning Sequence Activities at the Partial Synthesis level is that students listen to two musical “sentences” in contrasting contexts. In this case, students will listen to one sentence in major tonality and one sentence in minor tonality, and are guided into understanding which sentence was in which context and why. Major and minor are in parallel position, rather than in relative position. If we used relative position, students would be able to discriminate based upon range. Secondly, the constant comparison between major and minor is extremely beneficial for students’ ears. Remember the Gordon adage “We learn what something is by what it’s not.” Here is a basic script you might follow.

Pre-LSA/Teaching Mode

“Listen to these two musical sentences. First:

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(Sing these patterns on BUM. Put a short pause between each pattern.)

Second:

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(Sing these patterns on BUM. Put a short pause between each pattern.)

In the first musical sentence [repeat it], I was audiating major tonality because I was audiating DO MI SO as the tonic chord and DO as the resting tone. Listen as I sing the patterns again while playing in major on my [ukulele].”

Accompany the first chord with a tonic, the second with a dominant, and the third with another tonic in major tonality. “See? They fit perfectly! If I play in minor tonality, the patterns won’t fit.” Play a minor chord, but sing, struggle as you may, in major. “See? They don’t fit.”

Follow the same process with the second musical sentence. “In the second musical sentence, I was audiating minor tonality because I was audiating LA DO MI as the tonic chord and LA as the resting tone.

“Your task is to tell me what tonality you’re audiating by singing the tonic chord that you’re audiating. Your answer will either be DO MI SO or LA DO MI. Let’s try a few together.”

Recite the major example. “Were you audiating DO MI SO or [change to minor] LA DO MI? It was... [cue students to take a breath and state the answer with you] DO MI SO. That’s right! And when you audiate DO MI SO as the tonic chord, is that major or minor tonality? [Cue students to take a breath and answer with you] Major tonality.” Repeat the process with the minor example.

The preceding instructions were considered the teaching mode. You have given every student all of the information they need to know in order to be successful. Remember, when you don’t give them the answers, you are inadvertently bridging them to inference learning.

Go Mode

After the Pre-LSA wherein you gave all of the students the answers, set the timer for 3 minutes, and begin to ask individual students to provide you the tonic chord (and thus, the context) for one of the two musical statements by using the gesture for individual students. At this point, students will only answer in the evaluation mode by singing the correct tonic chord. If desired, you can change the order of the measures to make it less predictable.

The first time that I do a tonal Partial Synthesis LSA, I give students a choice of tonic chords (DO MI SO or LA DO MI). This technique, which, again, I learned from Jennifer Bailey, exemplifies the essence of Partial Synthesis: give students the tools to use to label the tonality, and ask them which is the correct tool for the job. In rhythm Partial Synthesis, we asked students to choose the correct microbeat; in tonal Partial Synthesis, we ask students to choose the correct tonic chord. Heather Shouldice advises that f you simply ask students to name the tonality or the resting tone, students have a 50% chance of guessing correctly. Having them provide the tonic chord gives a more substantial glimpse into their audiation. On all subsequent Partial Synthesis LSAs, I do not provide students the choice, but rather have them answer on their own.

I aim to have each student provide me with one correct major response and one correct minor response. I do not do these one after the other. Instead of using the “plus” system, for Partial Synthesis I prefer to use a check mark for a correct answer and an “x” for an incorrect answer. I put the assessment markings for major towards the left of the box and a minor response to the right. That way, when I come back the next day, I know which answer was major and which one was minor. Tossing in “Was that major or minor tonality” and other similar questions to random students between examples helps to keep everyone on their toes.

On subsequent days of instruction, you will need to go through the teaching mode again to refresh students’ memories and remind them of the correct answers.

Video Examples

There are several video demonstrations of Tonal Partial Synthesis LSAs that I can share. First, here is me doing an LSA with 7th grade students in my class in 2019:

And so you can see the inspiration behind my teaching, here are examples of both Jennifer Bailey and Heather Shouldice doing a similar LSA but with elementary school students:

Jennifer demonstrates a Tonal LSA with tonic and dominant. 

Heather demonstrates a Tonal LSA with tonic, dominant and subdominant. 

Lastly, here are the tonal Partial Synthesis videos from my video series, The Literate Musician:

Major vs. Minor lesson

Major vs. Minor pattern practice

Conclusion

Remember: Partial Synthesis is not a one-and-done activity. In fact, this skill is something you will want to check in on and revisit frequently. I do a Partial Synthesis LSA every year. In Part 2 of this article, I will show you ways that you can engage in this skill in your Classroom Activities, and really bring musical understanding alive. This skill is the first step toward students' musical independence and is an exciting part of this journey. 

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About the author Andy Mullen

Andy Mullen is a teacher, folk musician, multi-instrumentalist, recovering singer-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, and serves on the faculty for the Gordon Institute of Music Learning (GIML) in Elementary General Music. He is the author of "MLT Any Music Teacher Can Du...De," "The Literate Musician" and "Fifty Tunes for Teaching," and the composer of the children's album, "Chucka Chucka Wawa."

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