Partial Synthesis: The Enigma of the Skill Learning Sequence (Part 2, Classroom Activities)

Partial Synthesis: The Enigma of the Skill Learning Sequence (Part 2, Classroom Activities)

By Andy Mullen 

MLT, Practical Applications, Theory

In Part 1 of this article, we looked at the theory behind Partial Synthesis, as well as how to teach using this level in tonal and rhythm Learning Sequence Activities. In this article, we will explore the various ways that the skill of Partial Synthesis can be taught in Classroom Activities to reinforce the pattern work done in LSAs. 


Rhythm Classroom Activities at the Partial Synthesis Level

After you engage in Learning Sequence Activities at the Partial Synthesis level, it is a wonderful opportunity to put the skill to use in Classroom Activities. Remember: Partial Synthesis shows students how to discriminate between meters, and gives them tools for their toolbox to figure out meters in the teacher’s absence. (Thanks to Jennifer Bailey for this wonderful metaphor!) Partial Synthesis is not asking students to identify the meter of an unfamiliar song or chant. That is done at the Generalization-Verbal skill level. But Partial Synthesis is direct readiness for that inference skill by showing students how (by listening for microbeats in context with macrobeats and the rhythm patterns in the melody of the song or chant).

Showing Students Meter Changes in a Familiar Song or Chant

One way to reinforce Partial Synthesis is to show students examples of familiar songs that have meter changes, and having them engage with the meter change in some way. For example, you might teach the song “A Rig a Jig Jig” or the chant "Two Little Astronauts." You could ask students if they notice any difference between the two halves of the song. (Note: This is a very temporary bridge to Generalization-Verbal, but could prove to be a welcomed challenge for your high aptitude and/or high achieving students.)

Explain, then, that the first half of the song is in duple meter because the microbeats are DU DE, DU DE. Chant the first half of the song while your students whisper-chant DU DE. You may wish to have your students move their heels to the macrobeats while simultaneously tapping “spider fingers” on their laps. Next, explain that the second half of the song is in triple meter because the microbeats are DU DA DI. Repeat the process above, but in triple meter. Finally, perform the whole song for students, and have them switch microbeats (and the subsequent movements) halfway through once the context changes from duple to triple.

Can you think of other songs or chants that have built in meter changes? Here are a couple of adaptions of familiar pieces of elementary school repertoire that I have re-purposed for Partial Synthesis classroom activities.  

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Change the Meter of a Familiar Song or Chant

Another interesting activity that you can do to reinforce the skill of Partial Synthesis is to find a familiar song or chant and change the meter for students. This is when the fun begins! You can use any song or chant that is relatively simple. Nursery rhymes and simple folk songs are ideal for this activity.

You can begin this process by explaining to students that you are going to perform a familiar song, but you are going to change something. Ask students if they can identify the change you made. (As another reminder, this is bridging students to Generalization-Verbal, an inference skill. It’s always good to use an inference task to get a glimpse into what students are thinking. As Dr. Jill Reese once told one of my GIML classes, “You can’t stop students from making an inference!”)

For example, watch Dr. Cindy Taggart demonstrate this technique using the song "All the Ducks Are Swimming in the Water." 

You can do this type of activity with any number of songs! Just be sure that you teach the song to students in both meters in a fulsome manner before you set students free and see if they can demonstrate understanding of the task on their own. Cindy's brilliant use of movement (as well as the chanting of the microbeats) as an indicator is always a good idea. Remember what Gordon says: the brain learns rhythm through the body.  

How About a Quiz?

After you have spent a significant amount of time at the Partial Synthesis level, you may wish to consider giving your students an old-fashioned quiz. You have shown them how to recognize if music is in duple and triple; now might be a good time to get some good data on how well they can do it on a more substantial and individualized basis. As Gordon says, “The main purpose of assessment is for the improvement of instruction.” If your students, by and large, do very well on a quiz of this nature, you know it is time to move on. If they struggle, they might benefit from more instruction at thePartial Synthesis level.

One caveat: be sure that your students are familiar with the patterns you are using in your test or quiz. If the patterns are unfamiliar, then, again, that becomes a Generalization activity. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but be aware of what you are asking your students to do. In my opinion, this is the beauty of Gordon's Skill Learning Sequence: I always know what I am asking of my students and what the readinesses are!

Here is an example of a quiz that I give my students: 

I almost always give a practice test first (which is the same questions in a different order). These types of assessments, based on Gordon's Iowa Tests of Music Literacy, are used more as a teaching tool to help them learn, rather than as a means to give a grade. 

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Tonal Classroom Activities at the Partial Synthesis Level

All of the same activities from above can be applied to tonal classroom activities. But remember: Partial Synthesis shows students how to discriminate between tonalities, and gives them tools to figure out tonalities in the teacher’s absence. Partial Synthesis is not asking students to identify the tonality of a familiar or unfamiliar song. That is Generalization-Verbal. But Partial Synthesis is direct readiness for that inference skill by showing students how (by listening for harmonic functions in context with resting tone within the melody of the song).

Point out Changes in Tonality in a Song

One way to reinforce Partial Synthesis is to show students examples of familiar songs that have changes in tonality, and having them engage with the tonal change in some way. For example, teach the song my “Hamburgers, Hot Dogs.”  

You may ask students if they notice any difference between the two halves of the song. (This is a very temporary bridge to Generalization-Verbal, but could prove to be a welcomed challenge for your high aptitude and/or high achieving students.) 

Explain, then, that the first part of the song is in major tonality because the resting tone is DO, and because you’re audiating DO MI SO as the tonic chord. “Prove it” to students. Divide them into the previously taught harmonic voicings, and review“I” and “V” Function Fingers. Sing the first part of the song while they sustain the pitches in major tonality.

Explain that the second part of the song changes to minor tonality because the resting tone changes to LA, and because you’re now audiating LA DO MI as the tonic chord. “Prove it” to students. Divide them into the previously taught harmonic voicings, and review “i” and “V” Function Fingers. Sing the second part of the song while they sustain the pitches in minor tonality.

Harmonic Voice Leading
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For the final part of the song, you may wish to challenge your students by bridging them to Generalization-Verbal. “Listen to the final part of the song. [Sing it for them.] Which tonic chord fits better here? DO MI SO or LA DO MI? Listen again, and we will take a vote. DO MI SO or LA DO MI?”

Follow the same procedures for “Chop Chop Chippity Chop” (See above). 

Change the Tonality of a Familiar Song

Another interesting activity that you can do to reinforce the skill of Partial Synthesis is to find a familiar song or chant and change the tonality for students. You can use any song or chant that is relatively simple. Simple folk songs and call and response songs are ideal for this activity.

Before I explain anything, watch these two videos by two of my MLT heroes, Cindy Taggart and Jennifer Bailey. I'll wait. 

Both of these videos follow a similar idea: take a familiar song, change the tonality, guide students in audiating the new tonality, and then check for understanding by asking them to show you which is which. 

Here is a similar process I have been using recently using my tune "Shoo Fly Shoo" based on my instruction from both of these amazing educators:

  1. You can begin this process by explaining to students that you are going to perform a familiar song, but you are going to change something. Ask students if they can identify the change you made. (Remember, this is bridging students to Generalization-Verbal, an inference skill. It’s always good to use an inference task to get a glimpse into what students are thinking.) For example, take the song “Shoo Fly Shoo” that was previously performed as a song in major, and perform it in minor tonality. You might ask, “With a silent raised hand, who can tell me what was different about the song?” Hopefully, one of your students can identify that it was, indeed, in minor tonality.
  2. Review the “Shoo Fly Shoo” responses, and explain that they are now minor tonic chords, not major tonic chords. The words for the first response are on the pitches LA DO MI. The words for the second response are MI DO LA.Sing the whole song again, and ask students to respond by singing the pitches of the tonic chord. As you did when the song was in major, you could extend the activity by having students improvise different minor tonic chords.
  3. On a subsequent class period, tell students that you are having a hard time figuring out if you prefer the song in major, or if you prefer it in minor. Sing the song for students, vacillating back and forth between major and minor.To give students (and yourself!) a little stability, you may wish to accompany yourself on a ukulele or guitar. Tell students that they are to audiate the “Shoo Fly Shoo” responses. As you perform, leave a blank space for students to audiate.
  4. Then, ask students to listen to you sing two-measure phrases of the song, and to sing the response in the correct tonality. For younger students, you may wish to tell students you are going to sing the phrase three times, and after the third time, you will cue them to sing “Shoo Fly Shoo” in the right tonality.
  5. For more advanced students, you might try to have them sing the tonic chord of the tonality they’re audiating in realtime as you switch tonalities. The challenge with this task is that they need to remember to sing it descending on the second response. It can be done!

Twinkle Twinkle Little Whaaa?

Tell students that you are going to test their knowledge of major and minor tonalities using a familiar children’s song, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” You might say, “As demonstrated, we now know as musicians that we can put virtually any song in any tonality that we wish. We are only limited by our audiation. I’m going to sing the first phrase of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ and you’re going to show me you know what tonality it’s in by moving to a corner of the room. If you think I sang it in major [Sing one phrase in major as a demonstration] move to this corner. If you think I sang it in minor [Sing one phrase in minor as a demonstration] move to this corner.” Play the game.

After students get good at this, add another wrinkle (and thus, bridge them to Generalization). Remind them that there are, indeed, more tonalities other than major and minor. “If I sing something besides major or minor, move to this corner.” Demonstrate some of the possibilities (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, etc.), then keep playing the game.

You can also play this game rhythmically! Tell students that you can turn this song into a different meter, too. Like above, I begin simply with Duple and Triple, and then move on to other meters when students find it too easy. 

Note: In each corner of the room, I put signs saying Major, Minor, and Something Different. I print these signs out, laminate them, and they last forever. 

How About a Quiz?

As with rhythm, after you have spent a significant amount of time at the Partial Synthesis level, you may wish to consider giving your students an old-fashioned quiz. You have shown them how to recognize if music is in major or minor; now might be a good time to get some good data on how well they can do it on a more substantial and individualized basis.

Try the Major vs. Minor Quiz on my YouTube channel below.

This quiz only assesses tonic and dominant in major and minor tonalities, and they will be all familiar patterns. Make a simple answer sheet using Google Forms, and have students do the assessment on their devices. The beauty of this is that you get instant feedback!

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Conclusion

Partial Synthesis is one of the more confusing skill levels, but, with a little practice on your part, you can lead your students down the road toward independent musicianship. Partial Synthesis gives students the foundation for independent learning, and serves as the readiness for not only reading music, but for all types of future generalization. 

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.

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

Resources


Even though they have been referenced throughout this article, I highly recommend that reader spend some time exploring the MLT resources of Jennifer Bailey and Heather Shouldice, two of the world's most predominant practitioners of MLT. They both generously share their ideas. 

Additionally, the Gordon Institute of Music Learning has many resources for MLT practitioners, including a wonderful YouTube channel and a members-only area that contains lectures, videos, and exclusive content. I would strongly encourage my readers to become a member of the GIML community! 

 


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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