Teaching Tips

Tips for teaching music

Who says that lows are not important or not heard? In music you have three frequencies that have to be balanced in order to be able to hear a composition the best way possible, there are highs, mids and lows, or treble, mids and bass. In order to achieve this balance every instrument has to play it’s part. In music where there are electronic devices or volume, this has to be a priority, in other genres the force applied determines the volume, and others the quantity will determine the volume.

In other words every instrument has a job and each instrument is essential once every job is assigned. However you may have heard that sometimes a person would say “The bass is not that important, it’s just there” but no matter how simple the bass may be in some ocasions, it’s always essential. Of course you have Jazz and Funk which gives the sound of the bass lots of freedom and space to do flashy things, but it’s not always like this.

The Bass is Rhythm and Harmony

Bass

Bass in most musical compositions lay the bases of two essential parts of music, rhythm and harmony. In other words, the bass it’s in the middle of the percussion and melodic instruments in terms of its role in the musical piece.

A lot of the music out there is very well received because of its rhythm, and this is not achieved by percussion alone, mostly because percussion tends to be high frequency sounds, but with the help of a well composed bass, it doesn’t only completes the rhythm, but also works as a bridge from the percussion to other instruments.

In terms of harmonies, the interesting thing is that sometimes people are not even sure of the part the bass is playing in a specific song, but you are hearing a beautiful harmony, and your ear tricks you into believing that strings or air instruments are responsibles, when in fact the bass is allwing these harmonies to happen with its low frequency notes.

The bass plays a powerful role in how we hear harmonies. When we hear several notes played at the same time, we hear them all relative to the lowest sounding pitch — the bass note.

Studybass.com

The Science Behind It

According to the PNAS there is a scientific reason as to why the bass is so important in music, and they conducted a studied which verifies the following:

Previous work using electroencephalography (EEG) demonstrated that the auditory cortex encodes pitch more robustly in the higher of two simultaneous tones or melodies, and modeling work indicated that this high-voice superiority for pitch originates in the sensory periphery. Here, we investigated the neural basis of carrying rhythmic timing information in lower-pitched voices. We presented simultaneous high-pitched and low-pitched tones in an isochronous stream and occasionally presented either the higher or the lower tone 50 ms earlier than expected, while leaving the other tone at the expected time. EEG recordings revealed that mismatch negativity responses were larger for timing deviants of the lower tones, indicating better timing encoding for lower-pitched compared with higher-pitch tones at the level of auditory cortex. A behavioral motor task revealed that tapping synchronization was more influenced by the lower-pitched stream. Results from a biologically plausible model of the auditory periphery suggest that nonlinear cochlear dynamics contribute to the observed effect. The low-voice superiority effect for encoding timing explains the widespread musical practice of carrying rhythm in bass-ranged instruments and complements previously established high-voice superiority effects for pitch and melody.

Michael J. Hove, Céline Marie, Ian C. Bruce, and Laurel J. Traino

In other words, our brain’s capability to make sense of music and finding order is a lot easier thanks to the bass and the lower tones, this also aligns with the role of the bass in music.

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Many musicians and people in general believe that music can express many things and thus it can even be considered a language. David Ludden from psychologytoday.com says:
Like language, music has syntax—rules for ordering elements—such as notes, chords, and intervals—into complex structures. Yet none of these elements has meaning on its own. Rather, it’s the larger structure—the melody—that conveys emotional meaning. And it does that by mimicking the prosody of speech.
This is true, and more than this, it becomes a universal language, due to the fact that the way music works in one place in the world, is how it works in every corner of the world. However this does not mean that it is the same music everywhere, as we can hear many differences depending on the history, culture and overall context from which the music comes from. Still, the idea is the same, and there is a melody in all of music that we can all understand. Victor Wooten, one of the greatest bassists of our generation believes that music is indeed a a language, and he shared some of his thoughts in a TED video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yRMbH36HRE

The Language Approach

It’s interesting how Wooten sees this as a way to embrace music, comparing the way we learn how to play musical instruments to learning how to speak as an infant. He even says that talking is like jamming, and that we are allowed to jam with professionals in order to learn how to speak. This is actually a very good way to learn, since it doesn’t rely on the traditional structures which can be a bit suffocating for a beginner, and it focuses more on a more natural way to communicate through the instrument. If the idea is to learn how to say things with music, then you have to be in control of what you are doing, and feel comfortable to say whatever it is that you want to say. Hypothetically, if a person were to follow the rules of traditional music learning but with English, and this person engages in a conversation, it would be extremely difficult for this person to react to some questions or interactions, since there has been little practice with this “jamming”. This is what connects people in music, engaging in a conversation in this form of language that does not include words. Many rock, blues and jazz bands use this method to compose, turning conversations into an organized song. The Japanese artist “Noah” has a similar understanding of how she handles her musical works. She said in an interview with NBAHP:
My sound changes if needed. Music is my language in another aspect. I find I choose tempo, sound, harmonies as necessary, like you choose words or tones or tempo, when you have something to tell.

The Convergence Point

Art by Michael Graves
The idea of music as a language can also reflect how every culture and context adds to the richness of this universal language and makes it evolve in unexpected ways. As we get the opportunity to become more connected, music is one of the main protagonists in this enterprise. A good question would be: Would we be more isolated if it weren’t for music? Whether it’s in a party or at an opera, music has some sort of magic of bringing people together in a way that other forms of art cannot, and it’s because of this “universal language” idea. These days music is the greatest form of communicating, so if your dream is to be a musician, think very well about what you want to say, there is a chance that someone in the other side of the world will listen.
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A huge part of music today is the story you tell, not only with the sounds and harmonies played, but the actual words that are sung. This aspect of music has been a part of its structure in many compositions since opera or minstrels, where words mattered.

In a way, lyrics and poetry are sometimes intertwined with differences such as melodies and musical context, because rhythm is already a part of what makes poetry so compelling. However there is another dimension of the rhythm aspect which is being in sync with the tone of the music.

Is Poetry the Same as Lyrics

 

According to Matthew Zapruder from bostonreview.net:

To say that this means song lyrics are less literary than poems, or require less skill or intelligence or training or work to create, is patently absurd (and, in the case of rap music, patronizing). But that does not mean that song lyrics are poems. They might sometimes accidentally function like poems when taken out of a musical context, but abstracting lyrics from musical information is misleading and beside the point.

While there are many similarities and artists sometimes present their lyrics as poetry there are some differences that make them both shine in their own way. Now, if you were to take poetry and turn it into lyrics for a song, it may not be that difficult, although some changes may have to be made, it would mostly be taking some words out more than adding words. However if you were to make the lyrics of a song into a poem, most of the times it would not work, because the whole structure of a song gives the words context, this can be from the way a singer sings certain words, the way silence is used to allow the music go through the words as sun light in the woods, and the overall mood and feel that embraces the vocals.

Writing a Song

 

Knowing these differences, it should also be noted that working through lyrics is sometimes a very similar process as writing poetry, but there are many ways in which we can approach writing them.

First of all is the order, when you think about making a musical composition with lyrics, you think about two dimensions: music and lyrics, but which one comes first when going through the process of composing. It can go both ways or at the same time, but the truth is, that the final product will be different depending on the focus, because if the idea is to write something and then add some sort of soundtrack to what’s been written, the focus is clearly on the vocals, however if you have a full instrumental song, and then add the lyrics, it’s most likely the voice will follow a pattern outside of its own.

It can also be made simultaneously, as if the voice and the lyrics were just another instrument, and go as far as to come up with words while playing the music. This does not necessarily means that the order will determine if vocals are more or less important, however it can be a factor in that outcome.

A good tip for a beginner songwriter is just to not be afraid to try things, to make mistakes, and always remember: it’s a work in progress, everything is malleable until you feel there’s nothing else that can be done.

Creative writing is never easy, specially when it has to fit a musical context, but with enough practice, translating words into another instrument, will become easier and will show a whole other part of music that can be very interesting and fun to play with; trying different orders, and rearranging sounds and words in order to make the puzzle work and feel natural.

 

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