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7 Tools Your Students Need in Their Music Fundamentals Toolbox

By Katie O'Connor-Ballantyne | February 21, 2018

7 Tools Your Students Need in Their Music Fundamentals Toolbox

One of the great joys of my work as a music educator is teaching freshman-level courses in theory and aural skills as an adjunct professor. I love watching students discover greater mastery of the fundamentals of music, which become the foundation of their teaching and learning as young music professionals.

I also watch many students struggle with the content of those courses, most especially when they arrive at music school without the benefit of having had access to either basic music theory courses or private instruction during their high school years. As parents increasingly struggle to find the funds for private music lessons and school budgets cut classes like music theory and small group music lessons from their budgets, what’s a music educator to do?

One of the answers lies in making music literacy a part of every single class or ensemble you offer. This both levels the playing field for students who may not be able to afford or access outside music lessons, and has the benefit of making your ensemble rehearsals faster and more efficient over time as your young artists build their literacy skills. In an ensemble situation, having at least one piece of repertoire that is selected to match the group’s sight-reading level ensures that the practical skills you build in warmups can be directly applied to music you are learning for performance.

Our music fundamentals course design at my school looks at seven key areas of music literacy, and demands competency in all seven before students move on to study music theory at the collegiate level. I like to think of these seven skills as “tools” in a music fundamentals toolbox. Each tool addresses a significant music literacy concept, and each can be incorporated into warmups and rehearsals to build skills. Over the course of a year, adequate time spent on each concept will yield students who decode notation with greater skill and aptitude. Over the course of 4 years of high school, a student will leave well-prepared to begin undergraduate music study.

Take a look at the following list. How many of these concepts are you already addressing in your ensemble rehearsals? Where could you make room for the rest of these concepts?

1. Rhythm/Meter

  • Note and rest values: musical math—how many eighth notes in a quarter note? In a quarter rest?
  • Time signature: what note value equals the beat? How many beats in a measure? 
  • Meter classification: Is the meter simple (the beat divides into two parts) or compound (the beat divides into three parts)? Is the meter duple (two beats to a measure), triple (three beats), or quadruple (four beats)?

2. Pitch

  • Pitch class/note names and clefs: treble and bass for basic literacy, include alto and tenor for advanced literacy
  • Octave designations: C4 vs. C3
  • Accidentals: how flats and sharps alter pitch, include double flats and double sharps for advanced literacy
  • Enharmonic equivalents: respelling of note names with different accidentals

3. Intervals

  • Visual identification of intervals by size (fifth, octave, etc.) and quality (perfect, major, minor, augmented, diminished)
  • Aural identification of intervals by size and quality
  • Spelling of intervals (e.g., a major third above C, a minor third below A flat)
  • Enharmonic respelling of intervals (augmented fourth = diminished fifth)
  • Inversion of intervals (a minor third inverts to become a major sixth)

4. Scales

  • Scale types (major, natural minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor)
  • Scale degree identification (tonic, dominant, leading tone, etc.)
  • Solfege/Curwen hand signs (movable or fixed do, do-based or la-based minor)
  • Scale spelling given a starting note (or any scale degree)
  • Scale transformation (e.g., to change a natural minor scale into a harmonic minor scale, raise the 7th scale degree by a half step)
  • Aural identification of scale types

5. Key Signatures

  • Order of flats (B, E, A, D, G, C, F) and sharps (F, C, G, D, A, E, B)
  • Correct placement of flats and sharps on each clef
  • Spelling of major and minor key signatures
  • Relative, parallel, and enharmonic key relationships

6. Triads

  • Triad visual identification (major, minor, augmented, diminished)
  • Aural identification of triads played melodically and harmonically
  • Triad spelling given any member of the chord (root, third, fifth)
  • Triad transformation (e.g. to change a major triad into an augmented triad, raise the 5th by a half step)

7. Musical terms and symbols

  • Dynamic markings and symbols (forte, piano, pianissimo, crescendo, etc.)
  • Tempo terms (presto, largo, allegro, andante, accelerando, ritard, etc.)
  • Articulation markings and symbols (staccato, tenuto, accent, etc.)
  • Musical form terms and symbols (coda, dal segno al fine, repeat, etc.)

The above list might also serve as a handy checklist for students planning on pursuing music as a career path so they can track their own music literacy readiness.

What's in your music fundamentals toolbox? How do you ensure your students are prepared for freshman-level music courses? Let us know in the comments below!

Katie O'Connor-Ballantyne

Katie O'Connor-Ballantyne is the author of multiple books and choral works. During her career Katie has taught at every age and stage, from elementary to adult. Katie is an active conductor, adjudicator, and clinician at music conferences and festivals. 

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