Helping Students Learn Musical Terms

Last Thursday evening we held our fifth Olympic Event of the year (The Olympic Events are part of my practice incentive this year, which is titled “Go For the Gold.” After the year is over, I’ll compile all the materials and add it to my selection of practice incentive programs available for purchase.). My objective for this event was to help students learn the definitions of basic musical terms that it seems like I’m always having to remind them of during their lessons. As in…student has played their piece and I ask them what the tempo of the piece should be. Invariably I get a glazed-over look as if to say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about…I’ve never heard that word before…” So I remind them for the 47th time what the word tempo means. I was determined that after Thursday night I would never have to remind any of the attending students again what any of these terms mean (Realistic? I doubt it…but I’ve never been known for being a particularly realistic person. Idealism suits me much better… 🙂 ). The six terms I chose for the night were: Tempo, Dynamics, Articulation, Mood, Key Signature, and Key, but the following activities could be adapted to any terms of your choosing.

Here’s the outline for the evening detailed descriptions of each of the activities:
* Terms That Stretch My Brain Object Lesson
I got this idea from a children’s conference I attended years ago and I just love it! (My students loved it too and kept asking, “How are you doing that? Are you magic?”) Here are step-by-step instructions for how to conduct this activity:

1. Print out the Terms That Stretch My Brain cards and display sign on cardstock paper. Cut along the dashed lines.

2. Introduce each term one at a time to the group of students. Have a student volunteer come to the front of the room and hold the term card in one hand and the definition card in the other hand. Say the term and definition once and then have all the students repeat it together after you (e.g. “Tempo means rate of speed”, “Key Signature means the sharps or flats notated at the beginning of the piece.”) Continue this process with each of the terms and definitions, having a new student volunteer come to the front and hold each pair. After adding each new term, review all the previous terms by having the students recite them together as you point to each student volunteer.

3. Collect the pairs from each student, placing the cards face down and making two separate stacks with all the terms in one stack and all the definitions in the other stack. Be sure that the location of the cards in the stack corresponds to the matching card in the other stack. Once all the cards are stacked, place one stack on top of the other. Shuffle the cards by placing the top card on the bottom until the students give the signal for you to stop. Count out six cards off the top and place them one at a time face down in a stack. Place the remaining six cards beside it without counting the cards off the top.

4. Refer to your Terms That Stretch My Brain display sign and tell the students that you will place the top card of either stack on the bottom of that stack for each letter of the word “Terms.” At any time one of the students can yell switch and you must switch to the other stack, placing the top card on the bottom. Once you move the card for the last letter of the word, flip over the top card on one of the stacks. Show it to the students and ask them if they can correctly recite either the matching term or definition (depending on which one is on the card you already showed them). Once they do so, flip over the card on the top of the other pile to see if they are correct. The top of the other card will be the match for the first card. If they are correct, let that student hold the matching pair. Continue the same process with each of the words on the display sign. Amazingly, the top cards on each pile will be a matching pair every time!

* Making Musical Term Posters

I divided the students into four groups and assigned each group a term (Tempo, Dynamics, Articulation, Mood). Their job was to design a poster for that term, including the term name and definition that we learned and all the symbols or other terms that would be included in that category. (e.g. Dynamics would include crescendo and diminuendo marks, forte and piano symbols, etc.) I had a stack of music dictionaries available for reference and the students had fun looking things up and learning new words (ever heard of Allegrissimo?). I also provided each group with a sheet of posterboard and lots of markers, crayons, colored pencils and stickers. After the allotted time was up, I had each group stand at the front of the room and show their poster to the other students and explain the symbols and terms they included on it.

* Performances

For the performance time, the students took their turns according to their term groupings. All the students from the Tempo group went first. As each of them played, the observing students were instructed to listen specifically for musical sounds they heard that related to Tempo. After each performance, we shared what things we heard, reinforcing the vocabulary of terms they learned while designing their posters. We followed the same procedure for each of the other three term categories.

We had a really great time and went over our scheduled hour and a half by almost 20 minutes. I told the students that I’ll keep their posters in the studio and if they come across new terms in their pieces or by doing their own research we can add them to the posters. 🙂 I even agreed to give them extra points if they came up with new terms that aren’t already on the posters. And maybe, just maybe, in addition to having fun they’ll even start to become fluent in this often elusive language of music.

Share and enjoy!

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