Teaching Serialism with Technology

By Dr. James Frankel



            Teaching 8th Grade General Music can pose many challenges.  Teaching the History of Western Music to 8th graders can pose even more.  How can one successfully capture the attention of middle school students (the period before they eat lunch) when discussing the works of Bach, Mozart, Mahler, and Copland?  Although there are effective approaches to the teaching of this specific subject matter that do not involve technology, approaches that effectively incorporate technology can truly bring the subject matter to life in ways you may not have imagined were possible.

            I teach a History of Western Music course to 8th graders.  The students have ten weeks to get from Gregorian Chant to Minimalism.  The course is broken down into ten one-week units, each covering a different period of music history.  Itıs a whirlwind tour, but the students really seem enjoy seeing the progression from neumatic notation of monophonic chants to the brilliance of Aaron Coplandıs Fanfare for the Common Man. All of the lecture-style lessons are presented using PowerPoint, which include various visual images, and representative audio examples. Students respond very positively to this type of presentation, and see that I have spent a great deal of time preparing the lesson.  This, I have found, makes the students more likely to pay attention to the lesson, and get more out of it.  In addition to using technology as a tool for presenting information to the students, each unit also involves using technology to create music in the style of the period.  Students create parallel organum, two-part inventions, variations on a theme, and even compositions based on tone rows in the Serialist style.  This tone row lesson and composition exercise has received some amazing results, as it gives the students an opportunity to compose music that sounds very similar to the works of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern.  The following is a detailed description of the lesson and the composition project.

             In the lecture part of the lesson, I present the students with the twelve-tone concept, and the formation of tone rows.  We discuss the variations on the tone row, including prime, retrograde, inversion, inverse retrograde, and transpositions.  After the technical aspects of the construction of a serialist composition are discussed, the students listen to recorded examples of works by Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.  Following the listening examples, the discussion turns to aesthetics and the role of creativity in the composing process, as well as the end result.  I strongly recommend having this discussion with 8th graders, because their opinions are often quite enlightening.

            Following this discussion, students are given a sheet with a notated one-octave chromatic scale complete with the letter names of each pitch, and four lines with twelve spaces for the students to fill in their tone rows (prime, retrograde, inversion, inverse retrograde).  The students get into groups of two and create the tone rows at their desks.  They then hand in their work so that I can check for mistakes.  During the next class, students use a notation software program (in this case Sibelius) to begin composing their serialist works.  The work must be at least 12 measures in length, and must use each tone row at least once.  Students are encouraged to use the transposition feature of the software to transpose their tone rows.  Students are encouraged to divide the tone rows between various instruments so that no single instrument plays the complete row alone.  The piece must be orchestrated for at least a string orchestra, although student may add more instruments if they choose to.

My school uses a file server, so I utilize this tool by having the students save all of their work into specified folders that I create for them. At the conclusion of the second period, students must save their work into these specified folders.  I can then access their work either at school or from home, and make suggestions and comments directly on to their composition using the create text option on the software (I use a red font color).  At the beginning of the third class period, I use my teaching computer that is hooked up to a ceiling mounted projector to access the studentıs work from the file server. This allows me to display their work and play it so that we can discuss it as a class.  After this discussion, the students begin their second composing period.  I act as a mentor for the students and help troubleshoot and problems that may arise.  At the conclusion of the period, students once again save their work into their folders on the file server and I then review their work again, making any necessary comments.  On the third day, the students are asked to complete their compositions halfway through the period so that we can then display and discuss their work.  As each composition generally takes only a few seconds to perform, it is quite possible to play all of the group compositions within a few minutes.  After a short discussion about the compositions and their musical merit, the students then listen to the original works of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, and discuss how their own pieces were similar, different, or otherwise to the works of the masters.

This unit takes four forty-five minute class periods to complete, but could easily be stretched into five.  In my experience the students truly enjoy the puzzle-like composition process employed by Serialism.  They enjoy that the notes are already there for them and that they just have to fit them in to the score, and more importantly, trying to make music.  Discussions about the amount of creativity involved in this style of composition are very spirited and can easily lead to more involved discussions about aesthetics. 

If you are interested in this lesson, and would like more detailed information including the handouts the students receive as well as the project guidelines and scoring rubric, please email me at jtfrankel@hotmail.com.