At Allen Creek, we have an extension program called Arts at Noon. The children who are enrolled for Arts at Noon stay after their regular school day for enrichment classes, such as music and art. I am the teacher for the music class, and I will be writing a series of blog posts that offer a summary of the emergent music curriculum so far, and share some of the fun learning moments we have experienced together.
This fall, one concept we have been exploring is pitch. According to a post by the American Psychological Association, an early understanding of pitch can help later on with singing in tune, composing music, and learning tone languages, such as Mandarin. So far, in our class, we have started learning concepts of relative pitch (the relationship between the sound of notes). This is something we will extend by learning about absolute pitch (identifying the sound of notes by name). Both absolute and relative pitch can be learned at a young age.
Generally, I find that young children already know what pitch is, even if they don’t have a name for it. They understand that sounds from our voice or other sources can go up or down (relative pitch). This learning begins when they are babies, and they hear the voice of their caregivers going up and down. Often, “motherspeak” can be as much as an octave and a half higher than the normal speaking range. Taking what they already know, we have explored how pitch changes, and how we see the difference in measurable ways, such as size or length, depth or shape. The children in our class have learned that the longer the object, the lower the pitch will be. We have studied this a few ways.
First, we looked at the xylophone, positioned sideways, with the shortest bars at the top. We talked about how it looks like a mountain, and the higher you climb on the mountain, the higher the pitch goes.
This concept could also be seen on the harp. The longer strings have a lower pitch, and are lower on the mountain.
Another time, we explored it by thinking about their whole bodies. They lined up from tallest to shortest, and I pointed out the tallest person is also the longest, and asked them where on the staff the longest body would go. They knew: on the bottom. From there, they lined themselves up on the staff: lowest to highest in pitch or longest to shortest body length. This is not only a lesson in pitch, but in math and physics. I didn’t get into the rate of vibration of different strings, which causes the pitch, but that is something they could learn next.
So, after exploring pitch based on length of string, length of bar, length of body, we started a lesson on seeing the difference in pitch by changing the depth of water in jars. We got out some glass jars, and filled them each with a different amount of water. Each of the kids chose a color for the water in their jar, so that we could also distinguish by color.
I asked them to guess which one had the highest and lowest pitch, and their predictions were varied. When we tried it out, we discovered that the one with the most water (the longest depth) had the lowest pitch. In order to understand why, we measured the depth of each, cut out their depth in strips of paper, and laid them flat on the table. It looked like the xylophone, with the longest strip as the lowest pitch! To back up one step, you should also know that when I asked how we could measure the depth, one kid knew right away how to do it, and proceeded to show me: he held up a piece of paper vertically on the table, and marked where the top of the water was.
At this point, the kids were ready to use this instrument we had created together. So, we used three of the five jars/notes to learn Hot Cross Buns. It came pretty easily for all of them, because they understood the concept before trying it. In the video, please notice a couple of key parts. First, one child says after playing it, “See, it does the same as your singing.” What he means is the sound of the jars match the sound of our voices singing it in pitch. Second, one child grasped the concept so swiftly and decided to take it to another level: he experimented with switching the order, and did it exactly backwards. In the video, you can hear him adapting the pitch of his voice to go from low to high. I could tell that he understood what he was doing, because he did it as he was switching the order in which he played the jar/notes.
There are many ways to extend the exploration of pitch further, and we will do some of that in our class. Some examples include ordering various drums by size and pitch, using rubber bands to explore how their length relates to pitch, Playing a stringed instrument, and exploring how pitch changes as you “shorten” the string with your finger pressing down on the string, using bottles and water, and blowing across the top to see how their pitch changes with depth of water (will it be the same as tapping on jars of water?).
Pitch is a concept that provides foundation for a deep understanding of music. It primes the children’s learning to be meaningful in the future, rather than an exercise in memorization or imitation. Developing an understanding of pitch also broadens their learning of subjects that reach beyond music and dip into theories of physics, math and engineering.