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The Universal Language of Music

04 Oct The Universal Language of Music

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WHAT I’M TEACHING WHEN I TEACH MUSIC, by Noel Cohen

I have been the music teacher at Montclare since the very first years, however, I have been a musician and a student of music all my life.  Music is often called the “universal language,” and there is a great deal of truth in that platitude.

At Montclare, when I’m teaching music, I’m essentially teaching language. Language is the architecture with which we both interpret the world and communicate that interpretation.

Language, when practiced by a highly skilled craftsman, like, say, Irving Berlin, or Oscar Hammerstein or even Raffi, can turn learning into a playful and joyous experience.

When I first meet very young children, our 2 and 3-year-olds, I’ll teach them a group of songs, some of which they may already know, like the “ABC” song or “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”  A little further along in the semester, I’ll introduce them to songs they may not have heard yet, like “ Doe a Deer” or “Baby Beluga.”

In music, I am engaging the children in learning through music, using the language of song to expand both vocabulary, including the words they already know and what those words mean, and the memory function of the brain – which is a muscle, and can be strengthened through exercise. Memorizing a song maybe the most engaging way to flex that muscle.

Let’s take a song like “Baby Beluga” by Raffi.

Baby beluga in the deep blue sea,
Swim so wild and you swim so free.
Heaven above and the sea below,
And a little white whale on the go.

Baby beluga, oh, baby beluga,
Is the water warm?
Is your mama home with you, so happy?

Way down yonder where the dolphins play,
Where you dive and splash all day.
Waves roll in and the waves roll out,
See the water squirting out of your spout!

Baby beluga, oh, baby beluga,
Sing your little song,  sing for all your friends, we like to hear you.

Baby beluga in the deep blue sea,
Swim so wild and you swim so free.
Heaven above and the sea below,
And a little whale on the go.

When it’s dark, you’re home and fed,
Curl up snug in your water bed.
Moon is shining and the stars are out.
Good night, little whale, good night.

Baby beluga, oh, baby beluga,
With tomorrow’s sun, another day’s begun.
You’ll soon be waking.

Baby beluga in the deep blue sea,
Swim so wild and you swim so free.
Heaven above and the sea below, And a little whale on the go.
You’re just a little white whale on the go!

First of all, just the phrase, “Baby Beluga,” is an interesting one that lends itself to repetition, the alliteration of the b’s followed by the vowel sounds in “uga.”

In “Baby Beluga” we’re learning a section, the chorus, with a lot of repeated words and phrases, and then branching off into other sections, the verses, where there is new information. Children have the pleasure of repeating what they already know, “Baby beluga in the deep blue sea”, and then further enjoy the experience of learning new phrases, “Is the water warm? Is your mama home with you so happy.”

In the song, the children learn the new words over the same, familiar melody of the verses, so there’s something new, the lyric, and something familiar, the melody. This is part of what makes learning a song such a dynamic way of expanding language.

When I’m teaching older 3s and 4s, I move on to more sophisticated songs. Here’s one of my favorite songs to start a class with, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” the lyric by Oscar Hammerstein.

There’s a bright, golden haze on the meadow
There’s a bright, golden haze on the meadow.
The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye
And it looks like it’s climbing clear up to the sky.

Oh, what a beautiful Mornin’
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I’ve got a beautiful feelin’
Everything’s goin’ my way.

All the cattle are standin’ like statues
All the cattle are standin’ like statues
They don’t turn their heads as they see me ride by
But a little brown mav’rick is winkin’ her eye

Oh, what a beautiful Mornin’
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I’ve got a beautiful feelin’
Everything’s goin’ my way.

All the sounds of the earth are like music
All the sounds of the earth are like music
The breeze is so busy it don’t miss a tree
An’ a ol’ weepin’ willer is laughin’ at me

Oh, what a beautiful Mornin’
Oh, what a beautiful day.
I’ve got a beautiful feelin’
Everything’s goin’ my way.
Oh, what a beautiful day!

Here, we’re using some of the same techniques as in “Baby Beluga,” using repetition, and then building on that.

“There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,” then again, “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow,” and then, “The corn is as high as an elephant’s eye and it looks like it’s climbing clear up to the sky…”

Oscar Hammerstein was such a master of language that he makes the new information even easier to learn than the repeated information. Reading his lyrics is like walking up a wonderful staircase, ‘the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye” is an image that you will remember your entire life.  He continues with, “and it looks like it’s climbing clear up to the sky.”  This line is so well and simply constructed, that a 4-year-old can learn it and sing it effortlessly after hearing it perhaps only 2 or 3 times.

Now take a look at a very partial list of the songs a student will know by the time he or she graduates from Montclare Children’s School, and think of how much brain power they will have developed in the process.

  • “Let it be”
  • “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head”
  • “Tomorrow”
  • “Sing, Sing a Song”
  • “My Favorite Things”
  • “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

 

“Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands.”

~ Stevie Wonder