Memory and Making the Most of Ear Worms

Ever got a tune stuck in your head? And couldn’t get it out?

As Oliver Sacks discussed (Musicophilia, 2008), ear worms are songs that repeat over and over in your head. The jury is out on how and why this happens: but we’ve all had the experience of that tune going round, right round, baby, right round-round, baby, round like a record, baby….

You get the idea! Let’s use this funny brain hiccup to help you and your students create a memory game embedded with the information you want your students to know inside out and backwards.

The game: Fruit Salad is a rhythm game that features word-based chants. The chants are repeated and layered an indeterminate number of times. The following score uses rhythmic chants of different lengths: 3, 4 and 5 beats long. When layered, the chants phase due to their different lengths.

Fruit Salad, Louise Campbell

How to toss the fruit salad:

  1. As a class, learn each chant by heart. Loop as many times as necessary until comfortable.
  2. Drop a word(s) from the chant and replace it with a rest(s). See boxes in the score above for suggestions of what to drop.
  3. Add a word(s) back into the chant.
  4. Find a way to add/drop words on the fly.
  5. Divide your class into 2-3 groups, and assign one chant per group. Ask each group to practice the chant until they can loop it easily and add/drop words on the fly.
  6. Bring the class back together and loop the chants at the same time, adding and dropping words at will.

On the level of memory, participants learn the chants by rote, and then challenge and integrate memory through the game of keeping their place in the chant as words are added and dropped. The result is a groovy group rhythm in which different words from the chants pop out at different times. The game itself is fun to play, and has all kinds of interesting musical possibilities.

Now imagine how you can make this game work for you and your students in terms of memory – say you use this game when teaching your students about nutrition. Chances are if you ask your students on a test to name a number of fruits, they will come out with the fruit in the chant they learned. What if you and your students made up a chant with examples of each of the major food groups? The information will be even more committed to memory if students come up with the chants themselves.

A chanting game can be made out of any material you want your students to memorize. Pick a topic and ask your students to brainstorm words associated to that topic. Then ask students to play with the words as rhythm, dropping and adding, arranging and re-arranging the words to be as groovy as possible. For best results for memory, the chants can be made to represent a ‘chunk’ of information, as in one chant dedicated to a specific food group.

The key is to boil it down to the essentials – words and rhythm – to make the chant rhythmic and catchy. In the process of playing with the words, your students will be committing the chant to memory, building their own earworms out of information needed to master a subject. Who knows how far you and your students will take it – want your students to memorize the Periodic Table of Elements? It has some fabulously rhythmic words that would make a great rap!

Ack! Here comes the concert

You’ve been doing all this improv, everyone is having a great time, and now the concert is looming. What to do? I say improvise in concert, as is. Or you can get a wee bit more composition-y about it. Let’s take the previous blog post ‘Long tones made fun’ one step further…

The basic rule of the game stays the same: you can play a long tone, or a silence. Now for pitch choices. Play through several versions of this game using different pitch set options (see previous blog post or invent your own). Does your group like certain pitch sets better than the others? Take the group’s favourite pitch sets and find a way to display them so that everyone can read off the same chart – a white board, Smartboard or other kind of projection works well for this. Then have one person ‘conduct’ by pointing to which set they want the group to play and for how long.

This is what your white board might look like. The conductor points to a pitch set and the players go to town using those pitches!

Choose different conductors – each conductor will lead the group through the pitch sets in different ways with different timing. This alone is fascinating. For the concert, ask the audience to guess the rules of the game and then have your three most enthusiastic conductors lead the group through the same game – audiences love it, because they hear how active music-making is and they get to be a part of it, too!

Long tones made fun

I admit I’m a geek – I like to play long tones even after 30 years of playing my instrument. It’s a form of meditation when I get to forget about everything and enjoy making sound. I can wax poetic about it, but I also recognize that not everybody feels this way! Yet, more than anything else, long tones dramatically improve my students’ playing. So how do I make long tones interesting and inspiring for the less-geeky-than-me? Oh, I have so many ways…

Sound and silence

Instrumentation: Wind, brass, strings, pitched percussion
Age & ability: All ages, intermediate to advanced
Number of participants: 6-35

My long-time long-tone favourite is a game piece in which players have two choices:

    1. play a long tone
    2. play a silence
Campbell, Sound and Silence

The long tones and silences can overlap in any way, creating shifting textures and timbres as different instruments come in and drop out at various times.

Campbell, Sound and Silence, a variation

Pitches can be open or predetermined. Here are some examples of predetermined pitch sets:

Choose from:

          1. An E in any octave
          2. Any note of a specific chord, such as C Major or E minor minor 7
          3. Any note of specific scale, such as pentatonic, or D Major
          4. Any note from a tetrachord such as (0, 1, 2, 6) or C, C#, D, F#
          5. Any note of the chromatic scale

Any of these options can go on for a fair while. Encourage your participants to listen and respond to each other. Each group takes it in a different direction – yours will too.

More next time on shaping this game into collaborative composition.

Sound poems

“You want me to what? Oh no, I have a terrible voice…”

What musician hasn’t heard that, or said it themselves? Most people speak daily. However, ask people to sing and insecurities abound. I have a lot of ways of putting people at ease using their voice in a musical setting. One way is to ask people to play with words as sound.

Ten-second Sound Poem

Instrumentation: Voice
Age & ability: All ages, no musical training necessary
Number of participants: 6-35

Choose a topic and brainstorm words related to that topic. I’ve had groups choose place names, seasonal and natural phenomenon, and shared experiences. Steer the conversation towards onomatopoeia, words that sound like what they mean.

For example, let’s take water:

Dribble, roar, bing, swoosh, plop, sploosh, plonk, burble, sploosh, whoosh, trickle, drip, plop, gurgle, splash, kerplonk…

The list goes on and on! Do call-and-response with your participants playing with different ways of saying the words. Sploosh can be full voice or whispered, long or short, with sibilant s’s or a long drawn out shhhh….

Next, write each word on a piece of paper and ask each participant to choose a word at random. Surprise! Which word are you going to draw?

Then, conduct a Ten-second sound poem: as conductor, signal the beginning of a series of 10- second time segment. Each participant speaks their word at any point during the ten seconds. I might say splooooooooooosh at the beginning of the ten seconds, or at the very end. Each ten-second segment is unique as the participants say their word at a different points, in different ways.

The Ten-second sound poem can go in many directions. The conductor can change the duration for shorter, longer, getting faster, getting slower. Change conductors, or have multiple conductors. Choose new words. Check out this in-class recording of a co-composition by my group Sing! using this process – we surprised ourselves with this one!

Water poem, co-composed and performed by participants of Sing!, spring 2017

Playing the Music Game… Pep rally style!

Ever been asked to run a creative music workshop for 120+ teenage girls? I have, and had a great time with Trafalgar School for Girls. I was a wee bit nervous – that’s a lot of people, and when teens are enthusiastic about something, they outrun all your expectations, but if they’re not… well, that workshop could have been a real long hour. So, how was I going to get these girls excited and involved from the get-go?

My number one task in working with amateurs is putting people at ease, since people who are laughing and having fun are naturally creative. Games are great for this. I pulled out all the stops and ran the Traf workshop pep rally style by setting up a participatory music game in which the girls composed, sang and conducted their own music game based on the chanting game Fruit Salad.

Fruit Salad

The following scores are based on a chanting game in which three 4-beat rhythmic chants are repeated and layered an indeterminate number of times. I’ve used variations of this process in situations as diverse as summer camp music exploration for 30 kids, adult music composition classes for 6 people, and high school pep rallies, otherwise known as (insert your school name here) Spirit!

Instrumentation: Voice
Age range: 7 to older adults
Number of participants: 6 to 100+

I borrow the principle of layered rhythmic chants and adapt it by creating rhythmic chants of different lengths: typically 3, 4 and 5 beats long. When repeated, the chants phase due to their different lengths. Depending on the context, I compose the chants, as in the following score appropriate for 6-10 year olds.

Fruit Salad. Repeat each chant as many times as desired. Squares indicate words to drop and add (see The Game).

When possible, I ask participants to compose the chants, encouraging far greater creative input and ownership over the resulting score. The chants in the following score were composed by music students of Trafalgar School for Girls under the guidance of music teacher Kirsten Offer on the theme of ArtsFest, a bi-annual school-wide festival celebrating the arts. More chants were composed than are shown in this score; I selected and tweaked the chants that would work in the context of a 120+ person pep rally.

Traf Spirit! ArtsFest chant Trafalgar School for Girls

The Game

Three conductors, one per chant. Loud, louder, and chilling out. Trafalgar School for Girls

Now to turn these scores into a game: first, teach the chants by rote. Select a conductor(s) who indicates dynamics, entrances and exits. What happens if everyone starts together? What happens when the 3 and 4 beat chants start loud and decrescendo? What happens if the 5 beat chant starts alone, whispered?

Next choose a word or phrase from each of the chants to drop and replace with a rest. Then drop another. And another. Add one back in. And another. Add and drop differently from each of the chants. The gray squares around the words in the scores above are one way in which the words and phrases can be grouped to be dropped and added. Pay close attention to how you do this for your score – it has a huge effect on how groovy or square your piece sounds. Different words and rhythms pop out and line up in different and surprising ways, depending on how and when different words and phrases are dropped and added.

Now find a way to add and drop words on the fly: invent conducted hand signals for drop and add. Write the chants on a whiteboard and cover and uncover the words with pieces of paper. Be creative about how you lead this! Better yet, ask your participants to come up with ways to lead this game. Each group will come up with different solutions, resulting in different pieces from the same score. Have fun!

Musings on making music with anyone

Making music with untrained musicians (aka ‘amateurs’) is a long-time passion of mine. It started over twenty years ago when I walked in to a dance studio with a terrible sound system, a piano that was beautifully twangy and out of tune, and twenty hyper 8-year-olds who had just eaten copious amounts of chocolate during their lunch break. Teaching them how to read quarter notes was clearly going to be excruciating, and not my cup of tea at the best of times. Helping them to become a multi-headed monster chatting away in an invented language – now that was fun! And still is fun, regardless of whether I’m working with 8-year-olds or 80-year-olds.

In recent years, I’ve had the pleasure of leading Teacher Training workshops and Pedagogy 101 for Musicians on the topic of Creativity in the Classroom. The same question always crops up in these workshops: Where do you find your scores? The answer: I don’t find them anywhere. I make them up. With my students. Regardless of who they are, how old they are, and how much (or little) music training they’ve had. We draw on everyone’s experience in the room, using participatory music practices from around the world—that part has a lot to do with me and a long history of musicians whose work I draw on. This blog is a further response to that question: I am going to use this space to share my ideas and experiences in making music with untrained musicians of all ages. Each post will feature the equivalent of one ‘score’, whether it be in traditional notated form, narrative description, or (if I get fancy enough) as instructional video. My hope is that you take these ‘scores’ not as finished products but as starting points to come up with your own music in whatever context you are making it. Try the multi-headed monster thing. It’s seriously fun.