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.

What happens if…

Your students have a basic understanding of how instruments make sound. What happens if we deconstruct an instrument to it’s most basic element: the part that produces sound? What happens if we play only part of the instrument? What happens if we reconstruct the instrument using found objects? What happens if…

You get the picture. Today is about instrument design, modification and sound exploration.

Instrumentation: Wind & brass
Age & ability: All ages, all abilities
Number of participants: full class or groups of 2-3

Let’s deconstruct the clarinet, since it is the instrument I know best. The mouthpiece and reed create the basic sound of the instrument. The body of the clarinet acts as a resonator. To reconstruct a clarinet, we tinker with the body of the instrument.

Some useful materials for construction.

Found objects as resonators: What can be used as a resonator other than the body of the instrument? Think of household materials you already have, such as paper towel tubes of different lengths, rolled up aluminum paper, a popped balloon. Find a way to create an air-tight seal around the mouthpiece and the resonator. If there are small air leaks, use saran wrap around the join between the mouthpiece and the resonator to help the seal. How and why do different materials sound different?

Reconstruct the clarinet itself: How many different ways can you put a clarinet together? What does it sound like if you play the mouthpiece and barrel alone? Or the mouthpiece, barrel and top joint? What happens if you play with the mouthpiece in the bell? What happens if you put the clarinet together normally and hold materials across the bell and tone holes? Play a low E and cup the bell with a metallic bowl, aluminum paper, or tissue paper.

The Frankenstrument! Reconstruct the clarinet with other instruments: What happens if you play the clarinet mouthpiece with the resonating bodies of other instruments such as a trombone or flute?

My current Frankenstrument!

Warning: I supervise Frankenstrument construction to make sure the instruments don’t get damaged. Be gentle! Never force two instruments together. If two instrument parts don’t fit:

  1. Ask one participant to hold the mouthpiece and blow and another participant to hold the instrument body against the mouthpiece.
  2. Construct a tube to connect the two instrument parts.
  3. Use parts of instruments that are no longer playable or repairable.

Have fun! I’m fairly certain your students will surprise you with this one.