Today I want to walk you through how to do music study, or composer study. Charlotte Mason believed that “music is a necessary part of education.” It can also be a simple part of your home school. Here’s how.
What You Will Need
You will need access to music, whether it is on vinyl, or disc, or streamed from the Internet. And make sure you’re able to filter that music by composer. Choose one and make sure you can play only that composer’s music, rather than music in a similar style as a composer. You want to filter it to only that composer’s own works.
Once you have your selected composer’s music in hand, here’s what you do.
Step 1: Stick with that composer over the course of one term, 12 weeks, and play his music often. You can play it during a meal or while you’re working on handicrafts; play it during clean up time or as background music while you’re doing an art project; play it in the car as you run errands; play it in the morning as the children gather for schoolwork. And every time you play it, mention the composer’s name, so you and your children begin to connect that name to that music.
Step 2: During those 12 weeks, have some focused listening times, just once a week. A focused listening time is when you gather together and listen intentionally to one specific piece. Tell your students the name of that piece, and if you know any background to the circumstances behind it, tell that story. If you don’t know the background, don’t worry about it.
Then you can also let the children respond to that piece of music somehow. They might move their bodies in some way; they might draw or paint what the music sounds like to them; they could create a story that goes with the music. Or they might just listen and ponder what the composer was feeling when he wrote it or discuss what they think of it.
Let me show you what a focused listening time looks like. Our selected composer is Chopin. And today we’re going to listen to his Waltz No. 6 in D-Flat Major. It’s one of his most popular pieces. Chopin wrote it one day at a friend’s house. The friend had a little dog that started chasing his tail. Round and round it tore, but the faster he ran, the faster the tail ran too. He just couldn’t catch it. He ran and ran until he became so dizzy, he tumbled down into a heap. For a moment he lay there, panting and resting. Then he caught sight of that crazy tail again, wagging and inviting another chase. And in a moment he was on his feet, whirling as madly as before. So Chopin wrote this waltz for the little dog. Let’s listen to it, and see if you can hear when the dog is whirling and when he is resting.
This waltz has a nickname: the “Minute” Waltz. How would you pronounce that? For many years people have called it the minute (MI-nute) waltz, thinking, because it’s such a fast piece, you’re supposed to try to play it in a minute. Well, listen to it again and time it. Get out the stopwatch on your phone and see how long it takes to play this waltz.
Almost two minutes. Do you think it could be played any faster? Do you think it should be played faster? Why?
You know, there are actually two ways to pronounce this word: MI-nute and mi-NUTE, which means small or little. I don’t think Chopin was issuing a challenge to play this waltz in one minute; I think he was simply writing a little piece for a little dog. The mi-NUTE waltz.
That’s it. A focused listening lesson doesn’t have to take very long. Now, in case you’re thinking, “I wouldn’t know all that stuff about that waltz,” here’s my secret weapon: Music Study with the Masters. I pulled all that lesson from one of the focused listening segments in here. It has two full albums of music, plus ideas for focused listening for eight music pieces and discussion questions to choose from. It has everything you need to level up or level down.
Level Up or Down
About the only way to level music study down is to just play the music often during the term and not do the focused listening times; but when you think about it, half of the joy of music is responding to it in some way. So why not take a few moments once a week to intentionally stop and enter into a piece wholeheartedly? You might not include all of the background information, but you can still mention the composer’s name and the name of the piece, and then encourage your children to respond through art or movement or creative storytelling or just discussing what that piece made them think of.
One practical tip would be to keep an eye on the length of the piece you use for focused listening times; perhaps select shorter pieces. But don’t underestimate your child either. If her hands are busy painting what she hears, or her arms are engaged in moving a silk scarf (or making her fingers dance or her eyebrows dance), she might enjoy a longer piece.
You can level music study up by including music theory in your focused listening times. Explain musical terms to your students and give them elements to listen for, such as crescendos and diminuendos, sforzandos or fermatas, specific instruments, or even specific motifs or variations on a theme. Some music theory aspects are included in the focused listening segments in Music Study with the Masters, so don’t worry.
It also includes two biographies for your selected composer. And that’s another way to level music study up: reading a biography about the person who composed what you’re listening to and getting to know that composer as a person.
Each portfolio includes two biographies for the composer. One is a shorter Day in the Life narrative, and the other is a full-length, birth-to-death biography that you can assign to older children to read and narrate.
Then be sure to enter your composer in your Book of Centuries. It doesn’t take long, but as you are writing his name on the appropriate page, your children can also see who else lived at that same time. They might notice one of the artists that you studied for picture study and entered there too. “Oh, look! Chopin lived at the same time as Turner!” And that’s when those connections will stick, because they made that connection for themselves.
Music is a necessary—and delightful—part of education, and it’s pretty simple to include in your home school. Pick one composer per term. Listen to his music often. Do a focused listening time once a week. That’s all there is to it.
So which composer do you want to start with?