Issue 23: Words and Music

Several primary school music schemes that I have used include extracts of “Stripsody” by Cathy Berberian as a starting point for creative work. (Music Express year 5 and the Oxford Music Scheme part 2).

Here’s a very rough description of the work; she took words from comic book stories, notated them across three lines (high, middle, low pitches) in the style that she wanted so say them; so “squeak” might be written in tiny letters on the top line, “Zowee” in large letters, decreasing in size, sliding up and down across the three lines. A few minutes on google will bring up images, explanations, and recordings of the work, which will give you the full idea.

(watch and listen to the WHOLE video before you decide whether all of it is suitable for your class – I would choose just a section, or have sound only)

This is a brilliant way of initiating composition and creating graphic scores. You can stick with the vocal format, or move on to instruments. It is also easy to tie in to any current topic.

The first thing to do is to get hold a a recording of a performance. Once the children have overcome their astonishment, and therefore uncontrollable laughter, work can begin. It is a good idea to have mini whiteboards, or plenty of paper (scrap is fine at this stage, or you could create a booklet showing the development of the topic). You might start by getting the children to each write down a word in the shape that they are going to say them; going round the class in turn, they perform their word and compare the performance to the way that the word is written. (Warning; on the whole the children will choose acceptable words – go round as they are working and erase any “playground” words that you spot before the performance).

Discuss changes in tempo (speed), pitch (high and low), dynamics (loud and soft, and getting louder, getting softer) and timbre (quality of sound – scratchy, smooth, harsh, sugary) and repeat the exercise choosing new words.

From here you can take it in many different directions;

Use words to do with the topic,

Put the children in pairs, and then groups to build up longer and layered compositions, add instruments, develop a storyline and then “tell” the story using only sound. (add texture (layering) to the musical elements involved, and don’t forget the power of silence)

For a tighter link into literacy, use only “action” words, or “describing” words.

The graphic scores can become mini works of art in glorious technicolour, worthy of a display.

Add movement to express the way the words are spoken.

I am currently using this as a starting point with year 1 and 2 (topic is “into the freezer”). We have made vocal sounds as part of a song, and to describe how penguins move across ice in a selection of photographs (clip art). We have read and performed words written on whiteboards, like “wheee” and “splosh”. In pairs, we have written and performed our own words (no comment on spelling!), and last week, we chose suitable instruments to perform words like “ping” (bells, triangle), “shsh” (shakers) and “CRASH”. Our latest lesson involved giving each child and instrument and getting them to work in pairs to write and perform their own composition. We are slowiy heading towards a whole class composition about penguins and ice.

At the same time, year 3 and 4 are developing a space-themed composition; following a rather faster route than year 1 and 2 we have been through similar phases (but with attention to spelling; “whoosh” and “whooch” are not the same sound!). We, or rather, they, are now ready to work on a whole class composition, developing a storyline to do with space travel, which they can perform using voices and instruments.


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