Issue 149: Grade 1 Theory – teaching semitones and tones

I’m finding this really tricky to teach. I have a group of about ten children, ranging in age from 7 years to 11 years old who come to a half-hour Grade 1 Theory club every week. They have a wide range of musical experience; some play bass clef instruments, others treble clef, others both. One or two also play piano, but mostly they are learning just an orchestral instrument. Some have just taken Grade 1 on their instrument, others are working towards much higher grades.

The current topic is accidentals, tones and semitones.

When I teach theory in piano lessons, it is dead simple to explain tones and semitones – there they are, laid out in back and white on the keyboard;

keyboard picture

Between C and D there is an extra “step”, and the same between D and E, but E and F are cuddled up close together. If this picture showed a complete keyboard, you would see that F and G, G and A, A and B also have an extra “step”, and B and C are close to each other.

So, if the notes have an extra step between them, they are a tone apart, and if they are close together, they are a semitone apart. Two semitones one after another make a tone. So far, so good.

But drawing a keyboard is quite tricky. I’ve decided to teach them to write out the musical alphabet like this;

A   BC   C   D   EF   G   A   BC   D   EF   G   A   etc

They can remember that they write it like this “BeCause of EleFants”. That seems to work.

Now, I am trying to get them to take on board the idea that the gaps between A and B, etc, are filled with an accidental note; it is called “A sharp” if you “push the A up into the gap”, or “B flat” if you “pull the B down into the gap”.

“How can you have the same note with two names?” they ask. “Look at me”, I reply. “My children call me ‘Mummy’, but what do you call me? My name depends on who is talking to me, not who I am.” That seems to satisfy them.

Judging by the homework, I have been mostly successful in teaching tones and semitones so far. For the next step, I need to tackle B and E sharp, and C and F flat. Watch this space…

the snake keyboard





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