Category Archives: Video Clips

The Power of the Pentatonic Scale

“Pentatony is an introduction to world literature: it is the key to many foreign musical literatures, from the ancient Gregorian chant, through China to Debussy.” – Zoltan Kodály

Any music educator who has taught songs or musician who has improvised melodies using the pentatonic scale knows the power of the five tones. The five-tone pentatonic scale has been called the most universal of scales, because of its substantial use in music cultures around the world, including West African music, Sami joik singing, Hungarian folk music, Indonesian music, Appalachian folk music, Celtic folk music, Chinese music, and Andean music, to only mention a few. The pentatonic major and minor scales are commonly used in jazz, blues and rock music, and the blues scale predominantly derived from the minor pentatonic scale. In classical music, the pentatonic scale was used by Western impressionistic composers including Claude Debussy.

In this interesting video from the World Science Festival 2009 Bobby McFerrin uses audience participation and the pentatonic scale to demonstrate neural programming, as part of the event “Notes and Neurons: In Search of the Common Chorus”. At the end of his “pentatonic brain hacking” McFerrin mentions that regardless of where he is, anywhere, every audience gets it. Aside from the fact that the pentatonic scale seems to be used in music cultures around the world, interesting questions arise. Why does it seem that the pentatonic scale is universal? Is our brain programmed to “think pentatonic”?

Perhaps it is. A Belgian research found the pentatonic scale could be heard in the vocal interaction between babies and their mothers. And whoever has listened to children on a playground, can recognize the so-mi / la-so-mi patterns in their chants. This natural use of the pentatonic scale by children lead music educators including Zoltan Kodály and Carl Orff to largely use the pentatonic scale for pitch-matching and improvisation in their music education approaches. Not only babies and children seem to gravitate towards pentatony though: military cadences, used to keep soldiers in step while marching or running, also typically use pentatonic scales.

So where did the pentatonic scale come from? Doug Goodkin writes in Play, Sing, & Dance – an Introduction to Orff Schulwerk (2002):

“Some people (Leonard Bernstein among them) have theorized that the universal quality of the pentatonic scale comes from a subconscious sounding of the overtone series. A string produces a sound based not only on the vibration of the whole string, but also on vibrations of that string in halves, thirds, etc. Each division produces a soft, but audible tone called the overtone that becomes a part of the texture of the fundamental tone. This is not only true of strings, but any vibrating body, be it a tube of air or metal gong or drumskin.”

I find it interesting to theorize about the universal quality of the pentatonic scale or about our brains being wired for music, but what counts for me in the end is that it actually works. No matter what age, no matter what cultural background, be it with people who are completely new to music/singing or with music professionals…the pentatonic scale can always be used.  In my singing workshops I often use pentatonic songs from various cultures and music styles, and base a lot of my vocal improvisation and ear training exercises exercises on the pentatonic scale or pentatonic modes – often combined with accompanying drones or ostinato melodies.

Some musicians and music educators dismiss the pentatonic scale as sounding one-dimensional. Before you dismiss these powerful five notes, try exploring beyond the major pentatonic scale. Also, in honest my opinion, whether a scale sounds one-dimensional or not does not only have to do with the scale itself. It also has to do with how we use our instrument (in my case, the voice). A pentatonic improvisation can either sound like a “somewhat boring children’s song” or “sound like magic” depending on how the singer uses  rhythm/timing, sound color, volume, etc. and on how the accompanying vocals are built up. Perhaps more about that another time. For now, let yourself be inspired by Bobby McFerrin and his “pentatonic brain hacking”!

By Katja Maria Slotte

Keith Terry’s Body Music

Following up from yesterday’s blog post with the Barbatuques video clip, today’s spotlight is on the work of percussionist/rhythm dancer and “body musician” Keith Terry. Keith Terry’s Body Music is a performance art that synthesizes body percussion, movement and cross-cultural rhythmic concepts. In Body Music, Terry draws upon rhythmic techniques such as polyrhythms, phasing, cross pulses, and polymeters. Terry’s influences range from Japanese Taiko and Balinese Gamelan to North American rhythm tap and Ethiopian armpit music. Terry  is the artistic director of Crosspulse, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to the creation, performance and recording of rhythm-based, intercultural music and dance. In addition to performing and teaching workshops, Terry has created two instructional videos (Body Music Vol.1 and Body Music Vol. 2) that teach the basics and variations on Body Music. These videos are wonderful (teaching) resources for music educators and musicians.

I was first introduced to Terry’s Body Music by San Fransisco-based Orff teacher Doug Goodkin, who was the first music educator to use Keith’s ideas in his work with children and subsequent teaching in Orff workshops. Since the early 90′s, Body Music ideas have been introduced by Goodkin and by Keith Terry himself to music teachers worldwide, among others at the Orff Insitute, and at Orff summer courses and conferences. In addition to the use of Body Music in the classroom, Keith’s ideas are applied by many performing groups as well.

Body Music is suitable as a medium for rhythm training at all levels, and also for strengthening rhythmic sensibility in singing, instrumental playing and dance. My own musical training began with classical piano studies and singing. Rhythmical training was often a nightmare subject because of the way it was taught: focusing on the ears and the head/logic, but completely disconnected from the rest of the body. It wasn’t until I was introduced to music education approaches like Dalcroze and Orff Schulwerk, where rhythm is connected to movement and body percussion, that I had most of my a-ha moments in rhythmical training. Later on, I took some percussion classes – something I would strongly recommend too for all singers. Working with world music styles that are based on aural learning has also been an invaluable training to strengthen my own rhythm skills.

In Body Music, the playing of rhythm patterns, movement and vocalization are brought together. When rhythm is experienced through the whole body it demands a physical internalization of rhythm, that I believe music education on all levels and areas benefits from. Music doesn’t happen in the head, it happens in the whole body! Body Music can be adapted to virtually any music style or culture, and thereby provides excellent rhythm training tools for culturally diverse music education. Finally, a link to the Crosspulse Teacher Blog, where you can download a PDF of Keith Terry’s article on Body Music.

By Katja Maria Slotte

Who needs instruments?

Here is a clip of the Brazilian group Barbatuques that makes organic music using their voices and bodies as instruments. The group performs in Brazil as well as internationally, teaches workshops, gives trainings and participates in educational and social projects.

The professional development course that I am giving with Jeanne in Luxembourg 26-27 November is called “No Instruments? No Problem!” The idea for the workshop was born because of the reactions we often get from teachers: “At our school we don’t have (a budget to buy) enough instruments for all the students…” Making music and exploring musical elements and concepts is possible without any instruments at all, just like the Barbatuques show in their video (all right…they have included a Jew’s harp in this particular piece, but even that sound could be produced with the voice only).

Body percussion is probably the most ancient universal instrument. Ethnomusicologist Curt Sachs writes in ‘World History of the Dance’ (1937):

“The original time beater is the stamping foot… To the dull stamping sound is added the sharper sound made by slapping the hand on some part of the body; thus the upper arm, the flanks, the abdomen, the buttocks and the thighs become musical instruments. [...] Besides stamping… only hand clapping is found among all cultures at all periods.”

Add another instrument that we all are equipped with, the human voice (vocal sounds, singing voice and speaking voice), and we have endless possibilities to create music!

 

By Katja Maria Slotte