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Project puts students in touch with their musical sides

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Jeanne Bamberger, professor of music and theater arts, conducted a cook's tour of her latest book, Developing Musical Intuitions: A Project-Based Introduction to Making and Understanding Music (Oxford University Press), for the November Arts Colloquium on November 21.

Professor Bamberger, who has taught music theory and education courses at MIT since 1971, is also the author of The Art of Listening and The Mind Behind the Musical Ear. Developing Musical Intuitions builds on her earlier work, she said, thanks both to new technologies -- the new book includes text, audio CD and an interactive computer music environment called Impromptu -- and to a moment she now calls "the 'guts' of what started this whole thing. I'd say to my students, 'This piece is in A major, and one day a student said, 'What do you mean, it's in A major?'

"At that moment I had two choices: I could say, 'sit down and be quiet.' Or, I could go home and think hard about what we do mean when we say a piece is in A major. I chose to think hard," she said. That was the beginning of a new approach to teaching music fundmentals based on what Professor Bamberger calls musical intuitions -- "what everyone knows how to do when they know how to make sense of the music all around them."

Musical intuitions are not innate; they are learned and they are specific to a given musical culture. But in growing up listening to the everyday music in our culture, even three-year-olds can segment the continuous flow of a melody.

"They can recognize phrases and even distinguish among the functions of phrases -- for instance, those that sound ended in contrast to those that sound like there is more to come," Professor Bamberger said.

Having found that everyone can intuitively hear meaningful structural elements such as phrases and motives, she next sought a way for students to "begin developing their intuitions by working with their intuitive 'units of perception' -- these meaningful structural chunks of music," she said.

Turning to the computer screen of Impromptu, Professor Bamberger demonstrated how nearly all students, even those with no previous music training, can reconstruct a tune they have heard using these structural elements we call "tuneblocks" as the "units of work."

Using Impromptu, students compose their own melodies by arranging and rearranging tuneblocks in a sequence that sounds 'right' according to their intuitive musical sense. Watching pitch-contour graphics of their composition unfolding on the screen as they go along, students have another representation of what they're hearing and a further source for answering the questions they're putting to themselves, Professor Bamberger explained.

Professor Bamberger added that students are often surprised that two phrases which have exactly the same pitches and durations can sound different when they occur in different musical contexts.

"But by working in this environment, where they have multiple representations of the music they're making, they learn to hear that phrases can be both the same and different depending on what you are paying attention to," she said.

Impromptu includes four "playrooms" where work is actually carried out. Each is associated with composition projects, including reconstructing and composing melodies, composing percussion pieces and harmonizing melodies in real time. The text is divided into sections focusing on melody, rhythm, pitch relations and harmony.

Professor Bamberger is adamant about the playful implementation of serious musical ideas. She also insists that students articulate their responses to their own compositions in progress; she requires each one to keep "a running log of their work, noting their reactions on hearing a motive the first time and describing any surprises," she said. "Surprises are important, because to be surprised you must have had expectations. And discovering your expectations tells you a lot about what you know already -- the intuitions you're walking around with."

Developing Musical Intuitions conveys a sense of what it's like to participate in one of Professor Bamberger's classes at MIT as a student. In describing her experience teaching here, she mixed seriousness and enthusiasm.

"At the beginning of the class I tell everyone, 'Now you have an A. If you do all the projects and really actively participate, you will still have an A at the end of the semester. Of course, you can also work your way down from an A.' At first I was afraid of what might happen, but I found that the students take the projects very seriously. They write incredible papers -- it usually takes me an hour to read each one. They really get interested in interrogating their own intuitions.

"Most of the students have never played the piano before, but at the end of the semester, everybody has to play a piece on the piano in front of the class -- usually a short piece by Bach, Mozart or Schubert that they have worked on in piano lab. They also have to do a structural analysis of the piece and talk about how the structure relates to their performance decisions. This brings the whole set of activities together -- they can see and hear how these more complex compositions are elaborations on the intuitions they initially had, how interrogation helped to make them explicit, and how they have now gone beyond to develop more sophisticated intuitions. It's very exciting," she said.

Professor Bamberger paused frequently during her hourlong presentation to acknowledge the contributions of MIT colleagues to her work, including Professor Marvin Minsky of media arts and sciences, Professor Hal Abelson of electrical engineering and computer science, and artist-in-residence Arthur Ganson. "If I weren't at MIT I would not have made the kinds of connections that brought all of this together," she said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 13, 2000.

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