Building Your Chunk Library

In the previous section, we drew your attention to some particularly common types of musical chunks. But musical patterns go well beyond this list, and many of them are too nuanced to capture in a short, descriptive list. The best way to create an internal library of “chunks” to use and notice in future music-making is simply to learn lots and lots of patterns that are common in music. And, in fact, not just to learn them, but to deeply internalize them, and to associate them with instrument-based kinesthetic imagery and solfège to reinforce and enrich them.

Many traditional aural skills classes ask you to learn lots of music (often called “prepared singing”) to build your internal auditory imagery vocabulary in this way. Unfortunately, many such common patterns are specific to different kinds of music: classical music has contrapuntal sequences and galant schemata, popular music has common chord loops, jazz has “the lick” and other stock phrases, and more. Different teachers will have different priorities.

But regardless of any given teacher’s instructions here, anyone can build their vocabulary by simply learning as much of the music they are interested in as possible.

Activity: Chunking in daily (musical) life

Goal: Integrate thinking about chunks into your broader musical life to build your awareness of chunks in the music you work with regularly.

Instructions: As you go about your musical life, identify opportunities to notice chunks. These might include practice time on your primary instrument, ensemble rehearsals, and even (if you feel like it) recreational listening. At least at first, it’ll be helpful if you have time to think when the music isn’t sounding, such as during portions of ensemble rehearsal when some other section is working out an issue. During this time, think about the music you heard most recently, and try to describe it in chunks. You might take either an informal (“describe what the music does in as few words as possible”) or a systematic (“find all the non-chord tone patterns”) approach.

Activity: making intervallic associations with different melodies to chunk sound.

Goal: To increase exposure to many songs in a certain genre so that one can start to pick up on common melodic and/or harmonic patterns. This will also help with one’s ability to “predict what might come next” in a piece of music.

Before you start: Find a recording of music that you are unfamiliar with; maybe a new piece of repertoire or a song suggested by a friend.

Instructions:

  1. Listen to just the first line or two of the music.
  2. Try to sing back the melody of the first two lines (or as far as you can remember). This may be challenging after just one exposure to the piece. Do not be discouraged!
  3. Now, listen to the same passage again, but pay attention to either the contour of the melody or certain intervals between pitches. Do certain intervals or chunks of the melody remind you of another piece of music? Maybe there is a popular song or favorite symphony that uses the same interval or stretch of 3 notes?
  4. Try to sing/play the melody again keeping in mind the associations and intervallic relationships you listened for in the previous step.
  5. Continue this process of chunking the piece and playing/singing back,
  6. Perhaps repeat these steps but instead of listening to the melody, pay attention to the harmonic speed (the pace at which chords change).
  7. Find another unfamiliar piece of a similar genre and complete the same process.
  8. After listening to a couple different pieces of music from similar genres in this manner, what patterns are you noticing? Are these patterns helping you “predict” what will come next in the piece? Were there moments in the piece where you were surprised by what came next? Has your capacity to memorize certain passages become any easier from noticing patterns? Questions to ponder. (Can you think of another exercise that might be more beneficial for you to learn certain patterns in music?

Activity: Can you guess what’s coming next? – Hum-along activity

Goal: To practice predicting the harmonic or melodic contour of a piece in real time for many different pieces in a genre of choice.

Before you start: Find a recording of a piece of music that you are unfamiliar with; maybe a new piece of repertoire, a new song in your ensemble, or a song suggested by a friend.

Instructions: While the song is playing, listen for one or two lines and then begin humming along with the piece. You can take an approach focused on melody or focused on harmony. Melody: Even if it sounds messy, try humming the melody with the piece as it is playing. Or, for an added challenge if this is an ensemble piece, try tuning in to your voice part or instrumental line and humming the pitches with your part (in an octave that is comfortable for you). Harmony/Chords: Try humming notes that fit in each chord. Often, you will be able to hum the same pitch in successive chords; see if you can predict, however, where you will need to move to a new pitch in order to fit.

In review, how challenging was this exercise for you? Which was harder: following the melody or following the harmony/chords? Would you do this exercise differently next time?

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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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