Curriculum Designs

For Teachers

Teachers sometimes find they can approach their materials in a fresh way by thinking in terms of curriculum designs or taxonomies.  Here are three ways of slicing the materials — and the ideas — we are attempting to teach: Comprehensive Musicianship, Domains, and The Trivium.


Comprehensive Musicianship

During the 1960s an approach to music education known as Comprehensive Musicianship began to influence music educators.  It emphasized the relationship between performance and music theory.  This approach is the underlying curricular assumption of Book 1 and Book 2.  Practically speaking, music educators who embrace the assumptions of Comprehensive Musicianship can think of their curricula in terms of concepts, skills, and materials.

  • In a way, we don’t teach concepts;  students learn them from examining them in diverse, ever-enriching environments.  We teachers provide those environments and invite students to think deeply.  A concept, which also could be called an idea, exists outside of ourselves; and yet we and our students each have our own personal perceptions of an idea.  Mortimer Adler maintained that there were 102 or 103 “great ideas” in Western Civilization.  Musicians seem to agree that there are about 10 “great ideas” in music, although we may disagree about exactly what they are and what we should call them.  These 10 ideas guide the development of Book 1 and are stated explicitly in Book 2, page 81.  The theory materials are designed to enhance students’ understanding of these concepts.

Sound elements

Time elements

Pitch – how high or low a note is Rhythm/meter – varied lengths of notes (such as quarters and eighths) and how they are grouped (as in time signatures)
Harmony/texture – when two or more notes sound at once; texture includes monophonic, polyphonic and homophonic Phrase/form – musical thought, often 4 measures in length, grouped together to form patterns such as ABA
Scale – a group of notes that form the basis for the pitches chosen in a piece

Tension/release – unrest, anxiety, or expectation, and then satisfaction and relief

Articulation – such as legato and staccato, attached or detached; also includes how a note is approached
Dynamics – power, how loud or soft the music is Tempo – how fast the beats progress in the music
Technique – coordination in playing an instrument or singing with one’s voice; tone and facility; on the recorder, control of breath, tonguing, and fingering
  • While concepts are things one knows and understands, skills are things one does.  The skills in Book 1 are:
  1. Playing by Ear
  2. Sight-reading
  3. Improvising
  4. Transposing
  5. Technique
  6. Ensemble Performing

Opportunities for melodic Dictation, a seventh skill, occur throughout both books.  In Book 2, the skill of Harmonizing is added.

  • Unjustly, materials can tend to drive our teaching.  We’ve all experienced the mad dash to the end of the semester or year, when we suddenly realize that we have only two weeks to finish teaching the materials we determined our students needed before leaving our class.  While materials are important – transcendently important – they are only important to the extent that they help us teach musical concepts and skills, to stimulate students to explore the great ideas of music. The two books hopefully provide the materials for doing just that.



We also can think about our curricula in terms of Domain.  Dating from 1956, what has come to be known as “Bloom’s Taxonomy” is still useful today for music educators.  Music classes that include both theory and performance excel in all three domains:

  • Cognitive.  This includes factual knowledge and conceptual understanding.  Musical facts include the meanings of terms and symbols and the letter names of notes on the staff.  Conceptual understanding includes students’ perception of scale and meter, for example.
  • Affective.  The Affective Domain encompasses feelings and attitudes.  To the extent that we investigate how our students value and embrace their learning, we are investigating the affective domain.  The teacher considers this domain when selecting appealing, challenging, and achievable materials for the students.  Teachers cultivate students’ sense of beauty with such choices and by modeling appropriate feelings and attitudes.
  • Psychomotor.  Music education excels in this area.  Students learn to manipulate a musical instrument, whether recorders, modern instruments, or their own voices.


The Trivium

Teachers in more classically oriented schools also may benefit from considering our teaching from the medieval concept of the Trivium. These broad subjects included  logic (the process of valid reasoning), grammar (the structural rules of language), and rhetoric (the art of presenting ideas persuasively).  While music classes probably deal most obviously with rhetoric, if music theory is included in the study, then music classes encompass, at least by analogy, all three elements of the Trivium:

  • Logic.  Four-part harmonic analysis is an exercise in logic, comparable to a multi-step proof in algebra.  Students learn to make valid inferences when they prepare to play a piece of music; for example, two sharps in the key signature may indicate the key of D Major, or it may indicate B Minor.  Students’ logical powers increase as they analyze and understand music theory.
  • Grammar.    When a teacher instructs students to circle a treble clef symbol around the second line, to place stems on the correct side of the note head, and to make sure that a written measure of music has the correct number of counts, students are exploring the grammar of music.  One would expect grammatical thinking in music to translate to grammatical thinking in other subjects.
  • Rhetoric.  Music classes include the art of creating persuasive, beautiful, and compelling performances.  An ensemble that phrases together, plays in tune, and performs with conviction has learned something about the art of rhetoric.


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