Why do we part write?

It has been a few years since I have taught theory 1, so I decided to reflect on ways I could improve my introduction on the concept of voice leading.  For some inspiration, I went straight to Diane Follet’s article “Why Do We Part Write” from the E-journal of the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy.  In her article, Follet recounts how she posed this question to her students as groups were working through exercises on the board.  The student response of “because you tell us to” was met with laughter in the classroom.  I wanted to start my discussion with that same question, so after singing (and kazooing) through a chorale or two as suggested in the article and discussing the motion of the lines, I asked the same question, “Why do we study voice leading?”  One student immediately answered “so you can weed out the students who can’t handle it.”  There was a bit of nervous laughter and then the discussion really began.  It seems that most students, many of whom have come from AP programs where there was a great focus on part writing, can not answer this question.  And can we as university professors really answer this question in a way that will allow students to understand the need of this skill as a musical experience?

Before a note was drawn on the board, I had the students up in a circle.  We used Kodaly hand signs for the solfege and I broke up the circle into three parts with approximately six students on each part. (This was the first time I had introduced hand signs to this class)  I stood in the middle of the circle and began to move students up and down the scale having each section stop on specific pitches.  We sang through a I-IV-ii-V7-I progression and I had the students tell me in real time where they wanted their assigned pitch to go.  I followed their lead, and in terms of the final cadence, it was thrilling how they were able to instinctually tell me that the fa wanted to go to mi and the ti wanted to go to do. The sol wanted to remain the common tone and the re easily moved into do or mi.  They were excited to make the discovery (on their own) that the handsigns matched the tendency of each pitch.  We were building progressions with only our hands, and I was away from the board, the podium, and in the middle of a musical experience.  When we returned to our seats, I began to tell them about the voice leading “guidelines” we had just figured out on our own (the 7th goes down, the ti goes up).  The discussion took about 45 seconds because they had figured it out through experiencing the voice leading principle, rather than reading or just listening to proper part writing.

So why do we even teach part writing?  Diane Follet gives many reasons in her article including some not related to music, such problem solving skills that will serve students well as they continue in their education.  True, it is important to understand how musical lines are composed in counterpoint and historically how composers used specific intervals and motion in such a manner to resolve dissonances.  Through part writing, students learn how to quickly spell triads and understand the importance of inversions.  (I also had several students kazoo a difficult bass line while the soprano, alto, and tenors moved in lovely step wise motion…that quickly showed the importance of inversions!)  There’s one sentence in Follet’s article that really stands out to me as a summary of why we study part writing.  “As students learn to balance the competing interests of the vertical and the horizontal in a part writing assignment, they are developing a level of mental agility that will foster success in other domains.”  Yes.

So after a good discussion and plenty of music making in my freshmen class, what better way to end an 8 a.m. Friday class than with some triad bingo.  Think “under the B a diminished triad” or under the I “the number of flats in g minor.”  The M&Ms were tokens and students were slightly competitive as they begged for me to give them “another one under the O column.”  We were good to go as long as they didn’t eat all of their tokens.

Bring on the voice leading unit. I’m teaching it differently now and with a different goal in mind.  It’s important to not focus on the “rules” and have the students discover the “guidelines” on their own.  As a teacher, what could be more rewarding.

-Jenny Snodgrass



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