Back in 2010 I participated in an ingenious study run by Dr. Christine Beckett of Concordia University and BRAMS lab in Montreal.  (Huge thanks to her, by the way, for letting me write a blog post about this – and even giving me an image to use!)

She had a computer tool that allowed musicians to create visual representations of phrases.  Working with groups of people with varying backgrounds (both musical and non-musical, both classical and traditional), the tool let participants create pictures that revealed how we heard the phrasing (important melodic structural bits) of Irish jigs.

The results from Dr. Beckett’s study suggested that the more experience a musician had in playing or even listening to traditional music, the more likely they were to categorize very short groups of notes as the important melodic structural bits (e.g., as “phrases” in their own right).

Since then I’ve thought a lot about how I hear music, and how that’s different depending on whether I’m listening to traditional or classical styles.

Classical music phrases are more like sentences to me.  I feel like I could diagram them with subjects and predicates.  Probably if I had studied Serious Music Theory in college I would be able to.

But for trad?  The idea of a “phrase” doesn’t really apply in the same way.   It’s not about overarching, long sentences but rather about little bits that fit together, like a puzzle.

I’m apparently not alone in this.  In Dr. Beckett’s study, the classical musicians created 4 large bubbles that corresponded to 8-bar phrases.  The traditional musicians divided the melodies up more, into little bits that created symmetrical images:


It seems we wanted Dr. Beckett to know that these little bits were important and distinct.  Intriguingly, once you could see it visually, you found that trad musicians heard patterns and symmetries underlying the music that, well, the classical folks didn’t hear.

So what does this mean for teaching?

Recently I gave one of my favorite tunes to a young student whose experience up to now has mostly been classical.  I gave her the dots printed out, and used colored markers to indicate the places I heard starts of phrases:


It gave her a way to practice in segments that, when she strung them together, increased the musicality of her phrasing.  In other words, introducing the tune to her this way helped her to immediately sound more “traditional” and less “classical.”

Even if you don’t play traditional music, this might be useful.  Interestingly, I realized hear early and baroque music the same way.  Once I opened up to Being Allowed to hear snippets and play accordingly (amazing how we need ‘permission’ to do things that work sometimes), I suddenly found that my baroque phrasing gained more nuance and variety.

There seems to be an internal geometry to things…