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0915 Learning to Read Music

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Welcome to English as a Second Language Podcast number 915 – Learning to Read Music.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast episode 915. I'm your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Visit our website at ESLPod.com. Download a Learning Guide for this episode by becoming a member of ESL Podcast.

This episode is a dialog between Mike and Grace, about learning to read music, learning to look at a piece of paper that has notes on it and be able to understand what it means. Let's get started.

[start of dialog]

Mike: You have a great voice. You should join our choir.

Grace: I don’t know anything about music. I can’t even read music.

Mike: It’s not that hard. I could teach you. Look, this is a piece we’re working on right now.

Grace: What’s that weird thing at the beginning?

Mike: That’s the clef. It tells you which note each line and space on the staff represents.

Grace: Okay. What about these numbers?

Mike: That’s the time signature. It tells you how many beats are in each measure, and what kind of note gets one beat. This little number above there gives you the tempo.

Grace: Hmm, that’s kind of complicated. Why are all of these notes stacked on top of each other?

Mike: That’s to indicate a chord, with two or more notes played together at the same time. See? Musical notation is really very simple.

Grace: I don’t think I got all that.

Mike: I’m happy to help you until you get the hang of it. We could even work on some duets. We could sing harmony or I can accompany you on the piano.

Grace: I think you’re overestimating my singing ability, but I’m willing to give it a try. At least, I think I can stay on pitch. I just don’t want to embarrass myself too much.

Mike: I think you’re overestimating the quality of our community choir!

[end of dialog]

This dialogue introduces us to a lot of music-related vocabulary. We begin by Mike saying to Grace, “You have a great voice. You should join our choir.” A “choir” (choir) is a group of people who sing together. You can have a choir of ten people. You could have a choir of a hundred people. Grace says, “I don't know anything about music. I can't even read music.” “To read music” means to be able to understand written music, music on a piece of paper, and convert that, if you will, into actual sound, either by singing or by playing an instrument – or you can just read music to figure out what something might sound like.

Mike says, “It's not that hard.” It's not very difficult. “I could teach you. Look, this is a piece we’re working on right now.” A “piece (piece) of music” is one song, one composition, one thing that you are going to sing. A “piece of music” could be something you also play with a musical instrument – or both singing and musical instruments. The word “piece” is used in a lot of different areas of art. We can talk about a piece of art, meaning a painting, or a sculpture, or anything that you would classify as art.

Mike says he can teach Grace how to read music. He gives her a piece of paper and Grace says, “What's that weird thing at the beginning?” Mike says, “That's the clef.” A “clef” (clef) is a musical term, as are most of the terms we’re going to be using in this dialog. A “clef” is a written symbol that indicates the meaning of other symbols on the page of written music. There is normally either a “treble clef,” as it's called, or a “bass clef.” The “treble (treble) clef” is sometimes also called the “G clef,” I guess, and the “bass clef” is sometimes called the “F clef.” However, I'm not a musician. I'm just reading this from a piece of paper because I don't know that much about music, but our wonderful scriptwriter does. So, she's helping me with this.

Mike says “That's the clef,” the little symbol at the beginning of the piece of music as it's written down on a piece of paper. Mike says, “The clef tells you which note each line and the space on the staff represents.” In written music, there are lines and then there are spaces in between the lines. I believe there are typically five lines, five black lines, and then you have spaces in between the lines. The clef tells you which notes go on which lines or which spaces.

Mike talks about the spaces on the “staff” (staff). The staff is what we call those five horizontal, parallel lines that we write the musical notes on or that we use to indicate which musical notes you're supposed to sing or play. A “note” (note) is a musical sound. “Do re mi fa so la ti do, do re mi fa so la ti do.” I don't know if that was actually the correct musical notes in English. I'm not sure about other languages, but I believe it is probably the same. We have words that we use to represent each note.

“Notes,” when written on a staff, usually consist of round circles, sometimes the circles are empty, sometimes they're blackened in. The circles often have a line attached to them, going up or down, and the lines themselves often have other small lines that go off of the larger line. That's how we write notes, and depending on what the circle looks like and how many lines you have, you indicate different kinds of notes.

However, the sound of the note is indicated by where it is on the staff. If it's on the top of the staff, it's higher than it is if it were on the bottom of the staff. Grace says, “Okay. What about these numbers?” Mike says, “That's the time signature.” The time signature are two numbers, one on top of the other, on a musical staff that are used to show how many beats are in each group of notes – that's the top number – and which note gets the beat – that's the bottom number. For example, if you see a four and then another four underneath it, that would be a “four over four time signature.” There are four beats per section of music – that little section is usually called a “measure” – and in a four-four time signature, the quarter note gets the beat. If it were three over four, then there would only be three beats in the measure.

A “beat” is a evenly-spaced rhythmic sound in music. That's the technical definition, I guess. The beat is usually indicated, in a rock band, for example, by either the drum or the bass guitar. In certain kinds of dances, where people dance to the music, you will see people counting the beat. For example, if you are dancing the waltz and it had a beat of one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three – people actually count that to make sure that they are dancing correctly. That one-two-three, one-two-three that you are hearing in the music is the “beat.”

Mike says that “The time signature tells you how many beats are in each measure.” “Measure,” remember, is a small group of notes that has the same number of beats. When you look at a musical staff, measures are separated by a vertical line - the line that goes up and down.

Mike says that the time signature tells you how many beats are in each measure and what kind of note gets one beat. “This little number above there gives you the tempo.” The “tempo” (tempo) is sort of like the speed of the song. It's how many beats per minute are in the piece of music. Something that has a very fast tempo goes very quickly. What we call a “fast song” goes by quickly, what we call a “slow song” goes or seems to go more slowly.

Grace says “Hmm, that's kind of complicated. Why are all these notes stacked on top of each other?” “To stack” (stack) means to put one thing on top of another. Grace wants to know why the musical notes on the staff are stacked one on top of the other. Mike says, “That's to indicate a chord.” A “chord” (chord) is a group of two or more notes that are played at the same time. If you are singing, you can't sing a chord by yourself, technically. There would have to be other people singing with you. Some musical instruments such as a piano can play a chord because you can play more than one note at a time.

Mike says, “See? Musical notation is very simple.” “Musical notation” is just another word for written music, the way that we typically write music down on a piece of paper. Grace says, “I don't think I got all that,” meaning I don't think I understood everything you just explained to me.

Maybe Grace isn’t too smart. Maybe, maybe she shouldn't be singing. Well, let’s continue here. Mike says, “I'm happy to help you until you get the hang of it.” “To get the hang of something” is to get used to something. We could even work on some duets. A “duet” (duet) is when two people sing together. “Due” is Italian for two. I’m not sure if that's where “duet” comes from – probably. A lot of the words we use in music with our musical notation are in Italian.

Mike says, “We could sing harmony or I can accompany you on the piano.” To be in “harmony” means to have two or more notes played at the same time that sound good together. “Accompany” means to play a musical instrument while another person sings. So, I'm playing the piano, and you’re singing. I'm “accompanying” your singing.

Grace says, “I think you're overestimating my singing ability.” “To estimate” means to guess. “To overestimate” means to have a higher opinion of something than it deserves, or to think that something is greater than it actually is. The opposite of “overestimate” is “underestimate.” “To underestimate” means to think something is less important, or not as good as what it in fact is. Grace says, “I'm willing to give it a try.” I'm willing to try it. “At least, I think I can stay on pitch.” “To be on pitch” (pitch) means the same as to be in tune, when you sing a note the way it's supposed to be sung – not too high, which is what we would call “sharp,” or too low, which is what we would call “flat.” I am rarely on pitch when I sing.

Grace says, “I just don't want to embarrass myself too much.” Mike says, “I think you're overestimating the quality of our community choir.” Mike is saying that the choir really isn't very good and so even if Grace isn’t perfect, she'll be just fine.

Now let's listen to the dialogue, this time at a normal speed.

[start of dialog]

Mike: You have a great voice. You should join our choir.

Grace: I don’t know anything about music. I can’t even read music.

Mike: It’s not that hard. I could teach you. Look, this is a piece we’re working on right now.

Grace: What’s that weird thing at the beginning?

Mike: That’s the clef. It tells you which note each line and space on the staff represents.

Grace: Okay. What about these numbers?

Mike: That’s the time signature. It tells you how many beats are in each measure, and what kind of note gets one beat. This little number above there gives you the tempo.

Grace: Hmm, that’s kind of complicated. Why are all of these notes stacked on top of each other?

Mike: That’s to indicate a chord, with two or more notes played together at the same time. See? Musical notation is really very simple.

Grace: I don’t think I got all that.

Mike: I’m happy to help you until you get the hang of it. We could even work on some duets. We could sing harmony or I can accompany you on the piano.

Grace: I think you’re overestimating my singing ability, but I’m willing to give it a try. At least, I think I can stay on pitch. I just don’t want to embarrass myself too much.

Mike: I think you’re overestimating the quality of our community choir!

[end of dialog]

I'm not overestimating our scriptwriter when I say she's the best podcast scriptwriter on the Internet.

From Los Angeles, California, I'm Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on ESL Podcast.

English as a Second Language Podcast was written and produced by Dr. Lucy Tse, hosted by Dr. Jeff McQuillan. Copyright 2013 by the Center for Educational Development.

Glossary
choir – a group of people who sing together, especially for performances

* In high school, Martin sang in the choir, but his sister played trumpet in the band.

to read music – to be able to understand written music and then sing the songs or play them on an instrument even without hearing them first

* When children learn to read music, they memorize the phrase “Every Good Boy Does Fine" to learn that the printed symbols on the lines from bottom to top represent the notes E-G-B-D-F.

piece – one song or one work of art

* This piece has very low and very high notes and is very difficult to sing.

clef – a written symbol that indicates the meaning of other symbols on a page of written music, normally the treble clef ( or G clef) or bass clef ( or F-clef)

* When playing piano, the right hand normally follows the treble clef and the left hand follows the bass clef.

note – a musical sound, named with the letters A through G

* Sometimes it seems impossible to get everyone to sing on the same note.

staff – a group of five horizontal, parallel lines that are used to write music

* A musical staff has five lines and four spaces.

time signature – the two numbers, one on top of the other, on a musical staff that are used to show how many beats are in each group (the top number) and which note gets the beat (the bottom number)

* If the time signature is 4 over 4, there are four beats per measure and the quarter note gets the beat, but if it is 3 over 4, there are only three beats per measure.

beat – one of many evenly spaced rhythmic sounds in music

* Our downstairs neighbor plays his music so loudly that we can feel the beat in the floorboards.

measure – one of many groups of the same number of beats, separated by a vertical line crossing the lines of the staff

* Xavier’s piano teacher suggested that he focus on measures 22-28 while practicing this week.

tempo – the speed of a song; a measure of the number of beats per minute in a piece of music

* Once we slowed down the tempo, the song became much more emotional.

stacked – with many items in a vertical position, each resting on top of another

* Taysser has so many books stacked on his desk, there isn’t even room for a few pencils.

chord – a group of two or more notes that are played at the same time

* This song starts with a D-major chord.

musical notation – written music; the standard ways in which music is written down

* Are there any computer programs that can generate musical notation from recorded music?

duet – a song played by two people on two different instruments, or sung by two different people, at the same time

* Piotr composed a beautiful duet for a violin and a cello.

harmony – two or more notes that are sung or played at the same time and that sound good together

* Briana is a soprano and she makes beautiful harmony with Keisha, an alto.

to accompany – to play an instrument while another person sings or plays the more important melody on another instrument

* Would you mind accompanying me on the piano while I play the flute?

to overestimate – to think that something is bigger, better, or greater than it actually is

* We overestimated the number of guests, and now we have a lot of leftover food.

on pitch – in tune; singing a note as it should be sung, not too high (sharp) or low (flat)

* Vincent sings on pitch, but he needs to learn to follow the conductor’s tempo.

Comprehension Questions
1. What are notes written on?
a) A clef.
b) A staff.
c) A time signature.

2. What is a chord made up of?
a) Two or more notes.
b) Two or more beats.
c) Two or more measures.

Answers at bottom.

What Else Does It Mean?
piece

The word “piece,” in this podcast, means one song or one work of art: “The choir is going to perform five pieces for the holiday concert.” The phrase “a piece of advice/information/gossip” describes a small amount of something: “I heard the most interesting piece of gossip from our neighbor this morning!” The phrase “to fall to pieces” means to fall apart and no longer be working well: “If we don’t fix the roof soon, this whole house is going to fall to pieces.” Finally, the phrase “to go to pieces” means to be unable to control one’s emotions and actions because one is very nervous or anxious: “In the weeks before the wedding, it seemed like Laura might go to pieces at any time.”

on pitch

In this podcast, the phrase “on pitch” means in tune, or singing a note as it should be sung, not too high (sharp) or low (flat): “Leslie doesn’t sing on pitch, but she thinks she does.” Someone with a “high-/low-pitched” voice speaks in a high/low voice, like a soprano/bass: “Why do little girls have such high-pitched voices?” When talking about a roof, the “pitch” is the angle of the roof: “When roofers work on a roof with a steep pitch, they have to use special ropes and harnesses.” When talking about a boat, the “pitch” is the up and down movement: “The pitch of the ship made Hans feel sick.” Finally, if something is “pitch-black,” it is very dark: “That night, there wasn’t any moonlight and the sky was pitch-black.”

Culture Note
Music Education in Schools

In the United States, “music programs” (programs designed to teach children about music) in public schools are being reduced due to “budget cuts” (reductions in the amount of money available to do something). However most public schools still have some type of music program, although it may not be as strong as it used to be in the past.

In elementary school, most children sing in the school choir. They might also learn to play the “xylophone” (an instrument like a piano, where each key is large and made of wood and is hit with a small hammer-like tool) or the “recorder” (a simple instrument similar to a flute but held in front of one’s body). They might begin to learn to read music and to “tap out a rhythm” (clap one’s hands or move one’s foot with the tempo of a song).

In junior high school, students can choose whether they want to continue to sing in the choir or learn to play an instrument in the “band” (group of people playing different instruments together).

In high school, music programs are usually optional. Students who want to continue singing in the choir might need to “audition” (sing as a test to have one’s singing ability evaluated) to get into the best choir and might travel to music competitions. Students who want to continue playing an instrument might play for the “orchestra” (a group of musicians who play classical music) or a jazz band and, like the students in the choir, travel to special competitions.

Some students also “pursue” (try to get) their music education through “extra-curricular activities” (extra activities outside of the classroom, often meeting after school). For example, most schools have “musicals” (theatrical plays where the actors sing and dance) that students can audition for and then perform in for other students and community members.

Comprehension Answers
1 - b

2 - a