Learning A Song By Eating Pizza

Author: Jeff Rosbrugh  //  Category: Jeff's Musings

Does learning new music seem intimidating? It doesn’t have to be! Most music is actually very simple, but it’s how it is put together that can make it seem harder. By taking apart the song and breaking it down into smaller pieces, music is much easier to remember. Let me give you an example of how quickly a song can be learned.

In a beginning art class, one of the first things students learn is that every shape in the world is some form of a circle, a triangle, or a rectangle. Ovals, octagons, and pyramids are simply variations of the three basic shapes. Similarly, all colors come from the three primaries: red, blue, and yellow. For another example, when we learn language, we start with words, then we build the words to form phrases. Phrases become sentences, sentences become paragraphs, and so on. Knowing the basics gives you the tools to form anything.

In music, we start with notes and rests that fill a measure. Measures are used to build musical phrases. Phrases are strung together to make songs. Recognizing the patterns of these phrases is how we learn and remember music.

I used this technique to teach “Jingle Bells” to a class of third graders. Up until that point, they had been learning songs like “Hot Cross Buns” which were only four measures long. So when I showed them 16 measures of music at the beginning of the lesson, some of them were a little freaked out. Then I asked them this: “If you were eating a pizza, would you try to eat the whole thing in one bite?” (Some of them wished they could try!) I went on: “No, of course not. You eat the pizza in slices. And even then you don’t eat the whole slice at once; you take one bite at a time. Music is like that too: each note is like a bite; take several bites and you’ve eaten a slice; and enough slices make a whole pizza. So here’s what we’re going to do: I’m going to teach you this song one slice at a time. Then you can see that songs are like pizzas.”

I had arranged the music into four lines on the board, which I then numbered. As we finished the first line (Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way), I said, “This is Slice Number One.” Slice Two (Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh) didn’t take them long to learn either. When we got to the third “slice,” I asked if it looked like anything they knew already. Of course they quickly saw that it was identical to Slice One. Finally, they saw that Slice Four had the same beginning as Slice Two but a slightly different ending. Thus armed with the knowledge that One and Three were exactly the same, and Two and Four started out the same, we played through the entire song. And so, in a 30-minute lesson, they had learned a song that was four times longer than anything they’d learned before. “And you were worried!” I teased them at the end.

When you are learning a new piece of music, find the patterns. Maybe the melody repeats a group of notes. Maybe the chords are played in the same order through the whole song. Maybe every verse is the same and all the choruses are the same. While it’s true that some music follows no discernible pattern and never seems to repeat itself, almost all of the music we will ever hear in our lives contains patterns of phrases.  Recognizing these patterns is one of the keys to learning a song. Break it down into smaller pieces…and eat the pizza one slice at a time.

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