Music education that aims at real knowledge requires careful attention to the elements of music: tones, time-values, intervals, etc. Students must learn to read music and correctly identify notes on a staff. Soon after this “basic training,” they should look closely at how the elements conspire to form significant musical wholes. These wholes need not be impressive compositions by well-known composers like Bach and Mozart—they demand way too much all at once. A better way to begin is with a folk song.
Scarborough Fair, the very old folk song made popular by Simon and Garfunkel in the ’60s, is a good example of a beautiful, simple melody that lends itself to close analysis. With the right guidance and materials, even the most musically naive students can begin to engage in a deep and thorough analysis of this haunting melody.
One of the problems in getting students to think about music is that it comes to us too easily. It seems to be right there for our immediate pleasure. Music does not, by itself, raise questions. One way to generate questions is with a series of “experiments.” Play the melody on the piano several times and have the students sing along. Then change one note and get the students to state, to the best of their ability, how they think the melody has changed in sound and “feel.” Do this with different notes in the melody and examine each change in turn. At each point, ask, “What happened? What was the effect of the change?” Changing a note in a melody—in effect, disrupting a familiar whole—is also a good way to get students to become aware that there is a whole. What is right sounding about a melody comes to light when we cause it to stray from its intended path and sound “wrong.” Students then begin to realize that the melody consists of carefully made choices, and that a change in one part is a change in the whole. Such experiments become even more revealing when we alter the melody’s rhythm.
Next, students should explore the connection between the notes of the melody and the words. To do this thoroughly, they should have access to the complete text (whose story is very sad). Does the sound of the melody fit the meaning of the words? What do the words gain in being sung? Does the melody make certain words stand out? How does the rhythm affect the mood of the song, the meaning of the words, and the story they tell?
Finally, students can compose a variation of Scarborough Fair, perhaps with their own lyrics. In this exercise (which I have found works beautifully in class), students learn, through direct experience, that composition involves revision: that certain musical choices don’t work, that some work better than others, and, more generally, that a piece of music (like a piece of writing) can be improved.
A simple, familiar folk song is a musical education in itself. The examination of simple melodies encourages students to give reasons for what they feel. This liberates them from the erroneous and stultifying opinion that a response to beauty is based solely on subjective feeling (that beauty is “relative”) or habit (that we hear musical events as we do only because we’ve heard them repeatedly). It reveals, in highly specific ways, that human feeling is complex, that our emotional response to beautiful sound is grounded in a remarkably precise, if usually unconscious, perception of order. Similarly, examination of simple melodies reinforces the trust that analysis, however abstract it may seem at first, can lead us back to our musical experience with renewed wonder, a keener sense for the details of a beautiful whole, and a more intense and discerning pleasure. By analyzing Scarborough Fair, we get a better idea of what to listen for in this melody. We also come to understand it better and, as a result, appreciate it even more. To borrow from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous poem, it is like being able to “count the ways” in which we love someone.
*Note: This article has been excerpted from a longer article of the same title, published at the online journal The Imaginative Conservative.