Monday, May 6, 2013

Montessori Music: "Introduction to Sharps and Flats" and "Should I Buy Bells, Bars, or Both?"

Well, today it looks like we are starting in on Montessori elementary music lessons with the tone bars, but we aren't quite yet.

Have you seen our Montessori primary bells?

You can read all about how I made them and what the project cost in my original DIY Montessori Bells and Boards post.  One of the, or possibly the very last lesson that primary students will do with the bells is the introduction of the five pairs of black bells representing C#/Db, D#/Eb, F#/Gb, G#/Ab, and A#/Bb.  I talk more about it in my original bells post, but while it only cost me $15 to buy all of the white bells (both sets) it would cost an additional $60 to add the black bells to my set...  Since the few lessons that are specific to the black bells happen so late in the primary sequence and we knew for sure that we would be purchasing tone bars (actually resonator bars, more on that next week) I decided to put that money toward the tone bars and do the few black bells presentations with tone bars instead.

If you are debating whether to buy bells or tone bars or both I feel like what I did was the best of both worlds at a price I could live with.  My Resonator Bars (if you are searching for them online call them "resonator bells."  In my area everyone calls them "bars" not "bells" and sticking with this "bars" helps me keep things clearer when posting about them.) were $145 and the two sets of "white" bells was only $15 altogether.

Because we have it in our heads that "bells are for primary" and "bars are for elementary" some people who are first starting the Montessori music album at the end of primary or the beginning of elementary wonder if they should skip the bells altogether and go with tone bars.  That opens up another can of worms because you need TWO sets to do the matching exercises.  Also, unless you are buying the very expensive *Montessori* tone bars, you are likely buying resonator bars that vary in length so you can't properly do the grading exercises.   You could buy two sets of resonator bars and put them in some kind of housing so that they are all the same length for doing all of the bells matching and grading presentations.  Yikes.  Instead of spending an extra $145 and channeling MacGyver, just find a coupon and spend $15 on bells then wait to introduce the resonator bars until it no longer matters that you only have one set and that they vary in length.  The downside to this combination is that your kids will not have the opportunity to do matching exercises with the black bells or grade the chromatic scale without being assisted visually by the length of the tone bars.  The good news is that my boys did tons of pairing and grading with only white bells and if I could magically snap my fingers today and have the black bells here as well, I guarantee they could do those as well.  It is not a concept that is difficult to transfer.

Now that discussion is out of the way and we can move on to the first lessons by boys had with the tone bars!  The first thing I needed to do was pick up the BELLS lessons from late in the primary album that teaches them that the black bells fill in the "holes" left in the "whole" steps between some of the white bells, that those black bells have not one but TWO names, and that the letter names of the black bells are borrowed from the white bells on either side of them.

Because the boys never saw the bells keyboard filled in with black bells you will see that in today's lesson we are only using a subset of the tone bars and are not using the traditional tone bar boards and'll see those sometime next week, I hope. I didn't want to from bells to bars, add the black, and change keyboards all in one fell swoop.  Instead, I kept our bells board out and first replaced just the white bells with the white tone bars right in front of the boys.

First we played them and discovered that they were identical to the white bells and labeled them with the white discs. We reviewed the major scale pattern, wwhwwwh, and reviewed that there was a "hole" between some of our white tone bars wherever there was a "whole" step.

Afterward I added the appropriate black tone bars to the board.  This is the first time that there has been anything on the black spaces of our bells board.  From here I jumped right into the primary/elementary combo Montessori Music album from Keys of the Universe.  The presentations I did with the boys the first day were introducing the enharmonic names for the black bars (bells).  The bars are engraved with the letter name for each note.  Kal-El and Me Too are both long past the naming presentations on the white bells and Kal-El has since learned the piano so it really doesn't matter that the white bars are labeled.  They haven't been introduced to the black bars/bells/keys yet though so I temporarily covered the engraved label on the black bars with painter's tape.

The "sharps and flats" presentation in our album was simple, clear, and FUN.  Basically you tell the child that the black bells/bars are special because they have two names.  Then you introduce the black discs.  Our collection of black discs came with the music notation set I bought from Neinhuis.  There are a lot of types of "discs" in that set.  The discs that are meant to go with the black bells or bars have the sharp name for each note on one side and the flat name for each note on the other. These could be easily made at home.  The craft store sells little wooden discs in the Woodsies section that are just the right size. They would be easy to paint and label.

So, by playing the bells I demonstrated that five of the white bars have a black bar to its right that is slightly higher.  We named those bars with their sharp names and labeled them with the black discs.  I only had the sharp sides showing at the start so it could be a surprise when we flipped them over.

Next, I demonstrated that five of the white bars have a black bar to its left that is slightly lower.  This is where you get to enjoy the magic and drama of turning the disc over to reveal the flat name for each bar.

This was not included in the presentation, but at our house we included the term "enharmonic" as it refers to two notes having the same sound such as F# and Gb.  I tied this in to Kal-El's fraction work where he learned about "equivalence."

Afterward I showed them how to use the music signs and notes and our green staff boards to notate flat, sharp, and natural notes.  Here is a tip from an experienced music teacher:  Remind them that even though we say "C-sharp" or "B-flat" we don't put the sharp or flat after the note on the staff like we do when we say it.  If you are writing music you want the person who is going to play the music to know whether a note is sharp or flat (or natural) before they play it.  If you tell them afterward it is too late.  That is why the sign has to come before the note.  If you are writing about music (as opposed to notating it on staff paper) you write it the way you say it because you are "talking on paper" not notating something for someone to play.  That is why you will see a sentence such as the following:  "Mozart chose a Db to end the phrase in order to create a deceptive cadence."

They also learned that once a note has been altered it stays altered unless the composer tells you to change it again with another sharp, flat, or natural symbol.  In the picture I used above this means that the second "b" would have remained flat if I had not placed a natural symbol in front of it.  A barline automatically resets everything to match the key signature again.  However, it is important to explain this to the child in a way that emphasizes that barlines are placed according to the meter and their placement cannot be altered.  You don't want the child to start throwing in an extra barline whenever they want to reset their pitches back to the key signature.

The boys had a wonderful time taking turns composing melodic segments on the green boards that included some of the black tone bars.  One brother would compose a segment and then the other would play it on the tone bars, then they would switch.  At this point they are doing this without a true "key signature." Therefore there is no official "tonality" and likewise the pitches have no official "function" so it doesn't matter whether they name the notes according to their "flat" name or "sharp" name.  They were able label them as they wished.

I can't wait to show you all of the tone bars on their more traditional keyboards.  I made all of the materials we needed a few weeks ago.  We'll be starting major scales and there will be a free download!

If you are looking for the rest of my series on Montessori Music, there is a tab at the top of my blog under the header, or they can be found here!

Montessori Monday


  1. What a fantastic way to transition!

    The "tone bars" you have (so many different names out there!) - do they go from C-C (two octaves) or G-G. I started to adapt some of the album pages for that range (since the most affordable options provide that range), but I got caught up in that and still need to get the rest of the illustrations for C-C in ;)

    Anyway, I ask to see what you think about modifications - necessary?

    1. Jessica,

      My resonator bars span G-G. If you are providing printables I would do the modifications for the printables. For anything else I feel like it is kind of an obvious thing and *I* certainly wouldn't need anything modified. I seem to recall you already having a paragraph reminding people to adjust the pitches if necessary. Then again, I am finding on the blog that a lot of people really don't know anything about reading music so maybe you do need to spell it out.

    2. I need to remember to click "subscribe by e-mail" when posting so I get the other comments and your replies ;)

      You've stated exactly some of the issues that arisen in all of the albums at one time or another. It's not a bad thing, just something that has to be addressed - that each of us has a strength and can intuit what is there; and each of us have weaknesses and need things spelled out very, very concisely. It's in the concise details that I'm moving much slower than I want, but I want all to be well-done too, right? :)

      I'll check into the printables first ;) Thank you!

  2. Thanks for this post! It helps to read in detail how you are explaining flats and sharps to your boys, as much older two are beginning to play with flats and sharps, and their piano teacher is wonderful, but I don't think she has explained all of that to them yet, and I think it will help them greatly when practicing and playing their different pieces. :)