Review:Tactus, Journal of the American Choral Directors Association, Western Division

Rethinking the basics

By Elizabeth F. Barkley, Ph.D

Foothill College Music Faculty Member
Vice-President of Music Association of California Community Colleges

A conscientious and professional music educator is always looking for new and better ways of viewing his subject. This brilliant and entertaining new book, Lies My Music Teacher Told Me, subtitled Music Theory For Grown-ups, provides a serious challenge to the way most music educators go about the business of teaching music. Contrary to what one might assume from the title, the book is not negative in tone, but rather provides a fresh look at how music works and offers positive suggestions for communication of that information to students. Author Gerald Eskelin, drawing on his extensive back­ground as performer and teacher, shares in a light-hearted but logical way the practical experiences and careful thinking that led him to these conclusions.

A basic premise of the book is that, like spoken language, music ought to be experienced as sound before it is learned as its symbolic form in notation. This is not such a startling observation, and many music education systems from Dalcroze and Kodaly to Susuki and Yamaha are based upon it. What is startling is the way Eskelin proposes that this experience be structured.

He suggests that the way most teachers approach the experience of music is fundamentally flawed right from the beginning because it is based on tempered tuning, a system which filters and destroys the natural manner in which human beings perceive musical sound. Hence, rather than experiencing pitch as an acoustically pure combination of fundamentals and partials woven together into a "sparkling" tapestry of harmony, we hear a mushy system of tempered pitches laid out in a flattened linear manner, like so many "eggs on a shelf." This artificial experience constitutes the basis for the way musicianship and theory are taught, and the error then gets compounded.

For example, using the tempered keyboard as a reference, major and minor scales are traditionally described as a collection of eight fixed pitches arranged in patterns of whole steps and half steps. Intervals are conceived as the "distance" between two pitches, usually considering the bottom pitch as the tonic and the upper pitch as being either natural to or a chromatic alteration of that pitch in the referent major scale. Musicianship is taught by practicing sight singing and dictation using these artificially contrived concepts of scales and intervals, further exacerbating the distortion by continually relating everything to the piano. Sound familiar?

Eskelin convincingly demonstrates through simple acoustical experiments and theoretical explanations that sensitive musicians hear scales as systems of flexible pitches whose tuning changes slightly depending upon harmonic context. Intervals are qualitative perceptions of consonance and dissonance. Musicianship is developed through experiences of pitch in an acoustical system. Intervals, scales, and melodies are comprehended in a harmonic context. And this fundamental shift toward perception of tonal relations becomes the basis for Eskelin's approach to teaching musicianship and theory.

For example, he views the major/minor system as a natural and integrated musical construct, with the minor mode representing an alternate "color" to the major. The scale tones are seven primary "personalities" that need to be recognized in terms of their respective and various functional roles. The traditional forms of the minor scale ("natural," "harmonic" and "melodic") are really chromatic adjustments to be made according to harmonic context (rather than, for example, the "melodic minor scale" being used in its "ascending form" for melodies that move up, and in its "descending form" for melodies that move down).

Basic interval theory should be approached in a harmonic context, he says. For example, minor intervals can be seen and heard as the inverse of major intervals, minor intervals being measured up to the tonic, in contrast to major intervals being measured up from the tonic. Several chapters deal with common misconceptions regarding meter; for example, the continuing problem of distinguishing simple and compound meter and explaining why the top number does not always indicate how many beats per measure and quarter notes do not always get one beat.

The book is short (it can be read it in a few hours), provocative, and thoroughly engaging. It reads as though the author---with humor and charm---is simply talking to the reader. Yet despite its casual accessibility, it is well grounded in scholarship. This book will be informative to anyone interested in music, but it is especially interesting reading for music teachers. I know that this teacher, for one, is going to consider a pretty complete overhaul of her approach to teaching first-year theory.


Review: Music For The Love Of It,

Let's Hear It For Listening

by Ted Rust

publisher, oboist

In Lies My Music Teacher Told Me, Gerald Eskelin corrects a number of widely accepted misconceptions about music theory, and offers in their place a clear, easy-to-follow way to perform and think about music that reconciles modern theory about the perception of pitch and rhythm with conventional music notation and the real-world techniques of the best musicians.

Eskelin's first main point is to stress the importance of using acoustically pure harmonic intervals, i.e. just intonation, rather than equal temperament, for learning, teaching and performing music. (Eskelin does not suggest doing away with equal temperament and fixed-pitch instruments, but simply asks us not to adopt their limitations as our own.) Acoustically pure intervals, he observes, are rooted in clear physical sensations that arise when pairs of sounds have frequencies in simple whole-number ratios one to the other, making them easy to remember and reproduce, without any need for absolute pitch recognition. When performed accurately these intervals produce beautiful sounds. Students, he believes, should be taught from the beginning to trust their ears in this matter, not the piano. Then they will not have to learn good intonation later as a departure from equal temperament, or worse, go through life playing and singing sour intervals.

Eskelin rings the changes on this point as it applies to the concept of scales (all half steps are not equal), ear training (don't use the piano as a model: learn harmonic relationships before scales), the concept of an interval (a perception of consonance), the practice of tuning (pitches must be adjusted to their harmonic context), the concept of a key ( the harmonic relations of a central pitch), and the minor mode (not a mode in the medieval sense of a distinct scale, but a color modification of the diatonic major scale, with flatted third and sixth degrees, and only rare use of the flatted seventh degree suggested by its key signature).

Eskelin's other main point is that meter, like harmony, is based upon simple sensations arising in the way we hear music. We notice repeated patterns of two or three regularly spaced pulses as groups. We combine groups of pulses in twos or threes to form metric structures.

Eskelin shows how any rhythmic notation can be understood -- and felt -- in groups of twos and threes. Symmetrical groups have a regular pulse. Where groups of twos and threes are combined asymmetrically to form meters like 5/8, the pattern will contain an irregular pulse, and the performers need to concentrate on the next faster level of the meter to keep a steady tempo. Accents that make certain notes seem to be on "strong" beats may be provided by a melodic difference, a volume difference, or merely a mental expectation -- the metric accent -- that stresses the note once the pattern has been established. Stronger stresses occur when different types of accent coincide. When metric accents, which are silent, conflict with audible ones, the result is syncopation.

The author speaks with the authority conferred by a doctorate in music education and a successful conducting career. He helps the reader visualize his ideas with lots of clear diagrams. In trying to avoid a stuffy academic tone, he often adopts a brash, accusatory manner that may be amusing to some readers. But bad manners notwithstanding, this is a well-considered, insightful and very practical work for all teachers, performers and lovers of music.


Excerpted from: Acoustic Guitar Magazine

Beyond Guitar Tab

by Gary Joyner

The cover of Gerald Eskelin's book "Lies My Music Teacher Told Me" asks, "Have you ever noticed a disparity between what you were told about music and your practical experience with it?" Eskelin firmly sets forth to debunk accepted beliefs that often cause confusion, and his informal, conversational style works well. He is clearly driven by respectful curiosity and a need to understand. The lies could be called misconceptions, but that wouldn't reflect the book's spirit of edgy adventure.

One such misconception concerns minor scales, specifically melodic minor scales, and why you're instructed in formal theory to play them differently ascending and descending. Eskelin's Lie #9 is, "There are three minor scales—natural, melodic, and harmonic." His corresponding truth is, "Chromatic adjustments can be made in the minor mode, according to harmonic context, to accommodate the step and a half between scale steps b6 and 7." In real life, melodies don't adjust themselves according to whether they are ascending or descending. They fit the chord context of the moment. The informative book is a lot of fun to read, and it makes you rethink your understanding of music basics.

The enthusiastic reception given to Eskelin's first book convinced him of the need for "The Sounds of Music: Perception and Notation," in which he offers sweeping instruction on the nature of music, covering an incredible number of topics in 339 oversize pages. Eskelin firmly believes in the majorminor system as an exciting and natural musical construct, but he places it in the context of other systems. The book opens with a survey of dominant world styles, and the accompanying CD is jammed with examples keyed to the text so you can hear what he's talking about as you go.

Careful repeated study of these books will leave you with a firm and detailed understanding of the framework and structure of music. The time you invest, especially in conjunction with a good teacher, will add depth to your musicianship and satisfaction to your guitar playing.
GaryJoyner, Acoustic Guitar Magazine

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