Submission for the Routledge Companion to Music Theory Pedagogy
Using a Parachute to Experience Elision
Near the beginning of an advanced analysis class dealing with phrase rhythm, hypermeter, and form, I have found it useful to dip briefly (parachute) into topics taken up much later in the course, to give students an idea of the concepts and methodology they will encounter and the analytical tasks they will be required to undertake. Parachuting involves active listening, requires only the basic knowledge gained in undergraduate theory, and, importantly, sparks an instructor’s enthusiasm. Ideally, my hope is that students will leave class with a strong desire to engage the topic later. The remainder of this proposal demonstrates a parachute into the topic of phrase elision and its relation to meter.
The practice of eliding phrases offered 18th- and 19th-century composers a way to add dramatic power to their music. Beginning a new phrase on the last beat of its predecessor may (but not always) disrupt the metric groupings anticipated by a listener. The required reinterpretation or resetting of the metric pulse emerges effortlessly and is often dramatized by an increase in dynamic, fuller orchestration, and a move to faster pulses within the prevailing meter. Students can easily identify such changes; few, however, detect the metric shift.
[Readers should follow this sample of a teacher’s instructions in quotes. To get the full effect, listen and conduct; examine the score only when advised.]
“This morning we will parachute into the beginning of a Haydn symphonic movement and listen for features of the metric structure. Let’s conduct in 4.”
[Teacher sets the tempo by playing a few seconds to establish a beat— approximately 68 BPM.]
“Now let’s listen to and conduct part of the beginning of the movement. Listen carefully to determine whether your conducting pattern consistently represents the music you’re hearing. Do the downbeats always occur at appropriate times?”
[Stop the playing after a minute or so.]
“We’ll listen again. This time, I’d like you to emphasize the downbeat a bit. If you experience a moment when your conducting seems somewhat out of whack (phase), what else is happening at that time? Write down your impressions and we’ll discuss them.”
[one more playing if you like.]
[The discussion centers on students’ conducting experiences and their descriptions of the changes that come at the point of disruption.]
There will be a time in this discussion when the term elision can be introduced and defined and, if the score is distributed (here Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony, no. 101, finale; see score below), you can ask how the relationship of their conducting pattern corresponded to the notation (one beat to the bar). Show that the fourth beat of the conducted pattern suffered at the hands of a new louder and thicker downbeat. It was, but for the expected resolution to the tonic, obliterated. Wow!
I have also used parachutes to demonstrate the coordination of melodic contour and meter, the efficacy of making both “conservative” and “radical” analyses, and the skill to interpret tonal changes very rapidly by evaluating accidentals.