MERYC - European Network of Music Educators and Researchers of Young Children Verbal Language, Music and Didactics of Listening
Alma Mater Studiorum, Università di Bologna
One of the ultimate goals of musical education is the ability to listen to and
understand a piece of music including its structure, functions, the context in which
it was created and heard, its meaning. The didactics of listening represents one of
the principle means of accessing musical understanding. The primary objective for
the teacher is to guide pupils in following the development of a piece in its
entirety, and help them analyse it, and identify similarities and differences, and to
enter into the structural mechanisms, focusing on the key features needed to
create a “mental map” of the text using strategies which activate the processes of
memory and attention.1 The piece itself will give out clues regarding its historical
context and its semantic meaning. A complex piece can be adapted to the
learning-teaching process through a process of segmentation (based on the laws
of perception and musical syntax)2 and the student is guided towards a pertinent
verbalisation or rather, a description of the piece with appropriate language using
Language is an essential tool for the building, consolidation and command of
knowledge. As with all other types of knowledge, even the communication of
musical knowledge takes place through language. One of the targets of the
1 This view is based on the model of Didactics for listening developed by Giuseppina La Face Bianconi (2003a), (2006a), (2007). See also La Face Bianconi (2003b, pp. 27-29) for the theory of Didactics of listening, Techniques for repetition, temporailty and listening. For the concept of ‘mental map’ see Deliège (1996) and (2008). 2 Based on Giuseppina La Face Bianconi’s thoughts, by “segmentation” I refer to the mental operation that a competent listener uses to understand the organisation of musical discourse: ‹‹Every musical construct, even if brief, needs to be broken down into its constituent parts: unavoidably or deliberately we distinguish discourse in sections, periods […] in a teaching situation whoever does not want to renounce the use of large scale works will have to apply a careful selection process of episodes which are suitable for partial listening and in a way can represent the whole.›› Cfr. La Face Bianconi (2006a, p. 514).
didactics of listening is the adequate verbalisation of the music that is heard.3 This
is far from simple when dealing with a temporal art such as music, which lacks
denotation, and does not refer to an external reality in referential terms.4
Therefore a type of verbalisation should be encouraged that helps pupils to
take in a musical work of art gradually, in “objective” terms, by which I mean to
describe it with critical detachment which leads to understanding and awareness.
It must use a lexis which is more than a mere expression of fleeting impressions. It is
the fruit of a “projective” listening where music is seen as «an open field of stimuli
which cause emotions, personal experiences, scenes, and fantasies to take
shape».5 It requires lexis that explains every definition, image or appellation, giving
the reasons for the links between structural elements and the interpretation of
meaning. It is the expression of a critical, competent, detached hearing that
makes a distinction between the subject who is listening and the musical object
Our goal is the acquisition of language that describes the features of music with
great precision. It must constantly link the understanding of structure to
connotative features and semantic discourse (regarding meaning). This technical
lexis of music will be converted into concepts, the use of adjectives and
paraphrases that refer to areas outside the field of music: for example rhetorical-
literary, psychological, scientific etc. The lexis to be used as a resource will be
technical and connotative at the same time. It will refer to musical terms (e.g.
quaver, cadenza, aria, trill) and the sensorial, affective and emotive experience
(e.g. sweet, clear, sombre, lively, melancholic). Thus a language will be created
which manages to take in the overall atmosphere because it is able to “impart”
the work through the use of adjectives, deixis, metaphor relevant to the segments
and salient details, and the structure.6
Starting from these methodological premises, this paper describes a workshop in
listening that was held with a group of young children in the first section of a
primary school (7-8 years old) as part of a course about Listening Education and 3 See La Face Bianconi, (2006a, pp. 528 ss.); See also La Face Bianconi (2005), (2006b). See also Cuomo (2006). 4 Regarding this problem and its consequences for teaching see Eggebrecht (1987) and (1997). 5 Della Casa, (1985, p. 65) as cited in La Face Bianconi (2006a). 6 See again La Face Bianconi (2006a).
Musical Instruments run by an association: “Le Muse e il Tempo”, Centro di
formazione, ricerca e didattica della musica (a training and research centre)
based in Bologna. The course examined a recitative and a duet from the famous
intermezzo La serva padrona (TheMaid as Mistress) by Giovan Battista Pergolesi
(with libretto by Gennaro Antonio Federico). The choice of this work was prompted
by the fact that it would introduce the children to one of the foremost genres of
eighteenth-century musical theatre: the Intermezzo. This term defines a musical
comic drama that is subdivided into two parts and was performed between acts
of a serious opera. It consists of a succession of recitatives, arias and duets. The
didactic work was aided by the fact that there are only two singing parts with
clearly differentiated physical and psychological features.
The workshop began by playing the recitative «Questa è per me disgrazia» and
the duet «Lo conosco a quegli occhietti» (which come at the beginning and end
of the first act respectively). The characteristics of the recitative and aria, and their
role as two typical structures of musical theatre, were discussed. Particular
attention was paid to the different singing techniques employed, the timbre of the
voices in relation to the instruments employed in the orchestra, and the role and
The workshop set out to develop adequate descriptive strategies for listening to
a piece of music in order to bring out the essential understanding of structures and
their syntactic function. The activities used were extremely effective in concretising
the experience of conscious and critical listening in the children which in turn
guided them towards the verbalisation of music. Identifying musical qualities,
describing them to oneself and to the group allowed the children to activate
processes for building knowledge and an adequate lexis, working at the same
time on the use of adjectives and on enriching their vocabulary thereby
contributing to both their musical and linguistic education. The work described
here can be seen as the first stage in a wider educational project on the Didactics
of melodrama. We have taken up the methodology developed by Giorgio
Pagannone, which propounds the study of Opera in primary schools taking the
music as the starting point to arrive subsequently at the study of the text. This
educational pathway, passing from music to the text, aims to educate pupils to
reflect on the relationship between musical passages, vocal qualities, the narrative
context with the corresponding roles and characterisation of the protagonists.
Since the music is the key element in the explication of the drama and emotions,
any hypothesis and interpretations will be justified on the basis of one or more
musical motivations. The reading of the text clarifies and strengthens the
After a brief introduction to the music which explained some of the basic
concepts of the drama (the contrasting and comical relationship between the old
and celibate Uberto and his lively and impertinent young servant Serpina who has
been in his service for a number of years) pupils listened to the first recitative
‹‹Questa è per me disgrazia›› (which lasts for roughly two minutes).
The children were asked to identify the way the parts are sung through a
description of the principle features of vocal timbre. The group were asked to give
their impressions of the character and personality of the two protagonists based on
the particular timbre of the voices. Guided by questions such as “How do the two
characters express themselves?”, “Are they talking alone or to one another?”
“What are they thinking?” “What is the relationship between them?” the ideas that
7 Pagannone (2006). Cfr. See also methodological proposals discussed in Per una didattica del melodramma. Idee e percorsi, which can be consulted online <http://www.saggiatoremusicale.it/saggem/documenti/III_commissione/pagannone.php>. This approach of from muisc to text does not aim to denigrate the importance of the libretto in the study of Opera (or the poetic text in music for voice, in general). The libretto has a fundamental role for the complete understanding of Opera, but in some cases it requires a preliminare analysis (for example in Seventeenth-century Opera and in ‘recitar cantando’). See Bianconi (2005).
emerged were discussed and the most appropriate written down. Explanations
and reasons were given for every adjective used. The voice of Uberto was
described as gloomy and deep because it moves in a deeper or lower register,
while Serpina’s was shrill and lively in a higher or upper register.8 Uberto sings in a
faster troubled, breathless manner with an agitated exited rhythm. Serpina already
What came out clearly from the very first notes is the net contrast and marked
opposition in the dialogue between the two characters. This opposition, passing
from the vocal timbre to the characterisation of the protagonists, is also present in
the way the two interact on stage. Uberto is shown as an old, churlish, clumsy,
comical and rather simple mind. Serpina on the other hand is cunning, shrewd and
vain. After listening to the piece the analysis was taken a stage further through a
reading of a selection of the more significant parts of the libretto.10
Son tre ore ch’aspetto, e la mia serva portarmi il cioccolate non fa grazia;
la causa son di tutti i mali miei. (vv.5-11)
Adunque perché io son serva, ho da esser sopraffatta? ho da esser maltrattata?
voglio esser riverita come fossi padrona, arcipadrona, padronissima. (vv. 37-42)
The analysis and paraphrasing of the poetic text corroborated and
strengthened the initial interpretations given by the students.
8 The pairs of adjectives high/upper and deep/lower refer to the female and male vocal register respectively. The first of each pair is the more general, imprecise definition provided by the children whereas the second is the more technically correct term provided by the teacher. To start with the teacher accepts the more common imprecise term of each pair produced by the children and then provides the more technically correct term. 9 Even in this case the choice of adjectives has not been left to chance: quick, agitated, troubled, decided, resolute can refer at the same time to the character of the protagonist as well as the singing style. 10 Throughout this paper I refer to the edition of the libretto from Libretti d’opera italiani dal Seicento al Novecento, ed. by P. Fabbri e G. Gronda, Milano, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, 1997, pp. 599-617.
In a second phase the students listened to the piece a second time, with the
aim of getting the group to define what a recitative is. At this point the teacher
could have explained the meaning of the term and the characteristics of the
piece in the context of the work; but it was seen as far more productive if the
students picked out some of the particularities themselves through an attentive
listening, looking out for the singing techniques employed. Then students were
asked to describe what they heard by asking questions such as “Is the character
really singing?” Once again the reflections of the group have been geared
towards producing adjectives and paraphrases which denote singing styles: fast, nearly recited, similar to speech, fluid, flowing. Statements that, with the help of
the teacher, finally arrive at the precise definition of declaimed. The students were
then led towards the more technically correct definition: “recitative”, making use
of the definition “nearly recited” they had produced earlier.
Since the more complete description of a recitative must also involve the role
of the accompanying instruments, the students were asked to pay attention to the
contribution of the orchestra. As is typical in an operatic recitative they are
infrequent and concentrated in the final part of the musical phrases (cadenze)
and given to one single instrument: the harpsichord.
We then moved on to the work on the duet ‹‹Lo conosco a quegli occhietti».
The piece concludes the first part of the intermezzo and marks the culmination of
the quarrels between Uberto and Serpina, giving a hint of the final outcome of the
affair (Serpina manages to marry her master through cunning). Initially I played the
first half of the piece (which lasts roughly two minutes) asking the group to look out
for differences with what they had heard before, and to pay attention to the way
the characters sing and the role of the orchestra. This time the orchestra is
complete. Both strings and harpsichord introduce the entry of Serpina (who sings
first). It was pointed out that the orchestra plays uninterruptedly and the students
were asked if they saw anything in common between the phase sung by Serpina
and Uberto’s reply. It emerged that Uberto sings the same melody but in a lower
Encouraging the students to think about the role of the orchestra the teacher was
able to help them realise that Serpina’s part is underlined by an accompaniment
in a high register played by the violin, which confers a major emphasis on her
characterisation. On the other hand, when Uberto sings, instruments of the lower
register predominate (violas, cellos and double basses).
Next the singing style was analysed. Comparing the two extracts they have
listened to, the children noted that in the duet the singing is more fluid, more
rhythmic, and heavily charged, (with more impetus, lyrical, in full voice, the
teacher concluded.) The singing is more clearly delineated, repetitive at times and
In a final analysis the teacher asked if the first impressions students had about
the characters had been confirmed or not. Even in this case the difference
between the two protagonists was clearly understood. They confirmed that
Serpina is astute, high spirited and decisive in obtaining what she wants while
Uberto clearly shows himself to be of a clumsy disposition and subordinate. The
subsequent reading and paraphrasing of the of the libretto showed this to be true.
(O ch’imbroglio egli è per me!) (vv. 155-174)
Having analysed the first part of the duet we proceeded to in the same way
with the second part, which expands and enriches the variations that we have
The didactic pathway proposed here is focused on listening, analysis,
interpretation and verbalisation of music. It allowed the students to understand
how a lyric opera is constructed and how it functions, above all regarding the
architectural structure and mechanisms. The students were gradually provided
with the analytical and critical tools that once mastered and retrieved will help
- Bianconi, L. (2005). Parola, azione, musica: Don Alonso vs Don Bartolo, «Il
- Cuomo, C. (2006). Il linguaggio della musica. Didattica dell’ascolto su un “Minuetto” di J. S. Bach, «Innovazione educativa», n. 3-4, pp. 49-59.
- Deliège, I. (1996). Cue Abstraction as a component of Categorisation Processes in Music Listening, ‹‹Psychology of Music››, XXIV, pp. 131-156.
- Deliège, I. (2008). Analogia, un supporto creativo nell’educazione all’ascolto musicale, in La Face Bianconi, G., Frabboni, F. Educazione musicale e formazione, Milano, FrancoAngeli, pp. 253-264.
- Della Casa, M. (2002). Educazione musicale e curricolo, Bologna, Zanichelli. - Eggebrecht, H. H. (1987). Per la metodologia dell’analisi musicale, in Il senso della musica. Saggi di estetica e analisi musicale, Bologna, Il Mulino, pp. 151-
- Eggebrecht, H. H. (1997). Comprendere attraverso l’analisi, ‹‹Il Saggiatore
- La Face Bianconi, G. (2003a). Musica e cultura a scuola, ‹‹Il Saggiatore
- La Face Bianconi, G. (2003b). La casa del mugnaio. Ascolto e interpretazione della “Schöne Müllerin”, Firenze, Olschki.
- La Face Bianconi, G. (2005). Le Pedate di Pierrot. Comprensione musicale e didattica dell’ascolto, in Musikerziehung. Erfahrungen und Reflexionen, editor
F. Comploi, Bressanone/Brixen, Weger, pp. 40-60.
- La Face Bianconi, G. (2006a). La didattica dell’ascolto, ‹‹Musica e Storia››, XIV,
- La Face Bianconi, G. (2006b). L’educazione musicale, ‹‹Riforma e Didattica
tra Formazione e Ricerca››, X, n. 4, pp. 35-37.
- La Face Bianconi, G. (2007). Formazione musicale, in Frabboni, F., Wallnöfer,
G., Belardi, N., Wiater, W. (2007). Le parole della pedagogia. Teorie italiane e tedesche a confronto, Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, pp. 149-151.
- Pagannone, G., (2006). “Carmen” spiegata ai piccoli (scuola primaria),
‹‹Musica e Storia››, XIV, 3, pp. 663-675.
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