Collaborative Music Making

Apr 12, 2016

Thoughts on Music and Society

There are many theories concerning the origins of music in human culture. A wide range of people from different areas of expertise have tried to understand the importance of music today by examining its roots in our collective past. From ethnomusicologists and philosophers to evolutionary and biological psychologists, the understanding of music provides an insight into the very nature of human experience. Music is a feature of every human culture, whether it exists in the form of simple chant or more complicated instrumental forms, music has been part of every known social groupi. Darwin believed that musical communication preceded the technical, descriptive language that we use today, proposing that our half human ancestors developed a communication system of pitches and rhythms, particularly in mating ritualsii. Parallels have been examined amongst primates today, in particular the Gelada monkeys, which communicate vocally through a wide range of pitches, rhythms and timbres. Bruce Richmond has studied these primates and discovered similarities between their form of communication and our idea of music. Richmond suggests that communication in humans began much like the musical sounds produced by the Gelada monkeys, its main and most important function being to build social relationships. They are believed to maintain relationships and even resolve differences through synchronised vocalisationiii. This vital role of musical language in building relationships and group interaction amongst primates may be a reason why music has remained important to us for such a sustained period of time. It is possible that music has been important to the development and even the survival of man, helping to establish communication and intrapersonal skills.

Little is known about prehistoric music as most of our knowledge of musical history relies on the evidence of notation,however music that has been passed down aurally through the generations is an exception to this rule. In Europe, folk music provides an insight into the music of antiquity and although much of this folk music has been recorded through notation and modern recording techniques, it survived over hundreds of years as part of an aural tradition. Bela Bartok was one of the many composers that tapped into this resource by using folk melodies in his compositions and collecting folk melodies. In most cultures, written language predates musical literacy. Even the music of the great ancient civilizations of China and Greece remains largely undeciphered. Although there are written records from each civilization on the theory of music, most notably from Pythagoras, without records of musical notation it is difficult to say what their music was like. Although much is known about the scales, intervals and the instruments preferred by the ancients, the lack of musical notation means that their music cannot be reproduced with any great accuracy. Even in China where musical notation has been discovered that dates from the first century A.D. the exact relationships between symbols is not yet understoodiv. Research by ethnomusicologists like John Blacking and Bruce Chatwin, who studied the music of the aboriginal people of Australia, have found music to have an important role in society, which ultimately offers us us an insight into our own musical past. Whistles made out of bone have been found on the site of some of the earliest examples of cave paintings in France, indicating that instrumental music is as least as old as visual art. From a biological and evolutionary point of view the constant presence of the arts from this distant past indicates their important role in the survival and development of man. The functionality of art is something that is often overlooked in western society but it is the important social and cultural function of art and music that has meant its constant and continued presence in human culture.

It is likely that music and speech share a common past, contributing to a form of communication that combined both. The use of different types of sounds for different social occasions and rituals is something that is a feature of music today, and it often serves the same purpose as it does for the Gelada monkeys. The use of music in rituals and particularly in religious ceremonies is common across all human societies, including our own. Traditional music in Ireland, as in folk traditions in many countries, has a repertoire of songs for each occasion. Whether it was a work song or a caoineadh, (meaning cry), which were traditionally sang at funerals and wakes, music would create a common bond amongst the people present, focusing their emotions or their energy. Working songs across different cultures are often strongly rhythmical in keeping with the repetitive actions of manual labor. Blacking, in his study of the music and dance of the Venda of South Africa noted the strong physical connection that music has for people. The further we go back into musical history the more practical the role of music seems to be, particularly in relation to social interaction. As it is difficult to know much about prehistoric music it is useful to study isolated pre-literate societies and their music. Cultural anthropologists and ethnomusicologists have carried out much research into the music of these people and much can be learned from their musical customs and songs, about our own musical past.
i Storr, Anthony,Music and The Mind,(1992 ),p1.

ii Gurney, Edmond, The Power of Sound(London:Smith,Eldar,1880), p.119.

iii Richman,Bruce, Rhythm and Melody in Gelada Monkey Exchange(Primates,

iv Cole:1974, p 7.

Feb 18, 2014

The Future of Music Education

Here is a clearly laid out, colour coded representation of Pachelbel's Canon. Its a great piece for teaching about ground bass or ostinato, or as a simple group performance exercise. Its a classic hit that kids seem to enjoy across the board, perhaps helped by modern pop references from Black Eyed Peas, Coolio (back in may day) and Green Day.
Although it has a simple harmonic structure and rhythmically aint too tricky neither, it can be tough to get a classroom of kids playing this piece as a group, and without performing it they will have to rely on listening and theory to understand how it works.

Using conventional notation will probably require:

  • transposing into a key that will suit the instruments available.
  • re-writing the individual parts for players or teaching each individual section by rote.
  • writing out parts for other instruments (inc. percussion)
  • teacher will have to conduct performance.
These are all worthwhile steps to creating a group performance but there are many primary level teachers who would feel out of their depth trying to achieve all this in the small amount of time available to them for arts and music.


Using animated notation a group performance can be achieved, in four separate parts using the following steps:

  • Find a tuned instrument that can play the scale of C for the bassline. (C,G,A,E,F,C,F,G)(Repeat)
  • Divide the class into four colour groups.
  • Give each section a different instrument or sound to make.
  • Follow the movements on screen, use you ears, decide what sounds good and what sounds rubbish. Try different performances, learn from your mistakes, get involved!


From teaching using both forms of notation, i find that the most vital difference is that conventional notation implies their is a correct way to do things and that the goal of the exercise is to create a performance as close to the written score as possible. This is often a barrier to creativity and learning for students and teachers.

Animated notation is a more open form that invites creative input from students and teachers, allowing them to explore aspects of the music in a more informal and hands on way. It offers more scope for experimenting with different pitches, timbres and instrumentation. It also places responsibility on the students themselves requiring them to listen more critically to the sounds they are making and how the represent the original piece.

Please feel free to try it out in your class and send any feedback to

    For more visit:

Jan 3, 2014

NYOI Concert tomorrow

The National Youth Orchestra Of Ireland will be performing in the conert hall, Dublin tomorrow at 3. Here's a short Video of soloist Nail O Sullivan and conductor Gearoid Grant, with the orchestra rehearsing the Haydn Trumpet Concerto.

They'll also be performing Beethoven, Bizet and a few Irish bits from Leroy Anderson.

NYOI Trumpet Concerto Rehearsals from NYOI on Vimeo.

Nov 28, 2013

New Animated Score for DabbledooMusic

The latest animated score for DabbledooMusic. This one encourages classes to play along with Pachelbel's canon (now in C Maj). This type of animated score is at the extreme end of the scale in terms of performer interpretation. It is designed for specific learning goals and so needs to be strict in terms of rhythm and pitch.
It does still show how effective animated notation can be in getting large groups of people of take part in group performance with no rehearsal or proir experience. This is helped by the encouragement of a some hiphop and old soul break samples and the keys playing of Johnny "jazz cat" Taylor.

Mar 19, 2013

Graphic Notation for Teaching Music

Conventional music notation was largely invented for, and is most widely used by, professional musicians, composers and music theorists.

Why do we assume that this notation is suitable for teaching music to children?

Well I don't, so I made my own, with the help of illustrator Killian Redmonk:

Nov 13, 2012

DabbledooMusic is a music education project in collaboration with visual artist Killian Redmond. The aim is to create a multimedia creative music resource for kids, roughly between the ages of 6 and 12. the project combines graphic notation, animated notation, composition and performance through activity books and free online resources.

The project also include lesson plans for teachers to make it as accessible as possible for use in the classroom. Dabbledoomusic is based on the belief that creativity and collaboration need to be central in in modern education and that music as a subject, provides opportunities to promote these ideas in very practical ways.

Our first activity book for children will be released before christmas along with an updated version of the Dabbledoomusic website. We hope that 2013 will see teachers, parents and most importantly the children, using these resources to create, collaborate and enjoy music making.

Oct 2, 2012

Creative Music Making for Young Musicians

This coming Saturday the DabbledooMusic Project moves into its next gear. Although workshops are a great way to introduce young musicians to the idea of using graphic notation to explore music making, an hour is never enough to cover the range of possibilities available.

6 hours over 6 weeks is probably enough time to just scratch the surface, but starting this Saturday that is what 12 kids between the ages of 6 and 12 will attempt with myself and Killian Redmonk leading the group.

Each week a different area of music making will be explore using the free online resource, DabbledooMusic, and a number of worksheets for the participants to record their own creations and ideas.

More info here:

Dabbledoomusiccourses ay the Centre for Creative Practices