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Melodies in Context: Stories, Cultural Influences, and Dance

Aim: How are melodies represented and shared across cultures?
Summary: Students discover how melodies represent different cultural influences and tell stories through movement and expressive musical elements.
Standards: National 1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11; NYC 1, 2, 3
Vocabulary: accompaniment, choreography, dynamics, instrumentation, tempo

Sharing stories brings people together, teaches us about the world, and takes us to magical places we can only dream of. Composers can use music to take us on a narrative journey using instrumentation, musical conversations, exciting melodies, and expressive elements to tell stories and ignite our imaginations.

Explore The Firebird Melody

Explore The Firebird Melody

  • Listen to the audio track The Firebird Suite Finale (complete).
    • In The Firebird Suite Finale, Stravinsky wanted to create a big finish. To do this, he repeats the melody, but changes a few things each time it repeats. What elements of the music does he change to keep you listening?
    • What instruments or families do you hear playing the melody?
    • How does the melody change? How does the accompaniment change?
    • How many times does the music change in a big way? As the music plays, raise your hand each time you hear a change.
    • What else do you notice?
  • Explore other ways to guide students’ listening by watching Strategies for Engaging Students with Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite.
Strategies for Engaging Students with Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite

Connecting the Music with The Firebird Story

  • Read the The Firebird story in The Firebird Story and Listening Map (PDF).
    • The finale music accompanies the final scene of the ballet, where the spell is broken, and “the princess, her friends, and all of the stone statues come back to life. Ivan and the princess live happily ever after.”
  • Listen to the audio track The Firebird Suite Finale (complete).
    • How much of the music accompanies the stone statues coming back to life? What about the music makes you think so?
    • How much of the music accompanies the prince and princess celebrating their happy victory? What about the music makes you think so?

Creative Extension: My Musical Story

  • As a class, list some of your favorite stories and brainstorm elements that make those stories exciting or interesting.
    • Who are the characters in the story? What traits do they have?
    • Where is the story set? What is the conflict? How is the conflict resolved?
  • Write a few sentences summarizing one of these stories. Then, select musical elements, such as instrumentation, dynamics, tempo, melody, rhythmic patterns, and articulation to bring the story to life. Document your choices in My Musical Story (PDF).
  • Have students use classroom instruments or their voices to perform the musical stories, improvising with new melodies to communicate their ideas.

Follow a Listening Map and Create a Map Key

  • Play the audio track The Firebird Suite Finale (complete).
  • As you listen, follow along with the map in The Firebird Story and Listening Map (PDF). For more information on the entire piece, refer to the audio tracks The Firebird Suite Finale (excerpts 1–5), and the Listening Map Key (PDF).
    • Follow the path of the music with your finger as we listen to The Firebird Suite Finale.
    • What instruments are playing the melody?
    • What instruments are playing the accompaniment?
    • What else do you notice in the music?

Cultural Influences on Melodies

Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony

Dvořák often incorporated folk melodies from his Czech homeland into his music. When he traveled to America, he was inspired to write his “New World” Symphony to capture his experience of coming to a new world and the sounds of America, specifically the African American spirituals he learned from Harry Burleigh.

  • Listen to the audio track “New World” Symphony (recorder star).
    • What do you think Dvořák saw or experienced in his travels to America that is reflected in this piece?
    • What specific elements do you hear in the music that represent Dvořák’s musical influences?

Melodies of the “New World” Symphony

For three years, Dvořák lived in the US, where he was based at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. At the same time, the conservatory enrolled a student named Harry Burleigh. Burleigh’s grandfather, who was formerly enslaved, taught him traditional spirituals and songs of enslaved people from a young age. Burleigh shared his grandfather’s musical talents and became an accomplished classical singer.

During his time at the National Conservatory, Dvořák often asked Burleigh to sing for him, and was even quoted as saying: “In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.” Burleigh also described this exchange: “Dvořák used to get tired during the day and I would sing to him after supper … I gave him what I knew of Negro songs … and he wrote some of my tunes (my people’s music) into the ‘New World’ Symphony.”

By sharing these songs from African American musical traditions, Burleigh contributed to the composition of one of the most iconic pieces of symphonic repertoire. After he left the conservatory, he went on to have a successful career as a professional singer and composer, and he was famous for his art songs and settings of African American traditional melodies. Burleigh was also one of the first Black musicians to perform at Carnegie Hall, where he sang alongside the noted soprano Sissieretta Jones in an 1892 performance. Burleigh appeared at Carnegie Hall approximately 12 times throughout his career, and more than 90 of his compositions and arrangements have been performed at Carnegie Hall.

A Meeting of Cultures

Reena Esmail describes her piece “Ram Tori Maya” as a way of connecting: “My arrangement is designed with young musicians from both cultures (Eastern and Western) in mind, with the aim to draw them toward one another, one step at a time.”

  • Listen to the audio track “Ram Tori Maya” (complete).
    • What do you hear in this music that represents different cultures?
    • Do you notice anything new or different about the vocal style of this song?
    • What instruments do you hear playing the melody?
  • As a class, in small groups, or in pairs, have students share their own unique influences using music as a guide for discussion.
    • Do any members of your family come from another country?
    • What music, dances, or other traditions does your family or community celebrate that are a part of that country’s culture?
  • Discuss similarities and differences among students’ responses, comparing and contrasting different cultural experiences.

Elements of Hindustani Music

There are two primary traditions within Indian classical music: Hindustani from northern India and Carnatic from southern India. “Ram Tori Maya” is Hindustani. The fundamental pillars of both traditions are the raag and taal. Harmony and counterpoint are not part of Indian classical music. Instead, the music explores changing melodic shapes and ornaments, as well as the moods and feelings associated with different raags as they move through cycles of improvisation over time. Below are the key elements of Hindustani music.

The raag is the melodic structure: a series of notes akin to a mode or scale, which establishes the color and mood of a piece. There are hundreds of raags, but several dozen are used most widely. They are related to specific seasons and times of day and are meant to evoke different feelings and emotions.

The sargam is the series of syllables that represent the notes in a raag. It can be thought of as the Indian equivalent of solfège. The syllables are sa, re, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, sa.

The taal (“clap” in Sanskrit) encompasses meter and rhythm, defining how the music moves through time. It is a metric cycle with a specific number of beats—from 5 to 16—that recur in the same pattern throughout a piece.

The drone or sa is a sustained set of pitches around sa (or do), which forms the bed of the music. It is generally played on a string instrument called the tanpura.

Hindustani music places a special emphasis on vocal ornamentation improvised by a singer.

Melodies and Movement

Music is closely intertwined with movement—specifically dance. Two pieces of Link Up repertoire are connected to two very different kinds of dance: The Firebird (ballet) and “Ram Tori Maya” (an Indian expressive dance style called kathak). Movement can also help students make connections with the lyrics in “Oye.”

Explore The Firebird Ballet

  • Stravinsky composed The Firebird for a ballet. Listen to the audio track The Firebird Suite Finale (complete) and imagine that you are a dancer as you move around the room. Think about the story as well as musical qualities like volume, speed, and pitch to inform your movements.
    • How do your movements reflect what you hear?
    • How do your movements change throughout the piece?
    • What did you hear in the music that prompted you to change your movements?
  • Watch The Firebird ballet to see how the choreographer embodies the music in the dance’s movements.

Move to “Ram Tori Maya”

An Indian classical style of dance called kathak can be danced in conjunction with the “Ram Tori Maya” bhajan.

  • Watch the video Kathak Dance to see an example and learn the demonstrated kathak movements.
  • Review the taal for this piece in The Elements of Melody. Note that the taal has 14 beats made up of two groups of three and two groups of four.
  • Play the audio track “Ram Tori Maya” (complete) and review the claps and waves that reflect the rhythmic pattern and outline the groups of three and four.
  • Now, use the movements that you have learned to move to the piece. You can also incorporate the claps and waves.
  • Feel free to add creative movement throughout using some of the elements of the kathak dance style.

Move to “Oye”

  • In “Oye” Choreography (PDF), learn the “Oye” choreography that was created by Link Up teachers and students.
    • How do these movements help to convey the meaning of the words?

Downloadable PDFs

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