Lesson 1: Learning “Blue Skies”
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Aim: How are melodic contour, form, and improvisation used in jazz?
Summary: Students will sing “Blue Skies,” learning about some of the key musical elements found in jazz.
Materials: Musical Explorers Student Guide, flash cards, glockenspiel or other pitched instrument
Standards: National 1, 2, 4, 7
Vocabulary: form, improvisation, lyrics, melodic contour, soloing
Irving Berlin (1888–1989) is considered one of the greatest songwriters in American history. He was born in Russia and came to the US when he was five. Berlin wrote more than 1,500 songs, including hundreds of hits. “Blue Skies” was composed as part of a musical called Betsy. Audiences loved the song so much they demanded 24 encores of it on the show’s opening night!
Blue skies smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies, Do I see
Bluebirds singing a song,
Nothing but bluebirds all day long,
Never saw the sun shining so bright
Never saw things going so right
Noticing the days hurrying by
When you’re in love, my how they fly
Blue days all of them gone
Nothing but blue skies from now on.
Explore Melodic Contour in “Blue Skies”
- Explain that melodic contour is the shape and direction a melody makes in music.
- Listen to the audio track “Blue Skies” melody vocals. As you listen, use the New York City skyline below to trace the melodic contour.
- How would you describe the shape of this melody? Is it smooth, jumpy, curvy, jagged, etc.?
- When does the melody move by steps? By leaps?
- Invite volunteers to come up and draw the shape of the melodic contour.
- Listen to the audio track “Blue Skies” melody vocals, again. This time your students can sing along and trace the melodic contour in the air.
- Your students will have an opportunity to create their own melodies based on melodic contour in My Own Skyline Melody (PDF).
Explore Form in “Blue Skies”
- Explain that musical form is the way music is organized. It is like a map or a plan for a piece of music.
- Explain that “Blue Skies” consists of four parts. Three of those parts have the same basic melody; those three parts are called A.
- Listen again to the audio track “Blue Skies” melody, letting your students know that this melody will be heard in the A sections of the song.
- Now, listen to the audio track “Blue Skies.” Ask students to identify the A section each time it occurs and make up a movement to represent it. When they hear a section that is different from A, ask them to indicate that by making up a different movement.
- How did you know that there was a new section in the song?
- The part in the middle has a different melody. We call that part B.
- What about the B section makes it different from the A section?
- Explain that this form is called AABA, a common form in jazz and other styles of music.
- Listen again to the audio track “Blue Skies,” with your students performing their movements for each section.
Discover Soloing in “Blue Skies”
- Explain that an important part of jazz is improvisation, in which the musicians make up variations on the melody and rhythm of a song on the spur of the moment.
- Explain that in “Blue Skies,” several of the musicians improvise (called “soloing”) at different points in the song while the rest of the band supports them. You can reflect back on the use of improvisation in the Indian classical and Malian units from the previous semester.
- Listen again to the audio track “Blue Skies.”
- Ask students to raise their hands when they hear the musicians soloing, and identify the instrument (or voice) that is soloing.
My Own Skyline Melody
- Using My Own Skyline Melody (PDF), have your students draw a new skyline with buildings at different levels of their choosing.
- Ask your students to trace the melodic contour of their new skyline.
- Where does it go up? Where does it go down? Where are there leaps? Where are there steps? When is the movement curvy, and when is it sharp and jagged?
- Assist your students in creating a new melody following their melodic contour by singing or playing glockenspiels or another pitched instrument.
- Your students can try out the lyrics from “Blue Skies” with their new melody, write their own lyrics, or try improvising.
Musical Word Wall
Add the words form, improvisation, lyrics, melodic contour, and soloing to the Musical Word Wall.