Teaching Contemporary Popular Musics

Teaching Contemporary Popular Musics


The term ‘contemporary popular music’  covers a vast array of styles, each with its own pedigree  and each influenced by most of  the others.  Folk music (real and ‘composed’), national songs, country and western, operetta, musicals,  film music, jingles and last but certainly not least, jazz.  Each of these stylistic categories - and those that I probably left out - can be further subdivided.


This article, prompted by an inquiry from a Stretto (ANZCA news letter) reader, discusses in a general way the development of an approach to preparing students to deal with the stylistic pluralism represented by 20th century music life and in particular the styles which fuel a very powerful popular music industry.


Our reader, who is a music graduate, is researching motivational teaching materials for use in teaching curricula designed to develop  skills required for the performance of popular music. 


I believe the most effective motivational resource in teaching any kind of music to be exciting repertoire enthusiastically presented. 


Music selected for teaching purposes need not always be chosen from among the great masterpieces of the literature but it should be well crafted and exciting to perform - one way or another!  In choosing repertoire Skinner’s advice in Walden Two  that survival is the best test of quality should be heeded.  Popular music that has survived usually has something going for it.  To the great jazz standards of the last sixty years (for example - Autumn Leaves, A Night in Tunisia, Ornithology, Giant Steps, Triste, etc. ) we can add such all time pop greats as Greensleeves, Lillibulero, John Brown’s Body. Popular tunes of more recent vintage have not yet stood the test of time but are certainly high in the popularity ratings.  Lloyd Webber has written a very great deal of very highly motivational music which deserves its enormous popularity despite the spiteful allusions to plagiarism by jealous rivals.  The elements which create popularity have, of course to be considered.  Mediocre music can rate very highly in the popularity stakes by virtue of its lyrics or the popularity of its performers.  


The folk song arrangements of Benjamin Britten; simplified and often trivialised arrangements of the classics; and stilted, poorly arranged ‘sheet-music’ versions of popular hit songs exemplify a sublime to odious range of  quality heavily skewed towards the tasteless.


Good arrangers of contemporary popular music do exist. The American arranger Custer comes immediately to mind but there are plenty of others if only I could think of them at this moment.

Too many arrangements and original compositions for children, particularly in the jazz category are over simplified to the point of stylistic emasculation;  others don’t really press the contemporary button;  mostly because phrasing and other elements having, about them, a rather old fashioned air.


Christopher Norton has written original music that captures stylistic characteristics in a thoroughly contemporary way and which presents, in a musicianly fashion, the kind of problems that need to be dealt with in contemporary jazz-related styles. Kerin Bailey, Glenn Hunter and yours truly have made  valuable contributions to the repertoire in this country. Many composers have combined jazz-related and popular idioms with classical styles; among them  Stravinsky, Milhaud, Walton, Seiber, Debussy and our own Don Banks.  Many world class solo performers, Nigel Kennedy is one, are adept in both classical and jazz-based styles.  The French composer, Claude Bolling, is a popular exponent of the popular/classical ‘hybrid.'   And, of course, there are the keyboard, ensemble and orchestral pieces of this writer.  Many of these juxtapose jazz and classical styles and, as is the case with the Bolling pieces, provide opportunities for improvisation.  In this genre the performer who is not confident of his/her ability to improvise may play the written ‘improvisation’ until confidence is achieved. 


Another factor to be taken into account in the consideration of accessibility to popular styles is that instrumentation is often an important characteristic of a style.  Folk songs will tolerate almost anything from a tin whistle (probably best) to a full symphony orchestra (cf Delius Brigg Fair.)   Rock music is nothing without its relentlessly repetitive percussion rhythms and whatever electric bass flavour happens to be in vogue.  Country and Western needs at least one 'geetarr' and an American accent  - real or phony.   What is Dixieland without its dazzling clarinet solos, tinkling piano, vulgar trombone and jolly costumes.  What is rag-time without a piano - preferably  honkytonk!


Electronic keyboards do give performers access to DIY instrumentation, though there is a limit to what players with only two hands can do.  Split points do allow two instrumental timbres, or two groups of instrumental timbres to be played simultaneously, for instance, strings and piano in one hand and basses and cellos in the other.  However the real power of the electronic keyboard is revealed when it is used in conjunction with an on board disk drive or computer.  In this case the performer who only has two hands can digitally record those instrumental parts which cannot be handled live, bass and drums for example, and be part of a complete ensemble.

   Midi files allow digital recordings to be stored to disk and hence to be transportable and transferable.  Some electronic keyboards have on board sequencers upon which recordings can be made and stored but cannot be transferred to disk. 


The danger of too many bells and whistles is that pretty sounds may disguise poor musicianship. The new music technology offers almost limitless means for creative expression;  it also has considerable value as a means of making recreational music performance accessible to performers who do not have the time or the inclination to acquire any substantial degree of music mastery.  BUT -   for those students who are serious in their desire to achieve mastery, the expanded music resources offered by the new technology opens the door to a world of expression and creativity undreamt of in the days when musical experiences for keyboard players occurred almost entirely within the bounds of the keyboard repertoire.  It has been my pleasure in the last year or two to meet a great many young musicians who are enthusiastic apprentices in the art of composition.  In almost every case the new technology has provided them with both means and the inspiration.


Given that an emphasis on creativity is essential in any curriculum planned to develop performance competencies in contemporary popular music, either as an improviser, arranger or  composer,  what kinds of teaching resources are available and more appropriately, what kinds of teaching resources are suitable.


I have to say that apart from a good selection of repertoire which is the primary requirement I do not know of any text book or multimedia resource that is capable of presenting graduated learning materials in a systematic and exciting way. Indeed, it is beyond the capacity of such a book to do so since the motivation and the excitement must be generated by the teacher. I must confess that my knowledge of resources  presently available in this field is pretty inadequate.  Most professional jazz players of my acquaintance still swear by Aebersold and Levine is a rising figure in most teaching institutions.  However, a creative approach to the teaching of the skills and concepts required for the performance of popular music which, unlike the common practice classical repertoire, requires well developed improvisational skills, will be based upon  materials created by the teacher.


The teacher’s primary role is to structure the acquisition of skills and concepts in accordance with the musical and technical requirements of the repertoire.  To do this convincingly the teacher must be able to identify and categorise the kinds of harmonic, rhythmic and melodic formulae that are present in representative repertoire and organise a teaching sequence which acknowledges frequency of usage, best practice and ease of practical application on the instrumental frame in question. All concepts and skills taught should then be related to repertoire and embodied in  improvisations.


 As an example of this approach I shall choose the harmonic formula II-V7-I.  It will be my starting point in the harmonic category since it accounts for about 70% of the harmonic progressions found in charts and the voicing appropriate to jazz-related styles is easy to play. I can also use the progression in my starting points for the melodic and rhythmic elements of my teaching course. Here I have spoken only of content;  methodology must be carefully planned to achieve both aural familiarity, conceptual understanding and performance skill.   


II-V7-I properly voiced, illustrates some important harmonic fundamentals, not the least of which is its strong directional pull towards a tonic.  Properly voiced it is very easy to play and comes also in a number of exotic embellishments which can be learnt further down the track; preferably on a need to know basis. The need to know will, of course, be entirely predictable since the introduction of repertoire will be planned to  generate specific needs when appropriate stages of readiness are reached.  


Two pieces by Miles Davis, Tune Up  and Solar,  demonstrate II-V7-I’s beautifully.  Solar  is also an excellent example of the rhythmic dynamic of swing with strong melodic accents both anticipating the beat and coming just after it. The modal aspects of improvised melody are easily demonstrated and practised in the II-V7-I progression and hence in standards such as Tune Up  and Solar. 



In the teaching of popular music, notation should be used only for reference.  The fizz in popular music is the performer’s ability to improvise, to react to audience approval with evermore dazzling melodic rhythmic and harmonic flights of fancy.  The performance of any jazz standard from a fully notated arrangement should be regarded as the sheerest heresy and both teacher and performer summarily executed - or is it excommunicated.  


Not long ago I gave a series of workshops for mature aged citizens who wanted to learn to play jazz.  Scarcely any  of the participants could remember, and play fluently, a simple three chord progression after six weeks.  They could not rid themselves of the idea that learning music neither could nor should  be accomplished without continuous reference to a notated sheet on the music stand.  Music, in their understanding, equalled notation and unless notation was present no learning, indeed no music, could happen!  



Apart from styles based on folk music, most popular styles are jazz-related. The stylistic characteristics and idioms of jazz seem to be the basis for most of the popular musics of this 20th century, so its not a bad idea to have an anthology of jazz standards.  The much touted ‘real’ books are ideal in this respect .  Buy one today!  For those of you who have never seen a' real' book, melodies and chord symbols only are given.


Well, I haven’t really been very helpful in listing motivational resources.  Maybe that’s because I believe that it is more desirable and creative for the teacher to develop his/her own resources.  I hope that this article will give some guidance.