Introducing Sound in the Primary Montessori Classroom

Monday, April 17, 2017



By Michael Johnson


At A Child's Primary Physics we endeavor to present the child's real world experience in terms of eight sensory forms of Energy: Consciousness, Motion, Light, Heat, Sound, Chemical Reaction, Magnetism, and Electricity. As stated in previous articles, Electricity is pragmatically central to a primary physics curriculum because it is used to transform all the forms of energy into one another. Electricity is the common currency, the energy clearing house of a heat engine driven, electromechanical, digital planetary culture.


At the same time, Consciousness is the central intellectual and spiritual value and the driving emotional force in a child's life. A Primary Physics suggests that, of the other forms of Energy, Sound most directly and richly impacts Consciousness, even more so than does Motion. When Sound is not available due to deafness or distance or a need for privacy, we substitute other forms of energy to communicate, to make up for what lacks: motion, as in American Sign Language or light as in semaphore from a ship's deck or electrical signals from a cochlear ear implant.


Before birth we hear voices and music. We learn language through Sound before we learn to manipulate symbols. Even as babies, we use sound to communicate thoughts and feelings. Rhythm makes us dance. Melody can make us cry. Certain sounds, and you know what they are, make us laugh. Loud percussive sounds force us instinctively to duck and cover. We use sound to create images. We use sound to move objects through resonant vibration, with tuning forks. We use sound to sooth and to intimidate. We use Sound to inform. Sound is language, one of the oldest human technologies. Language is thought, consciousness.


We present Sound in its essential nature as Vibration through a series of shapes and materials. These shapes and materials present vibration as auditory, tactile, and visual experiences. There is a geometric progression in the shapes which gives an overall order to the experiences. Varying the size of a shape, say the length or diameter of a rod or a tube, or the material, say the difference between a steel, rubber or a nylon string, can clearly lead to the matching, sorting, and ordering exercises for which the Montessori Method is known. The critical pieces here are the elemental physical presentations themselves which are readily available and affordable. They are at times deceptively simple, and might require the teacher to remember what not knowing felt like in order to appreciate their value. They are important as impressionistic, sensory experiences, like guiding tendrils of Electricity in a plasma ball with your finger tips or bouncing a rubber ball off the same mirror you can use to bounce a laser beam. These concrete experiences provide the basis of specialized language. The goal is that the child become aware of Sound as vibration and in that process to develop the corollary ideas of wave descriptions, reflection, resonance and of waves, specifically frequency or wavelength and amplitude or volume. These properties of waves will be given a non computational numerical context. In other words, we want to show that they can be counted and measured.


Practically, not every combination of shape and material can appeal to all three senses. In terms of equipment design, producing and sustaining a vibration in any given object is the basic control of error. The dexterity required in these primary exercises are well within the child's capacity which makes great examples of the technique of offering classic physics demonstrations traditionally reserved until after the older student has some grasp of the mathematics. It is not necessary to understand the ratios describing the possible nodes in a vibrating rod in order to find one of the first two nodes, hold a rod in a pincer grasp there and tap it with a mallet. Just as one does not need the binomial theorem to build the binomial cube.


Assuming a three year spiraling curriculum, the concrete, sensory experience of vibration is the ground work of an abstract, mathematical understanding of waves. Waves, as an idea, are used to explain not only sound, but light, heat, heart beats, brain activity, alternating current, weather, earthquakes, the action of water at its surface, fluids in general, the stock exchange, enthusiastic football fans, and eventually perhaps gravity, whenever someone finally figures that out.

So again, in terms of practical classroom equipment, Sound is Vibration. This is simple enough. Electrical currents vibrate, as does the earth itself, although becoming aware of those vibrations requires technologically enhanced sensory perception. Vibration in the environment is an important topic of discussion. An earthquake, for instance, presents a number of seismic vibrations or waves, which is important in Montessori terms because we present the land forms and so also need to present what happens to them under conditions of sudden, rapid change. In the Montessori context of life forms, it is an interesting note that elephants perceive such sounds through their feet and they are not the only creatures who perceive vibration differently than we do. This thought, like the idea that there is Light we cannot see but other creatures can, leads to a demonstration of the range of human hearing about 20 to 20,000 Hz for a young healthy ear. That range in turn sheds light on the child's own voice. How much of what she can hear can she sing? Can she learn to hold a note, sing a sine wave at 440 Hz?


Vibration could arguably be classified as a form of Motion, but this would be academic. The concrete human experience of vibratory motion can be auditory, straightforwardly physical, and emotional. Vibration which cannot be heard can cause piercing pain at directed high frequencies and is, in fact, used for crowd control. Infra-sound, very low frequencies can cause nausea and anxiety. As such, sound transforms very naturally and powerfully into physical and conscious experience.


What I am suggesting is that this transformation can be presented effectively to the primary child through a particular combination of sounds: five basic musical intervals used to highlight the major and minor thirds. Here it is important to point out that this aspect of Sound goes right to the edge of music and then stops. It incorporates the western twelve tone scale, but string, plate, and bowl vibrations also present the infinity between any two semitones. The purpose of intervals is to present a simple, concrete experience of the emotional consequence of Sounds.


I find that presenting with a guitar to be easier to use than a keyboard when sitting with children in circle. The action of striking the strings is obvious, the strings vibrate visibly and the front piece can be touched without damping the vibration. The emotional difference between the intervals of a major and minor chord is rich and clear. In any case, children will invariably describe the difference between the major and minor thirds as the major being happy, bright, safe, comforting, while the minor chords might be described as dark, creepy, or sad. The language will vary, but the children will hear the inherent emotional content, which is the purpose at this level. Sound is emotion and understanding. Sound transforms Consciousness.




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