Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” (leaps in I and V)

Tomorrow’s activity will work with Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” a tune I love because of the meter switches, timbres, and the way he makes fire and higher rhyme.

The point of the example is to identify and notate tonic- and dominant-triad leaps.  I envision this as a 15-minute activity.

So far, we’ve been doing all of our in-class notation with just scale degrees.  This time, I’m going to give them a worksheet that includes the score layout (we’ll mark meter changes together on the second hearing). We will circle the measures with leaps, figure out the first scale degrees of each measure, and then I will set them loose to work independently.  During this time, I will walk around the room to help with rhythmic notation.  I will also tell them that I will collect their work to assess where they’re at (not to officially grade). And, I will be saving some time for them to reflect a bit on the process–a reflection that they will write on the worksheet in response to a prompt.

Finally, I also like this excerpt because it’s more complex than many of our recent examples: there’s lots of details that the stronger students can focus on, including harmonic analysis and instrumental licks.

Post-class Update/Evaluation

I’m glad that I highlighted for myself and my students the reason why I taught this piece.  There was so much fun stuff we could have done that I could have spent a full 50 minutes on it.  Since I only had 15-20 minutes, I was sure that every student left the class having successfully accomplished the goal of this activity.  Here’s the handout. Here’s some overall reflections:

  • This was a 15-20 minute activity.
  • It was harder than I expected for students to identify the triads in context. This happened because (1) there’s a lot to listen to, (2) the chorus–where the triads are–starts on V, rather than the I (tonic) that we expected, (3) there is a lot of emphasis on ^5 in both the verse and chorus. Some students were inclined to hear that higher prominent pitch as ^1.
  • For students who struggled, the distinctive timbre of Johnny Cash’s voice was very helpful in enabling them to sing back the triads. Many did not notice that the three triads (mm. 16, 18, and 20) were not all the same. Singing while contouring untangled things quickly for most students.
  • For students who are in danger of being bored, the rhythm of the mariachi band presented an interesting focal point.
  • The example was good–many students stayed after class (continuing their work in groups) to get more of the melody and rhythm down.  They clearly enjoyed that challenge and the song.
  • The handout left a little to be desired.  The vagaries of my temporary status as single parent of three wee ones led to a hectic early morning and a less-than-beautiful handout (while I love to handwrite my handouts, I also love for them to look neat). The space I left for a pick-up was confusing and the tiny bar on the first line was misleading.  The margins of my original were too small and the photocopies cut off the Verse and Chorus designations. The alignment of measures, use of measure numbers, and selected lyrics were all useful.

Here’s how I implemented it by the third class:

  • I forgot to tell them (three classes in a row!) that I would be collecting this activity.
  • The first three hearings went as expected (described above and in the handout). We discussed the meter and leaps.
  • About 25% of the students took the remaining 5 minutes to identify the scale degrees and rhythms of the three measures with leaps.
  • About 10% of students were able to notate the entire song, except the difficult rhythms, in the remaining 5 minutes.
  • I played it 2-4 more times to help jog their memories.
  • The reflection was a great exercise. At this point, I told them that I would be collecting their papers in order to collate and organize their responses to the reflection and share the lists with the class.  Here was the prompt:
    Reflect on what is hardest for you in transcription/dictation (for example, pitch, rhythm, harmony, etc.). State what the (relatively) difficult activity is and what tricks/strategies you have found so far to help you improve at it. 
  • Almost every student (29/32) wrote something that showed meaningful self-evaluation and engaged learning.  I think the handout I make of their strategies will be very useful for all my students.

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