“Samoan Moon”: Harmonic dictation in real time

Recently, I have been setting students up to harmonize melodies with simple I, IV, and V harmonies. I usually have them sing the tune a few times to get a sense of how quickly the harmonies change, and then to make best guesses on the harmony that fits.  They try out their guess (the famous guess-and-test method from junior high math!), and revise if necessary. It’s my hope that the emphasis on “feel,” will benefit their real-time harmonic dictation.

The goal of this 10-15 minute activity is for students to write down the harmonic functions they hear in real time, which requires them to react to how things feel.  We will use “Samoan Moon” performed by the Tao Moe family (pictured) I have asked them to write T for tonic, P for predominant, and D for dominant on a blank score sheet that I will hand out. I really feel this should be a quick 5-10 minute activity, but know that every time I do something like this, it takes longer than I expect.  Here’s how I think I’ll do it:

Before the first hearing:

  • Let them know they will have two hearings to get down their gut reactions.
  • Remind them to point at the measures as they go by.
  • Let them make some educated guesses about the tempo before we start the track.
  • Remind them that predominant chords, generically, can move back to tonic without a dominant between them. (some specific predominant chords only go to the dominant…).
  • Encourage them to take guesses.
  • Remind them to do strive to do more than harmonic function–I gave them a list on their worksheet.

After the second hearing:

  • Compare with a friend and circle places that they have differences.
  • Prepare to sing along with the recording for a third time.

If time permits, I will give them additional hearing(s) to try and notate other things, but before the final hearing, I’ll have them turn the handout over and look at my work.  I’ll untangle the notation a little for them, and then play the track a final time.


So this really did take 10 minutes…  I could’ve used 15, but consistently only had 10.  One reason that I only had 10 minutes for the activity is that I really emphasized harmonic feel throughout the whole class.  We did three things earlier to this activity that helped prepare for it: (1) Harmonized one of their sightsingings in real time (I sang on la, they wrote down T and D) and (2) Had students accompany the class with their prepared harmonizations of melodies, discussing the feel of wrong chords, when/if they occurred.

It went pretty much as I planned, although I probably could have left more time for the peer comparison.  One key addition I made during the first section (of three) was to have students sing their chords, arpeggiating in time with the music: T = 1-3-5-3-1 (swung eighth notes on the first four notes followed by a quarter note on the final note), P = 1-4-6-4-1, D = 7-2-5-2-7.  When we got to the “advanced” chord, I simply sung the right numbers louder and they joined me for the second iteration.

It was good that I provided my own work on the back of the handout–it gave them the right label for the advanced chord, and provided some details for us to sing along with.

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