Copyright © Valeri Brainin (1974)

Catch a Dragon

(Dissection of musical text. The development of rhythmic thinking in children)

A workshop at the 22nd World Conference of the ISME, Amsterdam, 1996

The presentation consists of a short lecture, and a workshop.

Let us carry out the following experiment with myself as "quiz-master". I have a tune in my head and I write out the rhythm of the tune. I then put the question: "What is the first note in the tune?" You then hazard a guess. Clearly, if you did not recognise the tune from the rhythm, the first note can only be arrived at by chance. I then tell you that the first note is, say, A. You write this note down and those who had guessed right draw a circle round their A. You then go on to guess the second note, the third and so on till the end. It is not a test of how well you can guess. This experiment shows how the reception of information is shaped by perceptual anticipation and the result will help us to understand what ‘Dissection of a musical text’ means. 

The notes which were encircled and those which were not make up chains and these chains indicate different phases of perception. The notes which were not encircled are accompanied by increased attentiveness and indicate phases where disturbance of passive perception occurs, in other words novelty phases. The notes which were encircled are distinguished by relaxation of attention and indicate phases of passive perception, in other words guessing phases. The transition from novelty phase to guessing phase can be regarded as the culmination and the reverse transition as a caesura (Illustration 1):

The period between two caesurae thus represents a significant unit of the text as interpreted by the hearer. It is clear that this unit can be meaningful but can also be completely meaningless if it does not correspond to the ‘meaningful unit’ conceived by the composer.

The workshop demonstrates the very first stage of the method which is suitable both for students and children. We can understand a caesura between two musical phrases only if we understand a culmination in every phrase. The workshop shows how to understand the culmination and demonstrates the method in the form of stories and games as it is used for children 4-7 years of age. Concurrently it shows how to translate the rhythm into special form of solmization in order to write it out without counting the duration of the notes. I intend to explain this method in the same way that I explain it to children.

I start off by asking. Do you know, what are we going to do now? We are going on a journey. One can travel by car, train or plane but we are going to travel in our chairs without leaving this room, because we are going on a journey through a magic country. In this country there are magic beings - dragons in fact. But they are not the usual dragons of all the other fairy-tales. Our dragons are invisible. It is possible to hear but not to see them. As all normal dragons they have tails and heads and every dragon has a collar as well so that it should be possible to catch him. I have already said that the dragons are invisible. But how can we hear them? Every dragon has little bells on his tail and his head and these bells ring when he moves.

Although the dragons are invisible, you can imagine and draw them. This is a dragon I’ve drawn. He has only one tail and one head. Here is the bell on his tail. Here is the bell on his head. This is his collar. And this is the rope that ties the dragon together. Without the rope the dragon could lose his tail and his head. If the dragon moves his tail one bell rings [di]. If he moves his head the other bell rings [din]. That is why the name of this dragon is [di-´din] (Illustration 2). To catch him we have to say his name and clap our hands.

This dragon has two bells on the tail and one on the head. These two bells ring [´dili]. That is why the name of the dragon is [dili-´din]. Let's catch him:

What do you think is the name of this dragon? You think [dili-'dili], don't you? It is not so simple. The bell on the head immediately after a collar always rings as [din], independent of the quantity of the bells. So, it has to be named as [dili-´dinli]:

And of this one? [di´dinli]:

And now I shall play some dragons on the piano. Let us try to catch them. As you see, there really are live dragons in music. But sometimes if they find that there is not enough room in music, they migrate to another land - for instance into nursery rhymes. Let us try to catch dragons in this rhyme:

Fishie, fishie,


In the brook,


Daddy catch him


With a hook,


Mama fry him


In a pan,


Baby eat him


Like a man.


There are also other dragons who have no tails, but two heads. This is one of them (Illustration 3).

There are other creatures as well in the magic country. A bird of prey with the name Pause eats the bells. Sometimes he eats the whole bell, sometimes only part of it. The first head of the dragons without a tail is strong. The Pause is afraid to eat the bell, which is hanging from the strong first head. But the second head of that Dragon is weak and the Pause can eat part of the bell. That is why the bell on the weak second head rings not as [din], but only as [di]. And that is why the name of this dragon is [´din-di]. Let's catch him, but don't forget to catch him by the collar. What do you think is the name of this one? You are quite right. [´dinli-di]:

Sometimes the Dragons misbehave and begin to bite one another. For this bad behaviour they are punished and lose their heads which turn into tails and instead of every head they get a tail. Also they lose their collars. This dragon [dili-´dinli] has bitten the dragon [dili-´din]. That is why he has lost his head, the head being turned into a tail producing a new dragon - with three tails and one head - [dili-dili-dili-´din]:

There is one dragon who never bites - [dili-´din]. Let's catch some long dragons in a rhyme but do not forget that the Dragon [dili-´din] never bites:

Mary Ann, Mary Ann,

   [dili   - ´din]- [dili   - ´din]  


Make the Porridge in a pan;

  [dili    -    dili      dili    -  ´din]

Make it thick, Make it thin,

   [dili   - ´din]- [dili     - ´din]  


Make it any way you can.

[dili   -     dili     -   dili   -   ´din]

And now in music...

The dragons without tails also bite one another. For instance, the dragon [´din-dili] has bitten the dragon [´din-di] and a new one has been produced - [di-dili-´din-di] - with two tails and two heads:

Let us catch some of them. And now let us try to catch dragons in a rhyme:

Lucy Locket lost her pocket,

  [dili     -   dili   -   dili    -     ´dinli]

Kitty Fisher found it;

 [dili     -     dili    -     ´dindi]

Not a penny was there in it,

  [dili   -     dili   -   dili    -     ´dinli]

Only ribbon round it.

   [dili    -     dili   -    ´dindi]

If we shall try to catch dragons in some tunes, the first task is to answer the following question: How many dragons are there in the tune? The second task is to catch all the dragons without singing. The third one - to sing and to catch. The fourth one - to draw all the dragons in turn. It is a mistake to write all the notes and then all the bar-lines and phrase arches. You are only allowed to draw the next dragon if the previous dragon is finished - that means that you draw all the tails first, then a collar, then all the heads, then a cord and only then the next dragon.

Clearly the accent of the phrase and the bar-line do not always coincide with one another. What I have described is only the very first stage of the method. The didactic sequence of tunes and tasks is the following: 

1) the accent of the phrase and the bar-line always coincide with one another;

2) there is a bar-line, but no accent;

3) there is an accent, but no bar-line – so-called syncope;

4) the accent and the bar-line never coincide with one another.

The first situation when the accent of the phrase and the bar-line always coincide with one another, we have already explored. The second situation when there is a bar-line, but no accent we could find for instance in the following tune:

In the case where there is an accent but no bar-line - so-called syncope - we could find for instance in the following tune  

Unfortunately we have not enough time today to elaborate these cases. But especially interesting and complicated is the case where the accent and the bar-line never coincide with one another. The only way of understanding the regular metre in such a case is to hear the harmony. That is why it is impossible to learn the ‘Dissection of a musical text’ without acquiring feeling for and grasping harmony.