The Jersild Approach: A Sightsinging Method from Denmark

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Sightsinging teaching in the United States is not based on any universally adopted methodology or common set of principles and assumptions (as is the case, for example, with harmonic analysis, which is usually directed by the conceptual worlds of Rameau and/or Schenker). This situation regarding sightsinging can be confirmed by examining textbooks, by consulting national surveys, or by comparing notes with colleagues around the country. Particular camps frequently debate the merits of using syllables or not; moveable vs. fixed "do"; "do"-based minor vs. "la"-based minor; contrived exercises vs. real literature; and the usefulness of the Kod├íly approach, intervallic hearing, cognition research, or structural reductions. Almost everyone has an opinion—often hotly defended—or at least draws unconsciously from tacit biases about how to accomplish the task.

The result is a kind of pedagogical hodge-podge. Sometimes even within the same music department different sightsinging classes will be taught from diametrically opposed perspectives. Most of the major textbooks for sightsinging (e.g., Berkowitz and Ottman) are just anthologies of music with little or no instructional commentary, even though the practice material may be useful in its own right. It is disappointing that texts do not more often promote well conceived and cogently argued points of view, including the application of analytical insight to inner hearing. The obvious reason is that authors (or publishers) do not wish to alienate a portion of the market by exposing convictions too strongly proclaimed or positions too focused on a single pedagogical stance.

So most sightsinging books continue on the well-worn, safe path of generic training. Under such conditions teachers are encouraged to plod through their textbook page by page, ticking off the required melodies with little attention devoted to instilling the habits of informed musicianship through some guided value system. Too much learning is by chance rather than by design because unimaginative rote drill is always easier than concept-driven diagnostic teaching. This unwillingness to take a firm pedagogical stand in textbooks is sometimes disguised as a benefit: we read, for example, the "openness and flexibility of Book X permits the teacher to adopt whatever approach is favored"—as if all possibilities were equally effective. "Openness and flexibility" here could just as well mean "emptiness of considered viewpoint." The implication is left that one method—or even no method at all—is as good as another as long as the correct note is sung.

But the real goal of tonal sightsinging is not just accuracy; it is to hear the music in a particular way—a way that is musically nuanced, that is shaped and directed by goals, and a way that respects the encoded tensions and internal-movement proclivities of the specific environment. The job of sightsinging is context sensitivity and the enculturation of tonal bearings (i.e., knowing one's location and relationship to carefully selected reference pitches in the prevailing key at any given moment—to know, for example, where tonic is at every instant). In a larger sense, it is the whole network of attractions and associations—tugs, pulls, and aversions—that pitches have for one another that we should be teaching in sightsinging and not just how to find the next right note. Functional tonality is the real subject of sightsinging. And there is an impressive and efficient method called "scale-degree function" that many thoughtful teachers have long recognized, often intuitively, as being especially effective for teaching such tonal bearings—a method that stresses the tendency-tone and resolution patterns that define the pitch centricity found within the major/minor tonal system.

An unusually powerful version of scale-degree functionality is called the "Jersild Approach" after Jorgen Jersild (Yer shild), an important contemporary Danish musician born in 1913. During the 1930s Jersild was a student of Roussel in Paris and the composer of many brilliant and elegant vocal and instrumental works in a neo-classical idiom. In addition, as the New Grove Dictionary puts it, "he has exerted a significant pedagogic influence through his solfege studies in melody and rhythm, which have won acceptance at foreign academies" [vol. 9, p. 608.] Although his method is in widespread use at some of the world's most prestigious conservatories in continental Europe, Scandinavia, and Australia (e.g., at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm and the Australian National University in Canberra), his very specific ideas about sightsinging, unfortunately, have never been introduced into the mainstream of pedagogical practice in this country.

The use of scale-degree function in teaching aural skills, of course, is nothing new. One early published appearance is in George Wedge, Ear Training and Sight Singing (Schirmer Books, 1921), a book that many would now dismiss as too exercisy and old-fashioned, in spite of a very insightful and nicely graduated presentation of active- and rest-tone distinctions. Most remember Wedge as the author of the most boring harmony books ever written, but his sightsinging materials were more progressive. More recently, Modus Vetus, an excellent tonal sightsinging manual by Lars Edlund (himself a student of Jersild!), was at one time made available in the United States. Some will recognize Edlund as the author of the widely used text for 20th-century sightsinging, Modus Novus. One of Jersild's own books (in a translation) briefly surfaced in this country (Ear Training: Basic Instruction in Melody and Rhythmic Reading, Schirmer, 1966), but for some reason never registered on the American imagination. My guess is that it was not visually appealing or seemed to suggest some kind of stuffy conservatory training from a past era, and it simply got lost in the shuffle of dozens of other books without its distinctive pedagogical slant ever being appreciated or even recognized.

What makes the Jersild approach special is not the idea of scale-degree function per se, but rather the unusually far-reaching and systematic way the materials are presented and developed; it is a pedagogical masterpiece of organization, detail, and precision. The remarkably efficient and ingeniously constructed practice exercises set his approach apart from others that on the surface seem similar.


* * *

One specific aspect of his teaching technique involves a set of tetrachord patterns (i.e., 4-note scalar exercises), whose shifting whole- and half-step dispositions are used to evoke a variety of tonal orientations and contexts. In Example 1, varied patterns built on E are presented. Depending on the intervallic configuration, a sense of tonic (designated as T) could be activated at the beginning, middle, or end of a pattern. The patterns are intended as fragments of conventional major and minor scales, thus excluding—at first—modal possibilities (e.g., ruling out E phrygian for 1a). In some cases, the revision does not affect placement of tonic, but rather only whether the example is heard as major or minor (e.g., 1a compared to 1b: F major vs. F minor . . . or 1c [alternate choice] compared to 1d: E major vs. E minor). Pattern 1c is ambivalent because without further context either the first or last pitch could be interpreted as tonic (more on this later). 1e involves an implied tonic; the final pitch inside the bracket would only be imagined—mentally heard—not sung aloud as with the other notes.


Examples 1-3



Example 2 contains some descending patterns with similar effects—slight changes in placement of accidentals likewise dramatically reinterpreting the meaning of all the other pitches. Example 3 compares several patterns all relating to the same tonic—in every case the upper tetrachord of a complete scale on F—with the final example (3d) introducing, for the first time, a Dorian modal inflection. These patterns, and others like them, can be practiced in various transpositions and combinations to instill a sense of gravitational pull and magnetic attraction. Through repeated exposure to the subtle variational possibilities of such patterns, students gradually acquire a Geography of Tonality—a feeling for how to find, discern, recognize, or name landmarks that would begin to outline a path through territory that might at first seem inchoate and unmapped.

Jersild states the rationale for his approach as follows:

In principle, this [system] is an attempt to approach the problems of music reading by learning to recognize at a glance entire musical patterns rather than laboriously going from detail to detail. Somewhat opposed to this view are the several music reading systems which begin with a more or less abstract study of intervals. These rarely provide efficient results. There are two reasons for this. First, the character of the interval changes according to its place in the tonal context. Second, the interval constitutes a subordinated detail in any musical sequence. While reading music, such "atomistic" detail will rarely be perceived. In an attempt to reach a concept superior to that of the interval, the principle of tonality results. This is the principle by which individual tones are coordinated into the general context of musical patterns and phrases [1966, p. 5].

Cognition research has shown that when individuals are shown a picture of a basketball game in which the players are placed randomly, they could not recall many of the separate items in the picture. If, however, they were shown a picture of a specific play in formation—that is, a picture in which the players had a structured relation to each other—many more details could be recalled.

Analogously, the tetrachord patterns provide a code or mechanism for giving structure to what otherwise might be perceived as dozens of random stimuli. When a pattern is altered slightly—one could call it a turn in a new direction rather than a step change—various potentialities for closure emerge. That is, one can use the half-step difference to signal an end, even to make the beginning a final point; one can create innumerable possibilities of difference by moving the location of the half step, thus changing the notion of where one is ending and thus where one is going. These patterns become etched grooves for channeling one's hearing and for intuiting the difference between movement and arrival.

Even a pattern as simple as the major tetrachord can provide a good test of whether your students can hear tonality as opposed to just intervals: have them sing the pitch pattern "C-D-E-F" in two different ways—first as 1-2-3-4 (in C major) and then as 5-6-7-1 (in F major). [See Examples 4 and 5.]


Examples 4-5



In the first case, the sensation is of moving away from a departure with a poised, "still-ready-for-action" stopping point in mid-stream; in the second case, the sensation is of moving toward a point of arrival, with some convincing degree of finality at the end. You will know the difference by carefully observing their kinesthetic reaction and interpretive style and phrasing—in the first case they may even descrescendo and in the second, increase the dynamic level as the goal is reached, or they may inflect the pitch interpreted as tonic—either the first or last—with a greater sense of stress.

Performing this or trying to hear it non-functionally as a "whole-whole-half step" pattern has nothing to do with the experiential feel of the two quite different tonal situations. Of course, many students might sing the four pitches perfectly accurately without hearing them in either key or any key—and this might be a valid option under certain conditions—but for tonal contexts they would be singing only notes, not music. Musicality, then, is the final goal of sightsinging, not just a perfect rendering of the pitches.

For even greater challenges with this same tetrachord, students could be asked to situate it into yet additional tonal (or modal) environments. [See examples 6 through 10.] For further instructional value just the first and last notes of the pattern (the P4, "C to F") could be extracted and imported to other keys as a demonstration of how powerfully the surrounding tonal scaffolding affects our perception and understanding of this single span of 2 1/2 steps. [See examples 11 through 16.] Obviously the perfect fourth—or any other single interval—has no single meaning or aesthetic effect but is rather a chameleon-like bundle of potentialities waiting to be triggered by the appropriate setting.* These are the kinds of tonal subtleties and distinctions that the Jersild method is designed to highlight. Again, it is not enough to sing the first two notes of each of these six simple tunes correctly; they must, in addition, be heard and felt as carrying different import.


Examples 6-16




Along with these tetrachordal "motifs," Jersild suggests a set of ten resolution and tendency-tone patterns (see example) to reinforce tonal bearings by representing basic location points or "moves" within a key.


Jersild Resolution and Tendency-Tone Patterns



Seven of these fundamental units (Jersild's building blocks of tonality) are diatonic and three are chromatic. Each pattern is a simple two-note marker that, in combination with the others, helps to define a particular key center. 7 up to 1; 4 down to 3; 2 down to 1; and 5 up or down to 1, of course, together define the resolution of a dominant seventh to tonic. 6 down to 5 is a kind of reverse leading tone pressing down on the dominant from above (actually suggesting predominant-to-dominant movement)—especially powerful in minor when the attraction is by half step. 6 up to 1 is a pattern that implies a milder plagal effect. And finally, 5 up to 3 offers the possibility not only of resolution (as in dominant to tonic), but of movement within a tonic function by skipping over another member of the chord.

The three chromatic patterns each imply a secondary dominant (in turn, V/V - V; V/vi - vi [or in minor, V/III - III]; and V7/IV - IV) or they could open the door for a more full-blown modulation to the dominant, the relative key, or the subdominant. Other prominent melodic patterns in tonal music could be identified, both diatonic and chromatic, but Jersild believes by concentrating on this primary set that students can effectively become acclimated to the essential nooks and crannies of tonality as well as the crossbeams, support points, and girders that make the hidden corners easier to find. The entire relational network is represented in full interactive glory in the Tonal Grid example. Some of the skips are large, some small, some strong, some tame, but they all participate synergistically to engender the larger array and sum of pitch affinities we all recognize as the tonal system.

I know of no other single set of practice materials for sightsinging that provides such a vigorous, multifaceted, concentrated, and extended workout for hearing melodic function and for acquiring tonal bearings as Jersild's "Diagram of Functional Progressions" (see example).


Diagram of Functional Progressions

Major Keys



Corresponding Relative Minor Keys



Within each two-beat measure one of the ten basic melodic patterns is found; the three chromatic patterns are included within brackets indicating their optional employment.

In a sightsinging class, graduated practice on this sheet would be spread over many weeks or months with simpler challenges being mastered first. For example, some teachers might begin with the C-major exercise in the middle of column one by singing through it slowly, but omitting until later measures 5, 9, and 11, which introduce the altered pitches. For students having initial trouble, the exercise could be simplified by filling in each leap (both within and across measures) with step-wise motion—in other words, just singing up and down the C-major scale making directional changes as necessary. Or another simplification might involve singing only the second pitch of each measure (these are, of course, always 1, 3 or 5—essentially a tonic bugle call) and then adding back in the "troublesome notes" when this fundamental tonality frame has been established in the mind's ear. The troublesome note should always be heard in relation to a simpler reference pitch. The secret, then, to singing the tough pitches is to know where the easy ones are.

Since each pattern is an entry to a specific locale, notice that the activity within each measure is more fundamental than the movement across a bar line, which might consist of almost any possible small or large interval, including some dramatic compound sizes when registral shifts are used. Or perhaps I should say that the significance of movement across a bar line is measured in terms of sensation, tonal feel, and memory of the basic units rather than by the intervallic distance with which they are approached.

Moving from the end of one pattern to the beginning of the next tests recall—both visual and aural—of the upcoming landmark. The order changes with each key—and the permutations of ten different patterns in varying registers are enormous—but the sound of the pattern within a given measure will, of course, come to be regarded as an old friend, a memorized bit of tonal vocabulary rehearsed over and over. The challenge is to master the constantly changing contexts—the goal of all tonal sightsinging. Paradoxically, by memorizing the material inside of each measure, the links between patterns take care of themselves. Put another way, the moves within the measure give meaning to the moves between measures; when moving across the barline, where you are going is always more important than where you are coming from. While the starting point for practicing is latching rather mechanically onto each two-note pairing as a security blanket, the eventual result is fluid horizontal movement across each exercise so that individual notes are appropriately weighted and larger sub-groupings of function evolve naturally and with ease.

When a level of comfort and familiarity is reached with a starting key, students can gradually branch out to other keys (perhaps working through the circle of fifths up and down). Most classes will want to master the major-key patterns first and then move into the second column for practice in minor. This approach isolates two separate problems of beginning students: a) visually recognizing a pattern in the first place (say in a less familiar key); and b) retrieving its sound (as gestural effect or affect, not interval type) from one's mental stockpile. In other words, students will make mistakes for one of two reasons: music reading or music hearing—and this clever sheet provides practice for both.

When the basic diatonic major and minor patterns have been more or less mastered in all keys, the chromatic alterations can be added. Not only do they offer experience at hearing secondary inflections, but by using the bracketed measures as gateways to modulation, another whole realm of practice opportunity emerges. While practicing in C major, for example, once measure 5 is reached the student can then switch to the beginning of the G-major line above and continue to sing in the dominant key. Likewise measure 9 of the C-major tune could steer the performer into F major below or measure 11 could open the door for travel into the relative minor directly across in the alternate column. An unlimited tonal journey through related keys could be constructed by traveling up and down either column or zig-zagging back and forth between them or any combination of the two by selecting the relevant gateway measure for transference to another line. This sheet, then, offers richer and more varied practice possibilities than meets the eye at first glance.

Each individual pattern in this system embodies a distinctive flavor. Tonality is simply the sum of all those special flavors with its own overall composite feel as well. Of course, the meanings or roles of pitches can change according to circumstances. For example, the tendency of scale degree 4 in the company of 7 is to pull down to 3 (operating as part of a dominant function), whereas the tendency of 4 in the company of 6 is to pull up to 5 (as part of a predominant unit). Many dozens of additional examples could be cited that go far beyond what Jersild identifies. But by lavishing attention on his basic set of key definers, a backdrop is established against which all the variations, exceptions, and denials of tendency can be recognized, measured, understood, heard, felt, and performed.


* * *

One attractive feature is that the approach is independent of any particular labeling system (syllables, numbers, letter names, moveable-la, etc.), although I imagine that numbers or do-based major/minor solfege would best maximize the scale-degree sensitivities that are being ingrained. The Jersild approach can be combined with any of the conventional books of practice melodies. Once mastered, additional challenges might involve performance at speeded up tempos. Even after the sheet has been thoroughly learned it provides an excellent daily warm-up for the eye and ear before continuing on with practice material from other sources. The possibility of using this approach and even these specific exercises for dictation or recognition activities (with or without notation) has no doubt occurred to you also.

One might argue that eventually the students would end up memorizing each tune since they are all just re-jumbled versions of one another—but that is just the point. By focusing on and mastering these small activators of tonality (the multiple connotations of tetrachords and the grounding force of the resolution patterns), an unmistakable sense of "keyishness" can be instilled in the student's mental and perceptual filters through a carefully crafted kind of constructive brainwashing and analytical consciousness raising. This system is simultaneously a tune-up for the mind and ears and a tonal grid of markers and movements that students are then able to superimpose onto new tonal situations and into real music. Eventually these patterns begin to stand out with stark clarity; they become assimilated with cognitive activities and are triggered through a kind of second nature—what psychologists call "blood memory." Tonality begins to drip from the walls after practicing in any single key for an extended time; tonic hangs in the air like a tangible presence. The goal of sightsinging is suddenly and palpably revealed not as "how to sing the next note," but as the learning of a large and intricate, yet beautifully simple, framework for hearing.

We only know that we have done our jobs as sightsinging teachers if students can exhibit sensitivity to musical shadings. We can't really tell if they have learned anything about how tonality itself operates simply by observing if they sing the right notes on some test because those "right notes" may be performed in the most anti-musical way imaginable (e.g., as a series of flat, undifferentiated pitches unrelated—in their mind's ear—to any defining tonal grid and thus totally lacking any individuated meanings of "tension and release" or of "leanings and resolutions").

In fact, we have all witnessed such monochromatic performances that trudge stiffly and computer-like from note to note—either in the sightsinging class or on the concert stage. We often begrudgingly have to give credit for such a theory performance even though the invisible threads of connection between pitches are missing. We must find ways to distinguish between a performance that is correct (maybe even accidentally correct), yet mechanical, compared to one that is correct for the right reasons—and therefore musical.

A sightsinging teacher should be more than a burglar alarm for wrong notes.


Selected Bibliography

Edlund, Lars. Modus Vetus: Sight Singing and Ear Training in Major/Minor Tonality. Alexander Broude, n.d.

Jersild, Jorgen. Laerebog i solfege. Copenhagen, 1948-51.

__________. Laerebog i rytmelaesning. Copenhagen, 1951, 2/1961.

__________. Elementaere rytmeovelser. Copenhagen, 1956

__________. Laerebog i melodilaesning. Copenhagen, 1959.

__________. Ear Training: Basic Instruction in Melody and Rhythm Reading. Translated by Gerd Schiotz. Schirmer, 1966.

__________. Videregaende rytmiske studier: polyrytmik. Copenhagen, 1975.

Wedge, George. Ear Training and Sight Singing. Schirmer, 1921.


Related Reading

Houlahan, Micheal & Philip Tacka. "The Americanization of Solmization: A Response to Timothy A. Smith." Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 6 (1992), 137-152.

__________. "Continuing the Dialogue: The Potential of Relative Solmization for the Music Theory Curriculum at the College Level." Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 8 (1994), 221-226.

Larson, Steve. "Scale-Degree Function: A Theory of Expressive Meaning and its Application to Aural Skills Pedagogy." Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 7 (1993), 69-84.

Rogers, Michael R. "Beyond Intervals: The Teaching of Tonal Hearing." Indiana Theory Review 6/3 (Spring 1983), 18-34.

Smith, Timothy A. "A Comparison of Pedagogical Resources in Solmization Systems." Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 5/1 (Spring 1991), 1-23.

__________. "The Liberation of Solmization: Searching for Common Ground." Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 6 (1992), 153-168.

__________. "Ending the Dialogue: Imaginary Solutions are No Solution." Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 8 (1994), 227-230.

*Editor's Note: see the extended discussion of the "chameleon-like" properties of the fourth in William Thomson's "Emergent 'Dissonance' and the Resolution of a Paradox," in this issue.

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Last modified on Friday, 19/10/2018

Michael R. Rogers

Michael R. Rogers, Founding Editor of the Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy, is the author of Teaching Approaches in Music Theory (2004) and co-author of the multi-volume, Tonality and Design in Music Theory (2005), as well as numerous journal articles on pedagogy and analysis.  His teaching appointments have included the University of Maryland, University of Arizona, Michigan State University, Australian National University, and the University of Oklahoma, where he was the Kenneth and Bernadine Russell Endowed Professor of Music Theory (now retired).  His current appointment is as Visiting Professor at the University of Oregon, where he teaches part time and continues his research on the role of intuition in musical performance.

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