Teaching Music Elements with “Pandora’s Puzzle”

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Teaching Music Elements with “Pandora’s Puzzle”

What characteristics describe YOU?

This is the question students in Music+STEM started with this past week.  Students created lists of physical and personality traits in their journals. They used words like tall, athletic, friendly, helpful, freckled, blonde, strong- and a multitude of others.

This activity not only gets students into the mindset of describing characteristics, it also gives insight into how students see themselves.

After this journal exercise, we talked about where these and some other traits come from – your genes.  We spent a very short time on DNA, genes, chromosomes, and genomes – just enough to understand their relationship to each other and to remember that characteristics reside in genes and these genes string together into chromosomes. The chromosomes then group into genomes. (There are certainly much more scientific explanations but these basics provide the basis for our lesson.)

DNA-genes

Then the big question:

What does this have to do with music??

Enter Pandora’s Music Genome Project.  This is the name of the technology music streaming services like Pandora use to create playlists.  It equates a piece of music with a genome – that collection of chromosomes that contain the trait-filled genes.  Just as a genome contains traits of a human, a piece of music contains many “traits” – or elements – that can be described.  (Pandora describes up to 450 traits for a piece of music.  We narrowed that down for our work in class.) Streaming services look at the characteristics of the music you like and find other music that has the same traits to put in your playlist.  When you “like” a song, it continues to collect information about traits to make more informed choices.

Students brainstormed the traits that might be used to find music for a playlist.  As they shared their lists, we categorized them into most of the elements of music – tempo, dynamics, rhythm, melody, timbre, form, tonality, and texture.  We also added categories like style/genre and place/time of origin.  We listened to a variety of examples to practice identifying these characteristics.


Then came another big question:

Have you ever been listening to a playlist when a song comes on that doesn’t seem to fit?

How can this happen?  Most likely, there is a characteristic that matches something you liked, but it’s buried in other traits that don’t match your usual playlist.  It’s almost like a puzzle – what is the hidden trait in this one “oddball” song that matches the other songs I like.

I created “Pandora’s Puzzle” to see if students could figure this out. We listened to three very different pieces of music and completed descriptions of their traits. When we were done students worked in groups to figure out the one common trait – or the hidden link – between all three.

Take a listen to see if you can figure it out ….




Did you figure it out? All three use string instruments!


To wrap this project up, students created their own puzzle.  Groups of 3 or 4 students decided on the hidden link they would find in a set of otherwise very different pieces of music.  (The one characteristic students couldn’t use was style as that would end up making the music too similar.)  Students were reminded to find music from different styles and time periods – and they were reminded many times that the music needed to sound like it didn’t fit together – except for that one hidden link. Most groups started with a song they knew and then faced the challenge of finding music they didn’t know.  Students used chromebooks for research on youTube and Google.

Every group completed a “genome”, or description of the traits in each piece of music, and a google slide with links to each song.  We’ll be using these slides in the future to see if the class can solve each group’s Pandora’s Puzzle.

Groups researching music for Pandora's Puzzle

Groups researching music for Pandora’s Puzzle

This lesson is a great way for students to practice using appropriate vocabulary to describe a variety of music and to tie in current technology in music.  It also incorporates higher order thinking skills as they have to discriminate and synthesize information to create their puzzle.

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