Progress and Intervals

I’ve been thinking a lot about progress again recently. Despite the best intentions of ‘assessment without levels’, progress is still firmly one of the things being looked at.

I was thinking about progress whilst having a coffee in the sitting room, where we have a piano, and idly playing five-finger exercises in my mind (where I am much better at them). It then occurred to me that one of the problems that schools have with progress is that they treat it like progress occurs in semitones. Bear with me…

Keyboard image

On the piano, the distance from C to C# is a semitone, the distance from E to F is a semitone, and the distance from Abb to Ab is a semitone. We all know and understand this. Likewise we can construct intervals of great complexity, like a diminished 32nd, or something, and work out a couple of examples, using real notes. This is because all the semitones have the same interval, the same distance between them.

Now I know this is no great shock horror, and I also know that it only works in equal temperament, and I know too that it is a western classical construct, although guitar frets are built on the same idea. But in assessment, especially in progression, what we have often is mistaking progression for semitones. Let me explain.

Simple example is back in the days of National Curriculum levels. We assumed that going from a 4c to a 4b was ‘one sub-level of progress’, and was the same as going from 6b to 6a. But was it? Were our assessments so finely-calibrated that we could be certain of that?

Today, without levels, I worry that flightpaths are forcing the same problems on us. Some kids might make a minor 3rd of progress, some might make a perfect 4th, and some might only make a perfect unison, ie appear to make no progress, but that unison is now in tune, so maybe they have got better!

We also have the issue that only rising intervals have been permitted, but that’s the subject of another post!

I think I need to think more about this, and what the implications are, but with talk of grade boundaries I am concerned that we are assuming equal temperament where it doesn’t exist, and assuming one ‘semitone’ of progress is equal to all other semitones of progress, when maybe it isn’t!




About drfautley

Professor Education at Birmingham City University, UK.
This entry was posted in Assessment, Grading, Music Education and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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