In an unexpected alliance of interdisciplinary learning, Dr. Skophammer’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology class combined forces with Mr. Kitajima’s Intermediate Orchestra class. The two teachers co-led a lesson on applying tree-like graph construction to understand the relationships between songs.

Dr. Skophammer introduced three different examples of tree graphs that could help visually display the similarities – or lack thereof – between songs. In biology, students employed the practice when reconstructing evolutionary relationships between organisms. From a musical standpoint, students learned that this type of thinking is also used to come up with the algorithms used by services such as Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music and Netflix to better understand their audiences and how to anticipate behavior or choice.

Mr. Kitajima played four songs as examples (Burn by Ellie Goulding, Feeling Good by Nina Simone, Killing Me Softly by The Fugees, and I Want it that Way by the Backstreet Boys) and the combined class worked out how to graph the tunes based on the different connections and similarities they heard. Some drew strong relationships between Burn and I Want it that Way, because of their distinctive pop sound. Others saw the relationship in terms of rhythm or beats per minute (BPM), citing that Killing Me Softly and I Want it that Way had the strongest relationship based on their similar tempos.

The class split up into small groups that were each given a different combination of five songs to graph based on the relationships they heard. Once the songs were graphed, the class came back together to share their findings. Some groups continued to see connections based on BPM, while others focused on genre, pitch or era of the song. The teachers questioned every group’s thought process, providing an opportunity for the girls to practice using evidence to defend and back up their claims. Ultimately Dr. Skophammer and Mr. Kitajima will attempt to develop an ‘Evolutionary Tree of Music,’ combining the 10 songs into a single tree graph based on the student’s connections.

The visual thinking exercise quickly taught the girls how everyone draws connections and relationships differently, and that there was never necessarily a clear right or wrong answer.

Using Ecological Tree Graphs to Explore Musical Relationships

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