The Story of Henry and Joe: Logic in Music Class

I was teaching two boys, eight and nine years old, a new piece in their guitar lesson today. We were learning about the concept of positions on guitar, which I cover only briefly in the early stages of the curriculum. Positions are usually marked by Roman  numerals in classical guitar music. I asked the boys if they had learned about Roman numerals in school yet. Surprisingly, both said no; most of my students generally have some familiarity with this concept. This is the way our conversation went as I began to draw the symbols for them on a piece of paper:

Me: “The number one is represented by the letter I. That’s first position on the guitar. For second position, you write II. Guess what you write for third?”

Henry: “Add another I?”

Me: “Yep! The symbol changes for five. It is a V. And here is how you write four: IV. It’s like five minus one. For sixth position, we write five plus one, VI. What do we write for seven?”

Joe: “I think it’s V plus I plus I.”

Me: “Exactly. Now ten has another symbol, X.”

Joe: “Oh! I bet eight is V plus I plus I plus I. It’s like easy math!”

Henry: “And I bet nine is X with a I before it!”

Me: “What makes you think that, Henry?”

Henry: “There’s a pattern. That means eleven is X plus I.”

Joe: “You just stack and add the Roman numerals. I see, there IS a pattern.”

Henry: “I remember seeing these signs in the game Risk. I know what they mean now!”

I wish all learning could be this simple. So fluid, with one concept connecting to the other, finding patterns and meaning in symbols that can be so confusing. It was like a game for these boys. They wanted to understand the notion of Roman numerals so they applied their minds to think logically by connecting the dots.

Imagine how different school would be if the students were always this eager to learn new ideas.

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