Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Cup Song Phenomenon, and What It Can Teach Us About Musical Play

Yesterday a student came into my office with her normal 16 oz Dutch Brother's chai - for better or worse, it certainly seems to give her the energy to tackle difficult music. She brought with her an extra cup and let me know that she taught herself a new song. I said: "cool, have you been singing along with a recording or using a karaoke track?" She replied: "actually, you just sing with a cup." So, we sat on the floor and she proceeded to drum and move the cup around creating percussive sounds while singing a bluesy (mostly pentatonic) melody. 

I was really quite astounded. The drumming and choreographed cup movements were repetitive, but none-the-less sophisticated. Of course her singing was beautiful as always. I asked her when she finished whether or not this was a popular thing. It turned that that many young women were posting videos of themselves performing this (apparently the original version of the performance appeared in the film [I didn't see] "Pitch Perfect). One example is below:

It wasn't really surprising to me that the vast bulk of these videos were being created by young females. I can remember being in grade school and observing my classmates. Boys would often be playing tag, chasing each other around, punching/kicking, and/or playing basketball. On the other side of the yard there were usually at lease a few girls playing elaborate versions of patty-cake. This seemed a mystery to me (along with the bizarre future telling device made out of paper... but I digress). 

So, obviously there is quite a precedent for "the cup song" phenomenon. In fact, musical games are performed (primarily by girls) all over the world. And I think, as music teachers, this represents a wonderful opportunity for us to reevaluate the way we go about teaching rhythm and melody. Kodaly revolutionized (or at least codified) music instruction for young children by (re)introducing musical games, singing, and group activities into the classroom. In that vein, wouldn't it be possible to generate a book of simple rhythms and songs that could be learned by all students as part of a standard music curriculum?

Music teachers love to complain about students not practicing. And yet, the young people posting "cup song" videos on YouTube are spending a fair amount of time learning how to maneuver their "drum" and sing at the same time. Think of the classic American folk-songs (especially those from the south) that could be revived by doing similar things with them.

*Of course, it is entirely possible that a curriculum like the one I am proposing exists already and I just haven't heard of it. If that is the case I hope you will post some info for the rest of us. But until then:

OK composers and music teachers, let's see what you got!


  1. For about a decade when I was a teacher at a school in Kolkata, this is what I used to do with children, except that the language we used was Hindi or Bangla. We also made some shakers etc that could be used for accompaniment. The idea was to introduce Hindustani rhythms and melodies. Rabindranath Tagore and his brothers did quite a lot of work which has been documented in Bangla.

    1. That is lovely Arpita - and I am wholly in favor of American youth learning Hindustani music and Tagore :-)

  2. Hey Michael - I'm perusing your blog. The posting above reminded me about a rhythm method that I first heard about from my bones (rhythm bones) teacher Greg Burrows ( back in NYC. Its called Teketina, integrating body movement, rhythm and sounds and aiding the practitioner in developing multifaceted mind/body integration. The figure the same could be used in learning ICM or at least prepping for it. Here's a link that can give you more details. There are also several videos on YouTube