Listening Lesson: 'Mothership'

UFO · MasterTux/Pixabay

Age Range: All Ages

Learning Objective: Students will learn or review the term improvisation while responding to Mason Bates’ Mothership.

1. Composer Mason Bates wrote a piece called Mothership for orchestra and four soloists.

2. The four soloists get to improvise what they play. Improvisation means making up music on the spot. When we improvise, we don't read music notes on a page. There are some different kinds of improvisation, and sometimes musicians use some symbols to help them remember or recreate certain improvised passages. One of the great things about improvisation is there are no right or wrong notes! Improvisation is a skill, and you get better at it by practicing, or doing it a lot.

The four instruments that Mason Bates chose to improvise in this piece are:

• Electric guitar
• Violin
• Guzheng
• Bass

Learn a little about each instrument before listening to Mothership.

Fender Strat
Fender Stratocaster
Martin Taylor/Wikimedia Commons

3. Electric guitar

An electric guitar is similar to an acoustic guitar in many ways- it has the same basic shape, six strings, and you find the notes in the same places. An electric guitar has something called "pick ups" that convert the vibrations of the strings to electrical signals.

Listen to the sound of the electric guitar in this solo, played by Prince (starting at the 3:29 mark).

Wikimedia Commons

4. Violin

The smallest member of the string family, the violin has four strings. Can you name other parts of the violin? Can you explain how a sound is produced on a violin? The picture to the right shows the violin from the front and side views.

Listen to the sound of the violin in this Partita by J.S. Bach, played by Hilary Hahn.

5. Guzheng

The guzheng is a kind of plucked zither from China. The picture below shows several guzhengs.

Glenn Francis/Wikimedia Commons

Listen to the Guzheng in the video below. Notice that the player uses a pick to pluck some of the strings.

6. Bass

The bass is the largest member of the string family. It has the same basic shape as the violin, but it is much larger which means it is much lower. Learn more about the bass in Instrument Exploration: Double Bass.

7. Finally, in the piece Mothership, you will see the composer using electronics to create some additional sounds.

8. It is time to watch and listen. Before the orchestra and soloists play the piece, the composer talks a little bit about how the soloists were selected.

9. Reflection questions:

• Which solo instrument did you like best, and why?
• Will any two performances of this piece sound exactly the same? Explain your answer.
• In his program notes, the composer talks about incorporating the sounds of techno dance music with the orchestra. Can you name some features that give this piece the sound of techno?

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