Using the Musical Octave as a Learning Tool (R7)


When I first came across NLP in 1992, I remember being constantly intrigued by the question I kept asking my self, “Why does this all seem so familiar?” Whilst being transfixed by Robert Dilts’ magical dictum, Some questions are so good that it’s a shame to think that one has to give them an answer, it became such an obsession that I set out to answer my question in the course of a 250-page sort-of-novel that I submitted as a course project (Structures Hub Editions 1995).

One of the  factors that contributed to my sense of familiarity was a long-time working with/on the rambling system known as The Fourth Way which was promoted in the West by GIGurdjieff & PDOuspensky from around 1920 onwards. Whilst it remains, one might say purposefully, fragmentary, for very good reasons, there is much in The Fourth Way that anticipates the ideas & processes of NLP.

The need to create a ‘right state’ for an activity might be one example. Gurdjieff advises that before starting any new activity you sound the note ‘Doh!’ This works best, I find, when you do it with drums & trumpets in your head—or wherever you do your inner music.

After I’ve got to know a group a bit (after they’ve got to know me!)—by lunchtime on the first day, as it might be—I introduce this idea and suggest that we start the afternoon by singing the note ‘Doh!’…

“So, now sing the note ‘Doh!’ to yourself; do a bit of mental rehearsal; hear yourself singing it out loud which is what you’re going to do in a moment; really give it some oomph inside you… Are you ready now!”

I do a Toscanini waving my arms about and, since everybody’s concept of the note ‘Doh’ will be different, the sung note comes out as a lovely discord.

“Beautiful! Keep it going! Louder! Keep it going!”

After a bit, as if by magic, everybody is singing the very same note.

I say, “That’s called ‘singing from the same hymn-sheet’!”  Laughter and everybody’s happy with making a fool of themselves as they might have thought…

Occasionally, a rather special group will all hit exactly the same note first time.

Gurdjieff’s line is that the musical octave starting from  ‘Doh!’ in the major scale can be taken as a sort of universal paradigm—everything progresses in accordance with it.

Walt Whitman had a comparable musical metaphor:-

As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes…
A vast similitude interlocks all…
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different…     (Sea Drift)

You won’t be able to stop yourself singing in your head—or wherever you do your inner music—now: Doh, Re, Mi, Fah, Soh, Lah, Ti, Doh an octave above the first Doh you thought of. You’ll naturally sing the western major scale because that’s how we’ve been programmed.

I do not know how Gurdjieff used this model; his disciple Maurice Nicoll gives the merest hint of a scheme for making practical application.

Using the Octave Model

However, as soon as I appreciated the power of NLP exercises that get participants involved as whole beings via Intellect, Feelings & Action & Instinct (what Gurdjieff calls ‘Centres’), I started NLP-ising concepts from the 4th Way and introducing 4th Way concepts into my NLP practice. An outstanding strength of NLP for me is its eclectic base, gathering to itself every idea it comes across by asking the question, ‘Does it work?’ Any died-in-the-wool Gurdjieffian who happened upon this explanation would construe the mix as sacrilegious. They’d have a fit if they read this post! I am not a died-in-the-wool Gurdjieffian. So it goes!

Though he did not admit to it when I suggested it to him once, the only other NLP-worlder who seems to be a 4th Way follower, coupling it with NLP, I’ve come across is the great & beautiful Wyatt Woodsmall. One is not supposed to let on about one’s 4th Way credentials but then I’m not a died-in-the-wool Gurdjieffian…

Anyway, the Octave Model can be used for any number of very practical purposes.

Think of a time when you were asked to take something new on board: this concept of ‘Octaves’ for example!

When you sang the octave to yourself you might not have been aware that the notes are not equally spaced. A musical person would know that the major scale advances by tone, tone and then semi-tone, tone, tone, tone, semi-tone…

Sing the octave again, emphasising the first three notes then, as you proceed, notice that there’s a slide into Fah that’s suggestive of a new, more confident beginning—emphasise Fah! Then the same feeling happens between Ti & Doh where there’s another semi-tone. These two points are crucial in the learning process: the first gets the feeling of ‘me’ into the learning; the second sets aside any doubts. If there’s a stalling at either point then the process should be repeated until the going gets smooth.

To set people up for this I say, “Think of a time when you were asked to take something new on board…”

When I’m convinced that they’ve done this, I say, “You’ll know that when you took something new on board you had to take steps to fix it somehow…”

Quite often when we’re learning something we don’t get beyond the initial triad of the octave: we hear the words, we even imagine that we know what they mean and acknowledge it but then we stop. Things become fuzzy when they are not given sufficient attention.

Knowledge remains ‘inert’, as ANWhitehead put it (The Aims of Education 1929), until we take steps to make it our own possession or ‘get it in the muscle’ (Robert Dilts).

So I Lay Out the Steps on the Floor

Then I coach a volunteer through the process. This is the framework of my spiel—in reality it could go off all over the place depending on the responses…

“You have in mind a time when you were asked to take something new on board… You’ll probably remember the steps… What we’re going to do is to reconstruct what happened. More or less… You first of all heard the words of an explanation…
Take the first step and say a bit about that… You thought you knew what the words signified… Take the next step  and say a bit about that…”

This is a rehearsal for what will turn into a dance as the dancer becomes more familiar with the steps.

“Now step into ‘Acknowledge’! There you’ll think about the words and the way you received them on the top of your mind and acknowledge whatever happened for you… And now we come to the really crucial part: step on to ‘Self-remember’ and locate yourself in what’s happening by saying to yourself, ‘This is me here & now being me here and now…’ Feel the semi-tone slide into a new way of being and see/hear/feel understanding swooshing over you in the next step… Tell me what you understand… And then think about how you will use this new stuff… Step into Aim… When you step into Will you might like to make some kind of gesture that for you signifies effort/intention/grabbing hold of the desire to act—something like that… Then there’s the doing that will cement the new learning for you: future pace the doing…”

There’s another semi-tone pause here where all doubts are set aside and you slide into a new beginning, a Doh an octave above the original one. This new Doh is whatever it is! It might be listening to the words of other people, progressing to knowing what their words mean and acknowledging their sense and so on.

Once the person I’m coaching has gone through this initial analysis, I get them to step through it again, maybe coding their responses so that as they repeat the journey they’ll become able to dance and sing the code-words as they go. This would get quicker and quicker each time until it becomes a smooth bit of ballet and song. Eventually one can ask WBYeats’ question: ‘Who can tell the dancer from the dance?’ The octave becomes a part of you. A part of your way of thinking.

The opening of the last movement of Beethoven’s First Symphony does the octave beautifully, pausing as it goes and then getting quicker and quicker—it’s the nearest I know to a proper composer doing this exercise!

I Have Used the Octave for Helping to Embed Decision-making

Another way of working with the octave is to set it out as a system.

Then you can have your learners waltz round in an ever more complex spiral of learning!

I’m interested to know how this will work for you and what other uses you discover.

Please acknowledge Gurdjieff, Maurice Nicoll (and me) when you use the exercise!

5 thoughts on “Using the Musical Octave as a Learning Tool (R7)

  1. Thank you Colin. Having experienced this exercise with you on several occasions I know how powerful it can be and will use it, with appropriate acknowledgements of course, with my various coaching clients.


  2. Colin – you gem!
    I came home yesterday from a meeting with a (famous!) opera house – with a brief to do some coaching and workshop activities for managers of their orchestra and chorus on appraisal skills that get beyond the technical aspects of the role.
    What a gift -can I use it please?
    Also thinking to provide it as a reading tickle – if you are ok with being associated with a) me and b) them in that way.
    Who said co-incidence is the cosmic fax in response to the question sent yesterday?!
    I wonder what on earth they meant ;-)))
    Hope all good with you
    Love Hx
    PS – I know it’s a metaphor and I am using it literally – in case this sounds like wooden-top thinking!


    1. Hi lary

      Lovely to hear from you! Even if I did have to rescue you from SPAM.

      Brilliantly appropriate! You’ve surely done it with me?

      Metaphors that fit literally are the very best!

      I’d love to be associated with an opera house….

      Love Colin


  3. Doh is like our Aum!! We chant it to start concentrating on one thought–it could be a figure, a wiping of the mental slate as it were. Even our music lessons start with tuning in to Saa… Paa… Saa–which is Doh………So……Doh. This exercise fixes the pitch to a true note.

    Thanks for this wonderful lesson.


    1. Thank you, Padmini… ‘concentrating on one thought–it could be a figure, a wiping of the mental slate as it were’ seems to me to be judt what happens when I sound Doh inside me somewhere. Indian scales would not be anything like the western major scale, I fancy. I wonder how the model could be adapted.

      I have also wondered how the dodecaphonic scale inaugurated by Schoenberg would work as a model. All semi-tones! Gurdjieff only chooses to use the major scale.


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