What is literacy? The word is used across all disciplines, including music, yet I find a surprising range of understandings of just what literacy is. Does literacy refer to just reading? Does it include writing? Must someone be an effective communicator orally in order to be considered literate? Is there any requirement for being able to analyze or respond to a text? Is there a performance component, for which a person must be able to communicate effectively or expressively in public?
If we are going to concern ourselves with teaching a population of students to be literate, it is paramount that we know what it takes to be literate, or else how will we know what to teach or when we have succeeded? As we consider this issue, I want to keep practicality at the forefront of my thoughts. People need to be literate not just for literacy’s sake, but for people’s sake, both the one who we want to be literate and the many more with whom our literate students will influence and affect throughout a lifetime of being literate. With this in mind, it makes no sense to be content with someone simply being able to read. Unless they understand the meaning of what they have read, can remember what they have read, (such memories are made of chunks of information that only a literate person can understand) and can analyze, discuss, and evaluate the ideas of what they read and that grew out of it, literacy is of very little value. I would argue that a person that cannot do all of these things cannot be considered literate. Literacy requires at least proficiency in reading, writing, analyzing, discussing, remembering, evaluating, and applying the contents of a text, and a text can be written or oral.
Now consider what is too often passed off as music literacy. A child can name notes with letters, and say how many beats different kinds of notes are given, and they are passed off as musically literate, yet most if not all of these same students with top grades on their music worksheets cannot sight-sing, cannot sight-read, cannot improvise within a given tonality and meter, cannot discuss or analyze a musical work beyond a few words of liking it or not liking it. These students, good at note naming though they may be, are not musically literate because they cannot hear music in their imaginations from reading the notation for it, and they cannot hear music in their imaginations and then give voice to those thoughts through singing or playing a musical instrument. Imagine not being able to think of words. What would one say? How would one get on if they could only name the letters contained in words, but could not pronounce the words because no word came to mind when they looked at language? Such a child would never be called literate. The bar for musical literacy should be set no lower, but sadly often is.
Music literacy begins a birth, and its development begins long before a child even knows how to hold a pencil. Through years of listening to music around her, imitating musical sounds with the voice, and with percussive explorations on body percussion, toys, pots and pans or the classic toy piano, (now probably an iPad app), a child learns to be musical with sounds, and learns to hear certain kinds of sounds as musical. Those sounds will vary according to culture and other environmental variables, but the process is the same; hearing, imitating, understanding, and accurately creating and reproducing musical sound. When these sounds are given symbols the child can begin to read and then write music by connecting the familiar sounds to the new symbols. When a literate person writes a note, she knows exactly what it sounds like the moment it appears on the paper or computer screen. There is no going to a teacher and asking for the created music to be played so the child can hear what it sounds like. No, anyone who doesn’t already know what their music sounds like is not literate.
Because music does not have explicit meaning as language does, musical reading comprehension is structural, and expressive. Asking a student what she has read in a musical score can only be answered in one of three ways; either the students sings what was silently read, or the students expresses through movement what the music sounded like or what the child felt when she heard it in her imagination while reading it, or the student describes the structure. The first is a recitation, proving the child can read, while the other two are the musical equivalents of “what does it mean.” When we ask students “what did you read,” we are really asking them “what did you hear?” In the first case, the music is not physically present, so the hearing is by audiation. In the second case, the music is physically present, and is what is called in the arts standards responding to music. Both types of response can be gathered as data that substantiates evidence of literacy. As long as musical symbols have no sounds, and no sounds can be put to musical symbols, then there is no literacy in a Western European-based culture.