Artistic Literacy and Why It Matters


The authors of the national arts standards defined artistic literacy as “the knowledge and understanding required to participate authentically in the arts.” It is first and foremost important to realize that when it comes to music, knowing about music, and reading and writing about music is not enough to qualify a person as musically literate. Musically literate people have attained a fluency in knowledge, skill, and ability that allows them to participate in making music. Those who proclaim themselves to be non-singers or untalented, are not, in spite of their self-assessment, incapable of becoming musically literate. Developing artistic literacy in students are at the core of what the national arts standards are all about. It is evident from reading them that the authors have meticulously laid out a plan for developing musically literate people by addressing every aspect of making music.

According to the authors of the standards, to accomplish this, “teachers and students must participate fully and jointly in activities where they can exercise the creative practices of imagine, investigate, construct, and reflect as unique beings committed to giving meaning to their experiences.” Students imagine a mental imageMusic-Feelings-300x197 or concept, investigate and study through exploration or examination, construct a product by combining or arranging a series of elements, and reflect and think deeply about his or her own work. In music, this can take the form of imagining musical ideas, analyzing a musical work, composing a musical work, and assessing or evaluating one’s own work or the work of another. These in turn align with the creative processes of creating, performing (an imagined mental image), connecting with the works of others, and reflecting.

From this perspective, the arts are seen as a means for people to “generate experiences, construct knowledge, and express their ideas, feelings, and beliefs.” When students have created and performed musical works, they are in a position to study and experience their own and others’ creative work more fully. Elliott described a person who has performed music as being capable of bringing a whole set of sensibilities and awarenesses to the experiencing of music performed by others. Such a person is informed by their own creative experience, and able to relate to not only the music being performed, but the experience of the performer. Relating in this way brings aspects of the music and the performance to consciousness that would go unnoticed by one listening to the music but who has never performed similarly.

Dance-and-MovementBecause artists create, respond and present works across all the arts disciplines, artistic literacy also fosters connecting one art to another. A musically  literate person understands rhythm, tempo, contrasts, color, form, and expressive intent. An artistically literate person can perceive these elements in dance, visual art and theater as well as in music. The anchor standards reflect the overarching nature of the fundamental concepts of all arts disciplines. Creativity is developed and encouraged by asking students open-ended questions. The multiplicity of possible answers allows students to exercise creativity in finding and selecting an answer which is demonstrated in activity within a creative process.

Yet there are difference between the arts too. This is delineated in the performance standards. One who is making music does not paint or sculpt to make music, and one who is making visual art does not play notes, or create a melody to make a painting or sculpture. From this we see that there is artistic literacy, which is a kind of literacy that enables participating in making all kinds of artistic works, and then there is music, art, dance, and theater literacy, each enabling participation in making music, visual art, dance, or drama.

Teachers in each of the arts include both types of literacy in their teaching. For the music teacher, artistic literacy is taught from the anchor standards as connections are made to the other arts. For example, rhythm in visual art, dance, and acting is taught to enhance understanding of it in music; likewise with other musical elements. Music literacy is also necessary, so that students know, for example, how musicians use rhythm as opposed to artists, dancers and sculptors. Whether there is overlap or contrast, understanding and literacy is strengthened.


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