Music Literacy is More Than Reading and Writing Music

2011 Symposium2

Literacy is a word that is easily associated with reading and writing. It is a form of the words literature and literary. But not all literature is written down. Many cultures preserve their literature through oral traditions. In these cultures, a literate person is one who knows the literature from memory and can recall it, recite it and teach it to others so that they will be able to do the same. When considering the orally preserved and performed literatures, there is more to the content than the literal words spoken. For example, there is how the material is spoken; how it is conveyed expressively, dramatically, with what voice and timbre the words are spoken, and the pace at which the words are delivered. All of these elements influence the meaning of what is being said, and must therefore be considered part of the literacy of the speaker. After all, isn’t literacy at least in part the ability to apprehend the meaning of what has been preserved, be it spoken or written?

We are now at the doorstep of music literacy. While it is without a doubt true that a person that can read and write music using standard music notation is, as far as these competencies are concerned, musically literate, one cannot consider such a person to be literate if he or she cannot express or comprehend the expressive nature and intent of music being performed or heard. A common example of this is the beginning instrumental music student who can name pitches and rhythmic values, and can match the pitches to a key or fingering, and the rhythmic value to a phonetic equivalent, but when playing the music has no idea if he or she is actually producing the notes written, and who knows nothing of playing them in an expressive and what we would call “musical” way.  In this case, the student possesses only the most rudimentary and incomplete set of literacy skills.

So what does a person need to be able to do to demonstrate comprehensive Self-Imagemusical literacy? To do this, a person need to be able to sight sing with accurate pitch, rhythm, tempo and with appropriate expression, transfer what he or she has sight sung onto an instrument if they play one, and be able to sing or sing and play with accuracy and expression music they have memorized either from standard music notation or from  hearing another musician perform it for them, usually repeatedly and often as part of formal music instruction. Reproducing another’s performance cannot be a perfect duplication; instead, it must retain the accuracy of pitches, rhythms, tempos, etc., while demonstrating an interpretation that blends the expressive intents of the composer, the musician from which he or she is learning, and his or her own interpretive contributions. The ability to infuse the performance with original interpretive ideas while reproducing those of the model performance is an indicator of mature or maturing music literacy.

No discussion of music literacy would be complete without a creating and preserving component. Just as a person who can not write original stories, non-fiction or poems cannot be considered fully literate, neither can a person be so considered who cannot compose and preserve original work. I use the word preserve instead of write because written preservation is not, as we have seen, a prerequisite to literacy, but being able to preserve material either in writing or orally is required. A musically literate person can generate musical ideas, and organize those ideas into cohesive musical phrases, themes, sections, movements, pieces and so forth. This requires that the literate person be able to imagine sounds and sound combinations and sequences in an action Gordon has called “audiation,” and then reproduce them through performance or notation. A musically literate person can work with musical sounds in the imagination, just as a linguistically literate person can work with words in the mind. With a grasp of grammar, these ideas can be manipulated, mentally represented, and edited in a process of creating artistic work. The result of this activity can then be performed by the composer or by others through transmission that is made possible by the musically literate creator either writing down his or her work, or teaching it to another through performance. All of this is necessary for a person to be considered musically literate.


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