Music Literacy is More Than Reading Music

2011 Symposium2

I saw this post recently on Facebook. “What do you teach?”
“Music.” “Oh, okay. So, do you read music?” “You teach English, right?” “Yes.” 
“Can you read English?” My first reaction, as a Music teacher, was probably similar to the author of this post. I was irked, maybe even offended. Of course I read music. It seems so obvious that I would, doesn’t it? Well, not so fast. I have come across many high school students or even graduates who played in band for years, and yet don’t read music. They learned everything by rote for years, and got so accomplished at it that they were able, in some cases, to rise to first chair in their school bands, even though, mind you, they couldn’t read music. 

Then there are cultural differences to consider. There are master music teachers in many parts of the world who are respected musicians and music teachers who don’t read music because theirs is an aural tradition, so written music is not used to pass along music as it is in American culture. But wait, is even that entirely true? Paul McCartney doesn’t read music, and look at what he has achieved. Would anyone seriously consider him of being musically illiterate? And what about the hundreds of young people who learn guitar or bass  riffs by ear, or from a friend who shows them how to play those riffs without ever using written music? There is a whole musical culture populated with our music students that exists outside our classrooms that is characterized by different ways of teaching and learning, and in many cases including a different repertoire of music as well.

None of this is all bad, in fact most of it is quite good. We want our students to be musically engaged outside our classrooms, and we want to enjoy the rich musical diversity that exists in the world, and when we listen to someone like Paul McCartney, we really don’t care if he reads music or not. None of this is to say that we should not teach our students to read and write music–of course we should. But it is to say that standard music notation is not always necessary or even the best means for teaching particular genres of music. There’s a good reason why the music of West Africa is not taught with standard music notation, aside from the conventions of an oral tradition. That music is rhythmically complex, often much more so than anything we experience in notated musical traditions such as European art music.  I suggest that West African music developed the exciting, engaging, addictive, irresistible complexity because it was not constrained by the necessity of writing it down. In truth, our Western standard music notation, invented for art music, can barely if at all handle such complexity.

So yes, we should be teaching our children to read and write music with our notational system of a five-lined staff, a clef, notes, sharps, flats, and all the rest. There are excellent techniques for doing so, chief among them Conversational Solfege by John Feierabend. But recite-esam1teven here, it begins with what we here, not with what we see. What does it sound like, how do I perform it, and then what does it look like. Writing it down is the last step in process, and it is lieu of teaching it aurally. If a music teacher places a page of music in front of a student and then teaches that music by rote, the student is not reading music. They are only the victim of the wishful thinking of a teacher who thinks that somehow the child will pick up how to read on the fly just because the music is on the stand in front of them. Teaching music reading must be much more targeted, focused and specific than that. Feierabend gives a way of going about that business.

That said, even if someone can read and write music perfectly, are they then musically literate? If someone cannot read or write music, are they musically illiterate? The answer in both cases is not entirely. The national core arts standards makes it very clear that musical literacy, like linguistic literacy, includes much more than reading and writing. “Artistic literacy requires that [individuals] engage in artistic creation processes directly through the use of appropriate materials (such as … musical instruments and scores, …and the actual human body) and in appropriate spaces (concert halls, stages…. For authentic practice to occur in arts classrooms, 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.” Some of that activity does emanate from the recorded work of composers in the form of scores and instrument parts, but some of it emanates from what is heard, imagined, created, and improvised, all of which can be performed. Furthermore, competencies in these other musical skills (imagining, creating, improvising, performing from what is heard) are appropriately taught and developed before written music is brought in. Music literacy encompasses all of this, not just reading and writing.

Once a student can read and write music, then an entire world of creative possibilities opens up for them. An individual who can read music can examine it as a text, just as surely as that individual can examine a piece of non-fiction. Written music can and should be analyzed, evaluated, and interpreted. The author’s (composer’s) intent should be discussed to learn what the composer expressed through his or her musical work. Determinations of how the musical elements were used to make that expression, and how they will be used by students in performing a work to communicate that expression are at the very soul of being a musician. When music is studied this way, it is elevated beyond the sonic experience of beats and rhythms that make us feel good. Music is elevated beyond being purely utilitarian to being expressive and therefore art. It changes the significance of what students are doing from merely following instructions in order to produce a particular performance, to creative activity that is artistic, not mechanistic. Only an understanding of music literacy that includes all of this can present music to students, administrators, and communities as something that matters in everyone’s life.


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