Ask a Language Arts teacher what they are trying to achieve with their students, and that teacher will probably mention growth in literacy. He or she wants students to read and write effectively, with understanding and comprehension. Students are likely being asked questions like, “what is the author trying to say?” “How does the author feel about this topic, and what evidence do you find to support your answer?” These are good questions. Students who can answer them are bound to be engaged in critical thinking, and are likely to be showing growth very soon.
The Core Arts Standards were written with this kind of instruction in mind. They use the same approach to education and the same language as the original common core standards for language arts and for math. Because of this, it is good to understand how music students are, or ought to be, answering the same questions, and how music teachers ought to be after the same kinds of growth in literacy, only with music, not language. What does the language arts teacher accept as evidence of literacy? What does a child need to be able to do to demonstrate literacy? He or she needs to be able to look at words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, sections and entire essays or other works, and to not only recognize strings of letters as words, and strings of words as phrases, and strings of phrases as sentences, not only be able to speak with correct pronunciation all of those, but also to understand the meaning of each as it is revealed by context–the relationships between words, phrases and sentences that create meaning that is absent in the individual words and phrases out of context. Just begin able to read aloud or spell words does not indicate literacy. There must be understanding and comprehension.
Yet when it comes to music, music teachers all too often accept much less as literacy. A child who can look at a note on a musical staff and respond by pressing the correct key on a piano or other instrument is given credit for being able to read music. But that not on a staff is more than just a keystroke, and even when the note has been sounded, it by itself has no meaning, any more than a single letter has meaning apart from the word of which it is a part. When a child sees a word, if they can read, they associate the word with a person, action, object or concept. That is what a literate person does. When a child sees a musical note, if they can read, they associate the note with a sound that has a definite pitch and a definite duration. A sequence of several of these notes, that is to say several of these defined sounds, forms a musical idea. Musical ideas are combined into themes, and themes are combined into theme groups, sections, movements, and entire works. A musically literate person not only can audiate or know through inner hearing the individual pitches from notation, but also can understand how those notes are arranged into groups, and metrical patterns, perceiving them as the ideas, phrases, themes and so on that they are, with all of the relationships between notes that make them so. This goes far beyond matching a note with an instrument key.
How does this literacy come about? One thing that is for certain is that it does not come about through rote learning alone. Rote learning is an important first step, but when musical training does not go beyond rote learning, the associations between what is heard and what is seen in notation is never made, precluding development of true musical literacy. Perhaps the clearest explanation of how musical literacy is developed are the steps Feierabend gives in his Conversational Solfege. Essentially, these steps consist of rote learning songs with the voice on neutral syllables, then these same songs with tonal and rhythm syllables, “decoding” songs by hearing them sung by the teacher on neutral syllables and then repeating them with tonal or rhythm syllables, and then being able to do the same thing with unfamiliar songs. The final step is to create original musical ideas (composing and improvising) using labels (syllables). The same procedure is used for reading and writing. Notice the transition from songs learned from rote, then applying labels to the notes of those songs so that the sounds are associated with the labels (syllables), and then using the labels (syllables) to assimilate new learning.
When notes are associated with instrument keys instead of syllables, the child has no way of knowing what the music sounds like apart from the instrument. A child in this situation cannot compose or improvise in a creative sense, because they have no materials to work with. To compensate for this, teachers who have failed to teach literacy often rely on music theory to teach improvisation. They will tell the students how to improvise over chord changes, and the student will “improvise” by playing from one chord tone to the next while counting beats or measures in order to know when to transition to the next chord. This is a highly unmusical way to create music, if indeed it is creating at all. Although a child trained in this manner can play on an instrument, the activity has avoided literacy training, and often built a dependence on the teacher to fill in the gaps in the child’s training. This in turn leads to the disturbing discovery that the child cannot play much of anything when the teacher is no longer there, resulting in a large attrition rate for school musicians after graduating.
Traditional music teaching methods developed by Orff, Kodaly and Dalcroze highly value true music literacy, and have been proven to be effective in developing musical literacy. Orff and Dalcroze also give priority to exploration and improvisation with movement and instrumental music. The use of barred instruments in particular is a well known aspect of Orff’s approach. The playing of those instruments is tied to movement and rhythmic activity on body percussion, and with improvisation over ostinati. Other methods that make use of technology as a means to quickly get students playing an instrument, especially a keyboard, can leave the child underprepared in these important aspects of a comprehensive music education.