Iconic Notation and Music Literacy

Version 2Honestly, for years I considered iconic notation a cheap substitute for “real” music notation. I thought it was something music teachers used as a last resort when they had thrown in the towel at successfully teaching their students to read and write in standard music notation. Because of this view of iconic notation, I avoided it, thinking that I was somehow taking the higher ground. Of course, this was faulty thinking on my part. Iconic notation has been employed by respected composers for decades when standard notation was inadequate for representing what they wanted performers of their music to do, and far from being a poor substitute, iconic notation is an excellent way of teaching the concept of notation in general; that is, the written representation of a specific sound and specific direction for producing that sound. Music is written down, in whatever form, so that it can be shared with other musicians who can use it to perform a musical work, thereby sharing it aurally with an audience. It does not have to be done through written notation, but notation is a sufficiently important media to warrant its teaching in music education. The key is getting music passed from creator to performer. For a musically literate person, learning music from notation is an efficient method.

As with any written system, the key is to first have a sound in mind, then to associate that sound with a particular written symbol. When many different sounds are involved as they are in music, it helps to have a verbal name for each sound which then is attached to the written symbol along with the actual sound. In iconic notation, I might want to write down a symbol that will tell the performer to oscillate between two tones, so I make the sound of my voice going back and forth between two pitches that are approximately a minor third apart. I call this sound a squiggle. My students then perform a squiggle, so they all know what it sounds like, and they all know what it is called. Once that is in place, I draw a squiggle on the board, and tell them that is what a squiggle looks like. Whenever they see that symbol, they are to sing a squiggle. I can control the rhythm of the squiggle by making the drawn squiggle tighter or more drawn out for faster or slower, respectively, and I can control the distance between the tones by the height of the squiggle. All of this is somewhat subjective, because I cannot indicate precisely what tones to produce, or how quickly to move between them, but I am leaving iconic directions on what and how to produce my sound; how to perform my music.  If I were to publish this work, I would not be able to teach about my squiggle to a class, so I would do what many composers have done–I would include written directions in the first pages of the score. This is necessary because, unlike standard music notation, iconic notation is not necessarily universal. In other words, my written squiggle might not mean the same thing to as many musicians as say an E-flat on a treble clef would.

Now back the the music classroom. Once I have taught my class about the squiggle and allowed them to practice performing a short musical work made out of squiggles of various speeds and sizes, I will have them create their own sounds and symbols, and teach them to each other. This can be done first in a whole-class setting, where one student at a time creates a sound and symbol and teaches it to the class, and then later in small groups, where the students create sounds and symbols, compose a work using them, and then performs the work for the class from their iconic notation. A variant of that is for each group to teach the class how to use their iconic notation, or to write clear directions, and then have another groups perform the work from the iconic notation. In this case, the composing groups can see how clear their directions are, and how closely others will capture their intent by reading their iconic score. This opens the possibility for valuable dialog between composers and performers, and makes the composers aware of their responsibility to make every effort to realize other composers’ intent when they perform other music.

Here is an example of a music composing project using iconic notation. In it, pitch is indicated by the vertical placement of the symbols, while duration is indicated by the size of the symbol–larger shapes are longer, while smaller shapes are shorter. There are also instances where beaming is borrowed from standard notation to group tones together that are to be performed in especially fast succession. Rests are notated with double vertical squiggles. Though it is unclear without speaking to the composers, the faces drawn on the larger symbols introduces the possibility of notating a desired emotion to individual tones, where some tones would be “happy notes” while others would be “sad notes.” Happy and sad might then be worked out by the performer by manipulating the tone to be darker or brighter depending on the desired emotion.

Here is an ingenious musical work that is written in iconic notation. Different instrument timbres are represented by different shapes, and durations are represented by relative distances between symbols. The timing of each sound onset is controlled by the dial which rotates through the performance. Dynamics are indicated by the size and color of the symbols. While this method lends itself to the computerized presentation shown here, it could also be used by live performers, where a “conductor” moved the dial and the performers played “notes” when the dial passed over the symbol associated with their instrument.

It is worth mentioning that this particular work is much better suited for iconic notation than standard music notation. Imagine trying to notate and then read the rhythm of all those dotes.

There is no doubt that iconic notation is useful in introducing music notation to young or novice music students, and it is sure to be of value in early music education. Its use should not be abandoned with older students. Iconic notation can release students to compose creatively without being restricted by what they can notate using standard music notation. In some cases, composing in iconic notation will be a gateway to discussing how to notate the same work using standard music notation. In other instances, as in the example above, it will be best to leave the work in iconic notation. Either way, iconic notation is a valuable tool in teaching our students music literacy.

Why Do We Teach Music Reading?

Version 2To my surprise, I recently read a discussion thread by music educators on Facebook in which most of the participants found teaching music reading unnecessary. The argument for this position has been around for quite some time. Most of the world’s musicians, excellent musicians, do not read music, most of the world’s cultures do not use written music, and most people consume music as an aural commodity, not in written form. This last point is particularly interesting, because it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the arrival of recorded music, people experienced music in their homes by performing it with friends and family. They would gather around a home piano or organ and sing popular songs of the day, accompanied by a keyboardist who read from sheet music. All of the popular music hits were sold in sheet music form to meet the needs of thousands of home music makers. Music reading was also valued as a requirement for Christian worship. Hymnals were published with each hymn set in a four-part arrangement. Worshippers would read the music, singing their soprano, alto, tenor, or bass voice part. There were even singing schools set up in New England for the express purpose of teaching people to read music so they could accurately sing hymns in church.

In this context, teaching children and adults to be proficient music readers was an accepted and necessary enterprise. In early twentieth century America, there was yet another practical reason for knowing how to read music. Symphony Orchestras were coming of age in the United States, and with them the need for trained musicians who could play the written music of the great European composers. When large numbers of European immigrants arrived in America, they brought with them their musical heritage. Playing this music in a time when no aural recording existed, necessitated music reading skills. It was therefore natural that music reading would enter into the curriculum of public schools. Music reading at that time was a desired life skill.

Today, things are very different. Aural recordings of music have not only frequently replaced sheet music versions, they have also many times replaced going to live music performances. Whereas home music making was once the only option for enjoying music frequently, concert tickets being too expensive to purchase often, today high quality recordings, both audio and video, satisfy the musical desires of many people. What’s more, with classical music not being as popular as it once was, the need for a notational system for learning long and complex musical scores often no longer exists. Most popular songs can and frequently are learned by ear, and for those songs that require notation to learn, simpler notational systems such as tablature and iconic notation meet that need without having to learn the traditional music notation used by and invented for composers and performers of European art music.

So what purpose or need does traditional music notation meet for most students in the twenty-first century? What enjoyment of music does learning traditional music notation bring into a child’s life that cannot be gained by other means? Is the need for standard music notation a cultural one, present only in places where written traditions and not oral traditions are the norm? I believe that the need for standard music notation is greater in notational cultures. Speaking as an American, my aural skills are often in need of a written transcript to bring finer details to my attention. I simply do not notice asStravinsky many fine details of music by just listening as I do listening while reading a score of the work to which I am listening. Were my mind trained at listening for and remembering in greater detail, as the minds of those in oral tradition cultures are, I suspect I would have less need of score reading while listening. But as it is, I enjoy and appreciate music more with the standard notation in front of me than without. So one need standard music notation meets is that it brings out the subtle details of music to a listener such as myself.

A second purpose and need that standard notation meets is that it provides the means to convey the melody of a song. It is a frequent problem for me to easily have at my disposal the words and perhaps the chords to a song, but to not know what the tune is. Many times I find lyrics to a song I think I would like to teach or just sing myself, but there is no melody there, and no recording available to me. With a notated melody, and my ability to read music, I can quickly learn the melody with the words.

A related need is that standard music notation provides a means for songwriters and composers to preserve their ideas and convey them to others where no audio recording equipment is available. This point is made clear by the famous audio recordings Bartok, Kodaly and other musicologists made in the early twentieth century. Without these audio recordings, many if not all of these songs would have been lost to all but those within the culture from which they emanated. The subsequent transcriptions of those recordings have brought those songs to music teachers and their students probably by the millions. While the original recordings were primitive and largely unavailable to the public, the transcriptions were publishable and accessible. What an important contribution that use of standard music notation has been.

So what do we expect our students to do with standard notation? Most of them are neither composers in need of preserving a score, nor musicologists in need of a transcription. The answer is that they have busy lives and cannot afford to spend the time learning and repeating to remember all of the songs they would like to perform. The first step is to start with the simpler forms of notation such as tablature and iconic

We Will Rock You

Little Kids Rock

notation. Use these to teach the advantages and necessity of using music notation. My middle school students cannot remember from week to week what chords to play for the songs they enjoy performing on guitar, keyboard and drums, but they can get back to practicing and performing those songs immediately when they arrive at my class by going straight to the iconic notation. The key to teaching most things is to establish a need for learning first, then meet that need by teaching. Those students now understand the value of being able to come in and be up and playing right away, without having to listen and review and relearn each time. From there it is a small step to teach them that not all music can be accommodated in iconic notation, but the same benefits can be enjoyed using standard music notation. The point is made all the more clear when they create their own music and do not want to forget what they have composed. They are not allowed to use their cell phones in school, so the only method of recording their work is to write it down or memorize it. Acknowledging that they will not remember what they did a week from now, they have every reason to embrace standard music notation.

One final thought here is that the issue can easily be overplayed. Where standard music notation is not the best representation of a musical work, do not try to force it in. For example, trying to teach a student to improvise by having them learn from notation transcriptions of great jazz solos is just working against ourselves. Jazz improvisation should be learned aurally, and cannot be adequately represented in standard music notation. The notated versions are often awkward and difficult to read much less decode and perform. Similarly, there is no need to make a student read music in order to learn how to play a tonic-dominant-tonic chord progression. On the other hand, students should never be taught entire band or orchestral parts from wrote. That is the kind of music our standard music notation was designed for, and all of its advantages should be realized in those ensemble settings. When standard music notation is used appropriately and wisely, the benefits, needs and purposes are clear to all involved, making the answer to my initial question, yes, we should teach music reading.