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.

A Small Refresher in Musical Terms

2011Symposium_1_2Unless I make an effort to read scores, there are some musical terms that I am apt to forget because either I just don’t come across them that often in music I am apt to be teaching to my students, or because the definition has become distorted by common misuse. Today, I thought it would be beneficial for me and hopeful you as well, to dust off some of these musical terms.

15ma means to play two octaves higher than written. It’s cousin, 15mb means to play two octaves lower than written. Both terms are an abbreviation of the Italian word quindicesima, which means fifteenth. When 15mb is used, the b is an abbreviation for basso, and indicates that the music should be played two octaves lower than written.

l’istesso literally means “the same.” It is most often used in reference to tempo, as in l’istesso tempo, meaning to continue in the same tempo. Frequently this marking occurs where the music transitions from one section or style to another. The change suggests a change in tempo, and so the composer contradicts this inclination by instructing the performer to continue without changing the tempo. Students who try to remember the meaning of words in other languages may mistake l’istesso for meaning less, or a slowing down.

Strophic is a term that refers to music in which the same music is used for several music_words_largedifferent verses of lyrics. We teach songs like this all the time, but because there is only one musical section, it is easy to overlook labeling the form. Strophic songs have no refrain or chorus, but only repeated verses. An example of a strophic song is “Deck the Halls,” which has many verses all sung to the same melody.

Classical Music, though not strictly a musical term, is nonetheless one of the most controversial and often misused terms in music education. The meaning of classical music has become unclear because of inconsistent use. Strictly speaking, it is used to refer to music written in a particular style characteristic of art music written from the mid-18th century through the early 19th century. Mozart and Haydn were two composers who lived in this time period and wrote music in the classic style. The music is characterized by strict formal organization in which balance is of primary importance. The music is fashioned after classical Greek architecture where windows and columns were always placed in equal numbers on either side of center, creating a balanced appearance. The term classical music is often used to refer to art music of any style or period, creating the confusion I mentioned earlier. This results in phrases like “20th century classical music” which is meant to describe art music written in the twentieth century.

image05Cambiata is a specific melodic pattern in which two non-chord tones on either side of the resolution precede that resolution. Generally the pattern begins with a chord tone, followed by a descending second to the first non-chord tone, followed by a descending third to the second non-chord tone, followed by an ascending second to the resolution. The cambiata can be inverted by reversing those directions.

Ben as in ben marcato. The word “ben” in Italian means “well;” it is a form of bene. When preceding another word, it strengthens the word; therefore, ben marcato means “well marked.” Gershwin marked the first movement of his Three Preludes, “Allegro ben ritmato e deciso,” which means “fast, well rhythmic and decisive.” Though not correct English, the intent is that the music be played with more than passing attention to the rhythmic aspects.

Alla This is actually a combination of two Italian words; al meaning “to the,” and la, meaning the. Because articles in Italian specify gender, it is correct to translate alla Marcia as “to the march” and not “to the the march.” It is also not correct to translate alla Marcia as “in the style of” or ‘to be played as a march.” The term means that at that point in the score, the music is a march. However, in French, a la means “in the manner of” so “a la mars” translates from French to English “in the manner of a march.”

These are but a few of the musical terms that I have to be careful with. Perhaps the meanings of some of these words have at times eluded you as well. It might be helpful to all of us to share musical terms that we are unsure of, and build a community glossary. Feel free to use the comments section to throw your term into the ring.





What Solfege Is, And What It Is Not

2011Symposium_1_2The use of solfege syllables in teaching singing and music reading is one of those things that music educators cannot seem to come to a consensus on. some use solfege, some do not. some prefer to use letter names, some numbers, some no note names at all, just a neutral syllable. Some try using solfege, expecting quick or immediate results, and then when their students struggle to remember the syllables, or don’t sing or sight read any better, they abandon them altogether. While some of this disunity over solfege is a matter of personal choice, some of it is the result of misunderstanding what the use of solfege is supposed to accomplish. Solfege syllables are the labels with which verbal association learning takes place. Let me explain.

Anytime a human learns music or language, the person learns first through hearing. A word or pattern of musical notes has a particular sound to it that the person remembers, so that the same word or pattern of musical notes can be recognized if it is heard again. At this point the word or pattern of musical notes has no meaning attached to it; it is merely recognizable when heard. They can be compared to hearing a noise in the distance every day without knowing what is making the noise. We recognize that it is the same noise we heard yesterday, but we cannot identify it or associate with meaning or a source. Contrast this to hearing, for example, thunder in the distance. We not only recognize the sound as thunder, but the sound has meaning for us: a storm is coming and it is time to take in the laundry, close the car windows, and come inside before the storm hits.

With words and music, we next learn to associate a word for the thinkg or action it signifies. “Table” is the object we eat dinner on, and “cat” is the animal that sits on our lap and purrs. Although a person has learned this much, they will not know what the word “table” or “cat” looks like written down, or they will recognize the word but not know that it refers to the flat surface with four legs, or the soft furry purring animal that lives in our house. In order to be able to recognize the word and understand its meaning, the two must be associated. We see the word “table” written down, and we learn that it signifies the thing our dinner plates are on; we see the word “cat” written down, and we learn that it signifies the animal on your lap. This is association.

In music, notes and patterns of notes don’t have literal, explicit meanings the way words in language do. What weC-Major-Scale hear, and what we think and feel about what we hear, is what the music means. Musical meaning comes from the structural relationships we find between notes. Through relationships, notes form motifs, themes, and harmonic progressions. These are all made of notes, and the notes, like words, have meanings—meanings like tonic, dominant, leading tone, passing tone, or suspension. To be able to read music, there must be a name for each of these notes through which we can associate the sound with the meaning. That is what solfege syllables do. They give us labels or names for musical sounds that make it possible for us to understand them in a musical way. A key will give these names, these solfege syllables a context in which to be understood. A melody in fa major has fa as a tonic and do as a dominant. The tonic chord is fa-la-do and the dominant chord is do-mi-sol. Knowing these names, it is possible for me to instantly know, audiate, and even sing exactly the notes be referred to by the names, and if they are written down by the published notes. Fa always has the same pitch, as does do, la or any other syllable, regardless of what key the music is in. When solfege is used in this way—to name what is already known aurally, then it is of great benefit to the music student. On the other hand, trying to memorize solfege syllables as an end unto itself without knowing the sounds to which they refer will result in confusion and unsatisfactory results—the very thing that happens when teachers, with the best of intentions, misuse solfege in this way.

What Is Music Literacy?

2011Symposium_1_2What is literacy? The word is used across all disciplines, including music, yet I find a surprising range of understandings of just what literacy is. Does literacy refer to just reading? Does it include writing? Must someone be an effective communicator orally in order to be considered literate? Is there any requirement for being able to analyze or respond to a text? Is there a performance component, for which a person must be able to communicate effectively or expressively in public?

If we are going to concern ourselves with teaching a population of students to be literate, it is paramount that we know what it takes to be literate, or else how will we know what to teach or when we have succeeded? As we consider this issue, I want to keep practicality at the forefront of my thoughts. People need to be literate not just for literacy’s sake, but for people’s sake, both the one who we want to be literate and the many more with whom our literate students will influence and affect throughout a lifetime of being literate. With this in mind, it makes no sense to be content with someone simply being able to read. Unless they understand the meaning of what they have read, can remember what they have read, (such memories are made of chunks of information that only a literate person can understand) and can analyze, discuss, and evaluate the ideas of what they read and that grew out of it, literacy is of very little value. I would argue that a person that cannot do all of these things cannot be considered literate. Literacy requires at least proficiency in reading, writing, analyzing, discussing, remembering, evaluating, and applying the contents of a text, and a text can be written or oral.

Now consider what is too often passed off as music literacy. A child can name notes with letters, and say how many MusicEarbeats different kinds of notes are given, and they are passed off as musically literate, yet most if not all of these same students with top grades on their music worksheets cannot sight-sing, cannot sight-read, cannot improvise within a given tonality and meter, cannot discuss or analyze a musical work beyond a few words of liking it or not liking it. These students, good at note naming though they may be, are not musically literate because they cannot hear music in their imaginations from reading the notation for it, and they cannot hear music in their imaginations and then give voice to those thoughts through singing or playing a musical instrument. Imagine not being able to think of words. What would one say? How would one get on if they could only name the letters contained in words, but could not pronounce the words because no word came to mind when they looked at language? Such a child would never be called literate. The bar for musical literacy should be set no lower, but sadly often is.

Music literacy begins a birth, and its development begins long before a child even knows how to hold a pencil. Through years of listening to music around her, imitating musical sounds with the voice, and with percussive explorations on body percussion, toys, pots and pans or the classic toy piano, (now probably an iPad app), a child learns to be musical with sounds, and learns to hear certain kinds of sounds as musical. Those sounds will vary according to culture and other environmental variables, but the process is the same; hearing, imitating, understanding, and accurately creating and reproducing musical sound. When these sounds are given symbols the child can begin to read and then write music by connecting the familiar sounds to the new symbols. When a literate person writes a note, she knows exactly what it sounds like the moment it appears on the paper or computer screen. There is no going to a teacher and asking for the created music to be played so the child can hear what it sounds like. No, anyone who doesn’t already know what their music sounds like is not literate.

Because music does not have explicit meaning as language does, musical reading comprehension is structural, and expressive. Asking a student what she has read in a musical score can only be answered in one of three ways; either the students sings what was silently read, or the students expresses through movement what the music sounded like or what the child felt when she heard it in her imagination while reading it, or the student describes the structure. The first is a recitation, proving the child can read, while the other two are the musical equivalents of “what does it mean.” When we ask students “what did you read,” we are really asking them “what did you hear?” In the first case, the music is not physically present, so the hearing is by audiation. In the second case, the music is physically present, and is what is called in the arts standards responding to music. Both types of response can be gathered as data that substantiates evidence of literacy. As long as musical symbols have no sounds, and no sounds can be put to musical symbols, then there is no literacy in a Western European-based culture.

Is There Madness in the Method?

2011Symposium_1_2Music teachers are often concerned with method. If you go to most music education conferences, you’ll find sessions on the Kodaly Method, the Dalcroze Method, Gordon Music Learning Theory, the Orff Method, Feierabend’s Conversational Solfege, the Suzuki Method, to name a few. Music teaching methods are like Protestant denominations: there are many of them, they all have a common core, but are different in some ways. These differences lead music educators into discussions about how to best go about their business. Traditional or Suzuki? Ta ti-ti or du du-de? Which is better; solfege, numbers, letter names, or fixed do? The truth is, none of these methods is as good as using the best from all of them. While any of them is better than using no method at all, tying oneself to one limits the scope and sequence of what we teach. The key to knowing how to make wise methodological choices is to have a firm grasp on what the essential, non-negotiables are, and then find the best way to build of them.

There are some common threads that run through many of these methods. One is the idea that music is akin to language and should be learned in a similar way. Suzuki referred to learning music as one learns the “mother tongue,” through listening and imitating first, then when fluency is gained adding reading. Learning from listening and imitating is also central to Gordon’s music learning theory, and Feierabend’s conversational solfege, and both of these fit nicely with Kodaly, who also believed music education should start early, and be centered around growing musicianship first through the singing voice. “Sound before sight” is a phrase often used to describe this approach to music teaching; it is one of the essentials of music education methodology.

A second essential is that music is learned through movement. The method of Dalcroze features movement as a key methodelement in building musicianship. With this approach, musical expression through movement is featured. Children develop musical skills through kinesthetic experiences, moving in response to rhythm and structure they hear in music. The movement is often spontaneous and can include moving to the beat as well as moving more freely. Orff also emphasized movement. In his method, it is an integral part of a musical experience, and is also often used to prepare children to play mallet instruments. Students are given the opportunity to explore and create and then to “intellectualize” what they have done afterwards. Orff explained, “Elemental music is never just music. It’s bound up with movement, dance and speech, and so it is a form of music in which one must participate, in which one is involved not as a listener but as a co-performer.” Orff’s view of music education blurs the line between performer and audience, which is in keeping with the way much of the world experiences music.

These two essentials, developing pitch and rhythm aurally as a child’s native language is learned, and understanding and experiencing music both as a performer and a listener kinesthetically through the body, leads to building musicianship and music literacy, which is the bottom line of music education. How we as music teachers bring our students to the point of mastering musicianship and music literacy is far less important than that our students succeed at both. Methods wars are fought every day over fixed do or moveable do, Kodaly or Orff, Gordon or tradition. All have their rightful place in the repertoire of methods from which a good music teacher will draw. We must emphasize what all of these methods have in common, for it is in the commonalities that we find what is most important.