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.

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.

You’re The Guide, Now Where Are You Taking Them?

2011Symposium_1_2When I write my lesson plans, a lot of thought goes into stating a goal, finding materials, and ordering everyithing into what I think will be an effective progression of steps that will guide my students through the lesson and what I want them to do, leading them to the destination of the goal. While it is necessary for me to think through all of this before I teach the lesson, if I don’t share my reasoning with the class, they may not connect the dots as they progress through the lessons, and some learning may not be lost. I’ve found that while it is good to share the goal with the class, this alone is often not enough. Just because students know what they are to be able to do by the end of the class doesn’t mean they will pick up on their own what each step along the way has to do with achieving that goal. When I explain at the beginning of the class, not only what they are going to do, but why they are going to do each task, and how it will advance them closer to achieving the overall goal, students are noticeably more motivated and more engaged in the lesson. Let’s see how this looks in a class I recently taught.

The goal was that students will be able to use standard music notation to improve their efficiency at learning a musical work. The music was a piece the class had already practiced singing, though it was not completely learned. I began by telling the class that they would learn how to use a musical score to gather information about a piece, and to assist them in learning the music faster than just by listening to it. i then distributed copies of the vocal parts to the first page of “Dry Your Tears, Africa” by John Williams. I reminded them that this was a song they are already familiar with, and then told them they had two minutes to gather as much information as they could just from looking at the music. After two minutes, they began telling me what they found. First came pitches, rhythm, and meter, then the words and the fact that the text was in a language other than English. One student said the title suggested the song had to do with sadness because of the word “tears.” Another student was able to  notice that there were two voice parts, and that they were soprano and tenor.  By the end of this discussion, everyone was aware of the wealth of information that was available to them by looking at the score, and most of which had been overlooked by just learning the music by ear.

Next, we began to apply what we had found to performance. We had discovered that rhythm was one of the many things Op.59_No.1written in the music. The rhythm of the song was simple; all quarter, eighth and half notes, so they tried clapping the rhythm from reading. It didn’t occur to them to think of how the song went while they read the rhythm, so their first attempts were more imprecise than I anticipated. Then a few of the students thought of singing quietly while they clapped. I recognized this as a good idea, and the whole class did the same. Now with the notation and their performance melded together, first their clapping became more precise, and then their singing became more precise. As they became aware of how their singing and clapping were not together, they realized that both needed to be more precise and brought into agreement. Once this was done, their performance improved dramatically.

As we worked our way further into the music, I told them to apply the same strategies as they practiced a less familiar section of the music. While they were tempted to just keep singing the section, thinking repetition would result in improvement, I encouraged them to use the notation to read the rhythms they were unsure of. We reviewed the use of slurs to connect notes that are sung on the same syllable, and checked to be sure we noticed all of the notes included in the longer melismas. Slowly, as they shifted their approach from learning by ear to learning form notation, their performance began to improve more quickly, just as I had told them it would. Because everyone likes expediency, they were now gaining enthusiasm about using music notation. By the end of the class, they had used music notation to a delve deeper into the music, and had learned many uses of notation in learning music, and learning about music.

An Intervention Strategy for Teaching Music Reading of Rhythms

2011Symposium_1_2It seems there can never be too many methods for teaching music rhythm, especially where reading music is concerned. It is interesting that music notation can be at once both so logical and so confusing. Researchers have taught us that music reading is learned similarly to language reading; first we learn a vocabulary of patterns, then we learn what they look like written down. Once the sound we learn first is matched with the notes we see, music reading takes place. While there is no question that this is sound theory and leads to sound teaching, there are nevertheless times when students don’t make the necessary matches and connections. At these times, we need other strategies to help them see the connection between what is heard and what is seen. Today, I will describe one such strategy.

Music rhythm can be approached as a series of sounds and silences. Notes are sounds, rests are silences. Each serves as a kind of on switch and off switch for sound along a continuous span of time. This time is measured at first as all eighth rests drawn above a blank staff on my white board. Each rest represents one beat of silence. Each beat can be “turned on” by placing a note on the staff under one of the eighth rests written above the staff. Each beat can remain turned off by carrying an eighth rest from above down into the staff. Once some beats are turned on with eighth notes or kept turned off with an eighth rest, students can begin reading and drumming or clapping the rhythm by following half-beat pulses and making a sound on notes and keeping silent on the rests written in the staff.

Once they get the hang of this, I then add in quarter notes and quarter rests. These each equal two eighth note rests, so after playing a quarter note, the switch stays on for one more beat before going off again. If there is a quarter rest, the switch stays off for one more beat before going on again. At this stage, I do not use two or more rests consecutively. I assist the students’ reading by pointing to each eighth-note beat with a pointer on the notation on the board as they read and play the rhythm, or have a student point while the others play. With ten to fifteen minutes of practice, even the student who is initially most confused about how to read rhythms is demonstrating some fluency at performing rhythms from notation.

Aside from how well this method works, there is another advantage it offers. Whereas research based note_hierarchymethods precede reading a rhythm with hearing and performing it, such a method does not provide a strategy for reading an unfamiliar rhythm. In other words, if there is notated a rhythm pattern that is not in the student’s rhythm vocabulary, how does he or she figure out the rhythm from the notation? In teaching language, students can sound out words and string together vowel and consonant sounds to speak an unfamiliar word. They then learn the definition, perhaps from a dictionary or teacher. In music, there are no definitions of patterns; a patterns meaning is what it sounds like in the context of beat, meter, and tonality. The method I have advanced here can be used to figure out unfamiliar rhythms, and will be unnecessary for patterns that the student recognizes and can sing at sight. Remember, this method is designed as an intervention for students who, in spite of research-based instruction, still are unable to perform rhythms from standard music notation. Once an unfamiliar pattern is learned with this method, the durations involved should be collected into a group and learned as a pattern so that it will be remembered the next time it is encountered.  This method is also similar in conception to piano roll notation used in music sequencing software, and may be of use in teaching conventional notation from piano roll notation by having students convert from one to the other.