Using A Little Common Sense To Help Music Reading

2011Symposium_1_2When I was in elementary school lo those many years ago, there were a few years when I had trouble with math. I tried really hard, and spent a lot of time at home trying to get it, and practiced many strategies for understanding concepts and coming up with the right answer. Sometimes, after I had exerted great effort, I would come up with an answer, and be delighted to have done so. It never occurred to me to think about my answer to make sure it made sense. As a result, Johnny, after starting with five apples and eating two may have had 325 left on a few occasions. It took a patient teacher to point out the impossibility of my answer, no matter how much effort I had exerted. I could have used a little common sense to help me learn math. Eventually, having physical objects in front of me, and removing two from a collection of five led me to understand that Johnny must have had fewer apples after eating some than when he started, and that he had only three left after his snack. Seeing real objects made the abstract numbers meaningful.

The same applies to music. Last week, I taught a lesson on phrase structure. I had my students mark the phrases in printed music of “Jingle Bells.” I chose that song because I knew they all were familiar with it, and would be able to use their familiarity with the melody to find the phrase structure. I gave them four things to look for. I told them new phrases begin after relatively long notes or rests, when a rhythm pattern starts over, when there is a sudden change in dynamics or articulation, and that all of the phrases would be the same length. While most students were able to correctly using the phrase structure using these principles as guides, some misapplied them, and gave an analysis that made sense to them on paper, but not when I sang the song to them pausing at the places they claimed the phrases ended. “Oh what fun it is to” I sang. “Does that make sense, to pause there?” The student instantly recognized that it did not make sense, and quickly found the correct location of the end of the phrase while listening to the music, and was able to mark the phrase correctly in the printed music, showing that they did have enough reading skill to mark phrases in printed music.

It did not occur to the student to employ the strategy of singing this familiar song while Music Notes Backgroundfollowing the notation in order to find where one phrase ends and the next begins. They trusted what they thought about what they saw without checking their answer against some common sense. “If I have marked the phrase correctly, if I pause at that point, it will sound right, like a pause belongs there.” Because the student did not or could not connect what was read with what was imagined or heard, what was read could not possibly make any sense.

This brings out a fundamental problem encountered in learning: the connecting of everyday experience with abstractions of them. Written symbols, whether musical notes or words of a language are not the things themselves, but abstractions of them. The word “chair” is not a chair, but refers to a physical object we know as a chair. I am sitting in a chair now as I write this, but the word “chair” is on my computer screen, not under me. In the same way, a note is a sound with a certain pitch and a certain duration. It is something I hear, and it is caused by a physical thing, a sound wave, activating my ear and sending electrical impulses to my brain. This note is in the air or in my imagination, but not on the printed page. That note, on the page, is an abstraction of the real note. Understanding the abstraction, the written representation, is a matter of connecting experience with what is written. When the two cannot be reconciled, then one is in error; either what is written does not accurately represent what I have heard, or if I am reading, I have heard or imagined  something other than what is written. In order to accurately read music, we must be able to “check our work,” making sure that the two do indeed match.

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.