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.

How Do Language and Music Mix in the Music Classroom?

2011Symposium_1_2As we saw yesterday with rhythm, language and music are closely related so that training in one strengthens proficiency in the other. Although language and music differ in form, purpose, and use, both are highly syntax-dependent. Neither music nor language makes sense if the sounds heard cannot be cognitively organized, and if meaning cannot be found in the structured arrangement of sounds. . Researchers have found that some of the syntactic processing involved in listening and responding to both music and language is done in the same area of the brain. For both, Broca’s area is involved in the processing. While the differences in linguistic and musical syntax require separate cognitive processes, the integration of stimuli into comprehensible structures relies on the same neural resources. This immediately suggests that music or language activity mutually strengthens the neural connections used for the other.

Part of the syntactic processing mentioned above is handling expectation and connecting one event to another. Through proper use of grammar and syntax, language communicates a subject, verb and object, described by Patel as “who-did-what-to-whom.” Music, through syntax but not grammar, communicates patterns of tension and relaxation. These musical events succeed through a composer’s manipulation of expectations, making it possible for the listener to predict what will happen and when it will happen. When expectations are not met, tension results, and when expectation is met, relaxation occurs. This is an important aspect of the temporal nature of music.

Language is also presented to the auditory system temporally. Because of this, the human brain must process rapid successions of stimuli, and quickly find whisper_musicmeaning in sequences of sounds. Tallal explained that, “Children with language learning problems (or weak language development) can’t sequence two simple tones that differ in frequency when they are presented rapidly in succession. They do absolutely fine when you present two tones separated further apart in time. So the actual precision of timing in the auditory system determines what words we actually hear.” Researchers have found that musicians find it easier than non-musicians to detect small differences in word syllables. Musical experience improves the way human brains process rapid changes in sounds used in speech, and may help in acquiring the skills needed for learning language and reading.

Another benefit of musical training to language development has to do with understanding language through noise. Strait and Kraus found that musicians were better at understanding speech in noisy environments than non-musicians. Music listening depends on an auditory process called streaming, wherein certain sequences of sounds are grouped together and segregated out from other concurrent sounds. It is the facility that allows us to have a conversation in a room where others can be heard having other conversations. In music, listeners follow a melody line, and keep it separate from harmony or contrapuntal parts heard at the same time.

Just as the mathematical aspects of music are organic to music study and do not require separate instruction, so too with the linguistic aspects of music. All of the benefits to language development through music study are realized during the course of normal music instruction. Just by listening to and performing music, the requisite brain activity will benefit language development. To help this along, ask students to predict what they think will happen next in a piece of music. Ask them what they can do in a performance to build the listener’s expectation of what is about to happen. Ask them to memorize short, quick phrases of music. Make the music slow enough so that it is accessible, but fast enough so that they cannot memorize individual notes. This will cause their brains to remember the music as a group of notes instead of a sequence remembered individual notes, and in the process improve their ability to capture meaning from rapid successions of data. Much of our syntactic knowledge of music is acquired naturally and so does not need to be entirely learned in class. Most students can find the tonic in a tonal song by the time they are in kindergarten. We should draw on this intuitive knowledge with activities that give students practice at understanding and even conversing in music.