Dispelling the Wrong Note Fallacy

2011Symposium_1_2If you’ve ever written a thesis, book or even a blog post, you probably know that just the right words don’t always just come flowing out of your brain onto the screen or page. Case in point, I have already deleted one word and replaced it with another in just these two opening sentences. The fact is there is very little we get perfect the first time, let alone at all. Good writers don’t worry about getting it down perfectly in the first draft, they just write and then go back later to revise, edit and polish.

When it comes to music, composing works much the same way. Though legends of Mozart composing whole symphonies at a time at one sitting, and without need of revision, this would be an astounding exception to the way most composers have and continue to work. Creating art takes time, requires many attempts and reworking before it finally settles into what the composer will accept as the finished work.

There is another aspect of creating music that lies somewhere in between the alleged perfection of Mozart and the seemingly endless struggles of Beethoven when composing. This aspect is improvisation. Like writing and composing, improvisations probably don’t come out just right most of the time, but unlike writing and composing, there is no opportunity to go back and edit. Once the tone is played or sung, it cannot be taken back. It can only be decontextualized into consequent tones that make the regretted tone sound less out of place or wrong. This is acceptable in improvisation, and the mix of “wrong” notes and “fixes” for them is what gives improvisation its often edgy and thrilling demeanor. In fact, many improvisors don’t consider there is such a thing as wrong notes when improvising.

It does, though, take a great deal of courage to improvise, especially in front of friends and peers. For less experienced music and the brainstudents, the fear of sounding bad is real, and prevents some from even trying. To be fair, most of us wouldn’t feel too good about giving a speech infant of our peers without any notice to prepare what we were going to say. Only a few people, the late Robin Williams among them, can just improvise a coherent, or at least entertaining five or ten or thirty minutes of comedy or poetry or prose. This is the obstacle young student improvisors face. How to play improvised music that sounds good to everyone listening.

Swing is an excellent choice of styles for inexperienced improvisors. The tempo can be held at a comfortable medium tempo, and a major scale has few if any bad sounding notes in it when played over a ii-V-I-vi progression. I like to teach my students the swing feel first by having them sing a couple of swing songs, and listen to a couple of swing charts. The song “To Swing or Not to Swing” from the Music K-8 series is a good tool to teach students what swing is. I then like to use Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Ticket A Tasket” as a song for the students to sing, and Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” for them to listen to. I have them describe what they hear the performers do that makes the music swing. Key is that they acquire an ear for the swing eighth notes, and be able to sing and tap them.

When these materials have been learned successfully, I then use a medium swing backing track for the students to improvise over. I pass a small Orff style xylophone around the class, and give each students 16 beats to improvise with swing rhythm, especially swing eighth notes. The students are quickly amazed at how quickly they sound good with the backing track, and are encouraged by quick success to continue improvising. Many will just play on the beat at first, and then will begin to venture into adding a few swing eighth notes. For the more reluctant students, I encourage them to continue playing on the beat, and every so often just play twice on a bar using a rhythm of two swing eighth notes. I try not to play or model too much at this point, because I want the best music to be made by the students. Once everyone has succeeded, then I take my turn before giving the xylophone back to a student. The important thing is that once the students start playing, they slowly realize that there are no wrong notes, and that a good rhythm anywhere on the diatonic scale will make them sound like a pro. Try this out with your students using this backing track.

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.