Is "reading" music fundamental?

   In the UK, a new 224 page national education curriculum is going up for a vote in August. Somewhere in the back of the document, for a few scant pages (three to be exact), outlines the most basic ideas of music education: the purpose, aim, and target "attainment" levels for key stages 1-3 (or through age 14). The three pages are barebones, giving only the passing nod to ideas such as "use(ing) technology appropriately..." which is an area I've heard a fair bit about during the last year.

   Instead, it moves onto the subheading of the original article that brought this to my attention. Over at ClassicFm an article briefly introduced the idea that the national curriculum was changing. It waxes poetic on the beautiful idea that "music is a universal language," which, while a beautiful idea, isn't exactly true. But, again, that's for another time...

   It's the focus on music notation that caught my eye. The subheading states "by 2021 every 14 year old will be able to read music if the new curriculum is approved in August." That's a claim!

   The inclusion of being able to read notation in national curriculum's isn't new. NAfME (National Association for Music Education) has reading and notation music as a part of its national standards as well. So, I'm not surprised by the inclusion--if anything I'm somewhat surprised it's news. I'm not as up on UK educational systems, but it'd be surprising if there wasn't some cursory mention of reading and notating music at some level.

   But all this made me ask a question: is reading and writing music fundamental to a liberal arts style education?

    Seems like an odd question for someone finishing a doctorate in music composition to ask. I'm questioning whether something that for an active musician is fundamental. Or is it at that?

    Let me take this back a couple steps. What is, according to the new national curriculum in the UK, the purpose of studying music?

   "Music is a universal language that embodies one of the highest forms of creativity. A high-quality music education should engage and inspire pupils to develop a love of music and their talent as musicians, and so increase their self-confidence, creativity and sense of achievement. As pupils progress, they should develop a critical engagement with music, allowing them to compose, and to listen with discrimination to the best in the musical canon"

   Alright, poetic start. Inspiring pupils to develop love music, talent as musicians, self-confidence, creativity, achievement; all great ideas. Develop critical engagement with music, allowing them to compose, and listen with discrimination...also all good.

   My gut reaction is, of course "Man, I hope they get more than the once a week thing I grew up with in elementary school before I joined band. That's a lot to try and fit into those 32 hours a year you see a student."

   The aims get more specific and break down three main areas

  • perform, listen to, review, and evaluate music across a range of historical periods, genres, styles, and traditions, including works of the great composers and musicians
  • learn to sing, create and compose music on their own and with others, have the opportunity to learn an instrument, use technology appropriately
  • understand and explore how music is created, produced, and communicated through pitch, dynamics, tempo, timbre, structure, and appropriate musical notations.
   So it took until the last two words to sneak musical notation in, tacked onto the end of what musicians call "the fundamentals of music." But is notation really fundamental?

    What's interesting to me is everything stated above until you hit those last two words, I could teach entirely without notation. If music is a language, then one could say that performing music is like speaking, and notation is like the written word. Except, there's a fundamental difference: even great musicians can't look at a score and hear the entire symphony in their head, especially if it's a symphony they've never heard! Musicians call that skill "Audiation." I believe it was coined by Edwin Gordon, and it was probably made most famous in "The Music Man" when Harold Hill discusses the "Think System." And, yes, I know that Gordon's theories on audiation are not the same as Hill's Think System, and that, yes, "The Music Man" Came out about 13 years before Gordon coined the term. But the idea of thinking about music, hearing it in your head, then playing it dates back much further than that...

   Point being this idea that the notation isn't realized until performance. We can "hear" a great deal in our heads, especially if we train ourselves to. But it's also a more difficult skill than learning music through action. Ok, so, learning music through action. That's a big part of many music education philosophies: Kodaly is all about learning music through singing, Orff is a combination of performing on specially designed percussion instruments, singing, and dancing (originally folk dancing), and Dalcroze/Eurythmics focuses a great deal on motion, the body, and singing (from an understanding of the body). Learning music by doing is a great thing. But does it require notation?

   Some of my favourite memories of learning Orff was learning about teaching composition to young students. We had all sorts of tools: felt or magnetic bars for bar notation (in this case, not having a traditional staff or rhythms, just short and long bars with relative height), various other symbols such as fruit and worms, and stories...

    I loved the stories. I loved the creativity that came along with writing a piece by using a story. The first exercises were "I'm going to tell you a story, when we reach certain parts, we'll come up with special music for it. Otherwise, we'll use ostinatos in the background (ostinatos are a big core of Orff playing)." The group would start playing, and after a little while, the teacher would say "It was a dark and stormy night. What would be good music for a storm?" You'd get through the piece, a little bit at a time, till the whole thing was learned, and the students could perform it. No "appropriate" notation required. Eventually, you can turn it into more games, having students come up with the next part of the story and the music. 

    You can also use a nice step-wise progression of "long and short" heighted (where you can see a difference in pitch height, but no staff lines) to get into long and short on a staff that corresponds to their pentatonic scale (when they're young, you keep the kids on pentatonic. Easier that way, no "wrong notes). The students can move things around, write new pieces, while slowly learning all the notation. It's effective, and a lot of fun. 

   I remember coming up with a game for fourth graders based on a twelve tone matrix--but instead of a twelve tone idea, it was a game of rhythms and melodies, made up of only a 6x6 grid, and overlays that could change the rhythms. You could flip the board any which way, read melodies "upside-down and backwards" and all that. But it still wasn't "appropriate" music notation--but it got to a much more "difficult" bit of musical thinking; how composers developed ideas to create new but related ideas. Heady for fourth graders. But what they saw was a game that they could manipulate, where a student could choose a path (and oh, they started choosing crooked paths, and I found that fun as well!) and we'd sing through the ideas together, me at the piano plunking it out first, then everyone singing with the piano, then just singing. But, still...no notation...

   And the kids were singing, or they were playing. No reading involved. Of course, if any of those students wanted to go into band or orchestra, they'd definitely need to learn to read music. But not everyone wants to do that...

   I guess I'm awkwardly moving to a point. The goal is fantastic to have. But, how many hours do you really get these young students in a general music class room? It becomes a bit of "what is 'most' important in all these important things." What do we really want younger students to get out of a music education, that can make a lasting impression, and keep with them forever.

   My school was an "odd" duck, and I accept that. There weren't too many students who, at one time or another, were not in band or choir. Granted, most of the band kids left by middle school, but they had time to learn a bit of an instrument, basics of reading notation, participate in concerts, etc. With choir in middle school, many joined up that preferred singing to band, and in HS when band and choir started overlapping, there was attrition between the two--but a vast majority still participated in one or the other at some point. Did those that didn't participate dislike music?

   Oh hell no--many were even more into music, just not that kind of music. What then, thinking about education from K-12 in the US, is really the purpose of music, and where does notation fit into that? One of the things I've always found unfortunate is that after elementary school, music education falls away for many students--if you're not in a band or choir, there isn't a music class for you. The idea being "well, everyone can sing, so if they want to sing, they can do music." Well, yes, that's true, but, what about everything else in music?

    What about those bits about being discerning, knowing the history, knowing the great composers? Did we all get that really well in band? I mean, Beethoven didn't write a HS band piece, and while there may be some odd arrangement of his third symphony for HS band, it's not really the same as learning the piece, is it? What about the use of technology, recording, etc? And exploring how music is created, produced, and communicated? It's almost as if we're saying "Hey, by the time you're in middle school in America, it's time to get 'serious' about this STEM thing, keep up your English in as much as being able to communicate is important, and the arts and other humanities can start to fall away." 

   Let me be blunt: classical music in America is dying, slowly, of old age. The audiences aren't getting younger, and we're not drawing them in. The ones that are drawn to that music were the students that were in orchestra, band, and choir in HS, which I accept is, normally, not a large percentage of the school. And even then, most start to fall away from "classical" music quickly. And then how many from HS go onto some degree in music, and then they either stick with it or fall away after undergrad.

    But there's this other music that's around, ya know, everywhere. Popular music, dance music, indie bands with ukeleles and mandolins (or mandoguitars), dance music, heavy metal, rap, on and on and on. And, some of these musicians learned to read music, might have even been heavily classically trained, and use that to their advantage. They come up with entirely creative things...

   Then there are those that don't read any music, and only think "holy crap, this guitar chord sounds awesome, and so does this one! and I can move between them! Hey, where are those lyric sheets, I bet I can come up with a melody for this...oh man, this is baller." They can read some tab, maybe chord symbols, but not "traditional" notation. Or they sit in front of a computer, making music all day, and coming up with unique sounds...without any knowledge of the acousmatic genre, Denis Smalley, or Pierre Schaeffer. 

   And we listen. We all listen. Constantly. iPods and iPhones are everywhere, people in their own worlds with their own soundtracks. I'm the odd one, being a musician, sitting here with only the sound of my fans, and clicking of keys and being more than content in the lack of music. And yet we have this horde of listeners, of people consuming music in a way that was unfathomable even 25 years ago. And definitely not 90 some years ago when Orff and his colleagues were coming up with Orff Schulwerk, or by Orff's death in 1982. 

   I sit here wondering, without answers, if, maybe, music education needs to shift with the times. By middle school, music education is mostly about performance. By high school it definitely is. Is that a dated mentality--no longer is music only consumed by it's playing, by attending a concert and getting a single chance to hear a song. Records, magnetic tape, and radio started changing how most people interact with music. The walkman gave mobility to the masses, and freedom from the radio. And now, instead of having a bulky collection of tapes or CDs, thousands of songs are stored a device that travels with us everywhere, earbuds in, tuning out the world. Has classical music missed the boat, holding on desperately to outdated models?

   I don't think the music itself is old--I think my music has something to say to this time, not 100 years ago, and maybe only slightly to 100 years in the future. But I do think how we approach music in education may be holding on far too much to old practices.

    What is the answer? No idea. I would love for everyone to be able to read music, enjoy playing an instrument (any instrument!), and interact with music through performance at home. It's romantic, this idea of salon music, music happening communally instead of individually, and with a more personal attachment to the music making. But do we fight for that idea, actively, or do we just hold to traditions for the sake of holding to traditions? And would more people be engaged by classical music if it was approached another way?

   I don't know...But it's something I think about a lot...About my role, as a living composer of "contemporary concert music," as a musician on an "antiquated" instrument like a trombone, and as an audio engineer that sees kids consuming and using technology without understanding what's happening. I don't know if there are any answers, but I often ask "what can I do?"
   I have some ideas on that...one is I'm not sure if teaching all students to read formal "appropriate" notation is the answer to "what can I do?" Especially since not everything I write uses "appropriate" notation by the standards of classical music.


Ola Nordal said...

Interesting problem, this. Personally I'm all for learning traditional musical notation in school, but I recognize that it is a complex evaluation when facing real world problems (like getting the kiddazz to read and understand ordinary text in the first place). Richard Taruskin have been writing pretty interestingly about the decline of literacy in music over the last 100 or so years (last volume of the recent Oxford history of music series). My private theory is that this decline is to blame for a lot of the sorry state of music these days, not just in the "classical" sphere but also in pop music. Da beatz are oh so sophisticated, but da songz are so so insanely booring. But sorry, I don't have any good answers either.

Ola Nordal said...

("complex negotiation" I meant, off course... sorry)

John Chittum said...

I think there is a fall in music literacy, but I'm not sure that the issue is a written literacy...

To pit famous musicologists against each other, Joseph Kerman thinks that a listening based curriculum can actually be highly successful...one that does use all the terms, "fundamentals," and historical ideas, but without learning to read music.

Can one create a discerning listener without notation? Or a masterful musician? There are any number of improvisors through the ages that couldn't read, after all...

Difficult questions...No answers. Isn't that what we do in philosophy?