In Response to: “The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality)”

I saw this article surface itself in music teacher circles online again recently where it should have no legs to stand on. Unfortunately, there are still ‘purists’ that think putting down other forms of music and ways of musicking is how their musicking and teaching methods will somehow be validated when in fact, it ends up dripping with pretentiousness and elitism. Music is music, and all forms of music, ways of musicking, and ways of learning music are legitimate. This article has no place in music education circles and should not be touted by other music educators as true.

I saw this article surface itself in music teacher circles online again recently where it should have no legs to stand on. Unfortunately, there are still 'purists' that think putting down other forms of music and ways of musicking is how their musicking and teaching methods will somehow be validated when in fact, it ends up dripping with pretentiousness and elitism. Music is music, and all forms of music, ways of musicking, and ways of learning music are legitimate. This article has no place in music education circles and should not be touted by other music educators as true.
In response to: “The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality)”

First, the article is written by an old white guy who hasn’t played since college in his “quality music program” which had a “top Illinois State Jazz Band” and puts down all forms of traditionally non-white music including hip-hop, rap, and early jazz. He glorifies Western classical and the jazz that was ‘legitimized’ by white guys by adding some form of music reading that wasn’t overly prominent in early jazz until white musicians got hold of it. It was Louis Armstrong himself who said when asked if he could read music, “not enough to hurt my playing” (Woody, 2012, p. 83).

Second, there is much more to music literacy than reading music. Jamming, improvising, being able to ‘fake it,’ and playing by ear are also part of being a literate musician that the writer of this article seems to think are unimportant by insinuating that musicians who do it are not ‘talented.’ He states, “If you play by ear only, you will never have that same depth of understanding music construct.” I would argue that playing by ear is the foundation of being able to understand the ‘language of music’ as a whole. Those who learn by ear can understand music on a much deeper level than someone who only reads. Consider when a baby is first learning a language. The baby never (or shouldn’t) learns to read before they learn to speak. They are encouraged to copy, experiment, and sound out words by rote for years before they learn to read the language. Learning the ‘language’ of music is no different. Understanding a language, or being ‘literate,’ involves being able to converse (jam with other musicians), improvise (ask a question or answer one), compose (make up your own coherent story), and play by ear (repeat back what you heard). Consider this quote:

“Reading music notation and making music by ear are but two distinct performance skills among others. Although these two skills often are cast as opposite approaches to music making, much evidence suggests that they actually are related. In fact, playing by ear may be the most foundational of musical skills, contributing to the ability to sight-read, improvise, play from memory, and perform rehearsed music (McPherson & Gabrielsson, 2002). Providing students with ample ear playing experience prior to introducing them to notation has yet to become the norm in formal instrumental education, despite music educators (e.g., Gordon, 2003; Mainwaring, 1951; Suzuki, 1986). In the best of cases, a preexisting ear-based fluency on their instruments allows musicians to understand the symbols of music notation like the reading of written verbal language (Mills & McPherson, 2006). Instead of the symbols prompting the mechanized recall of a fingering or movement on an instrument, it brings to mind a sound that already has been linked cognitively to the action needed.”

(Woody, 2010, p. 103)

The author says, “[John Coltrane’s] ability to compose and create new styles and directions for jazz was legendary. With few exceptions such as Wes Montgomery or Chet Baker, if you couldn’t read music, you couldn’t play jazz. In the case of classical music, if you can’t read music you can’t play in an orchestra or symphonic band.” Buddy Rich, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, and considered one of the best drummers of all time could not read music either. This was not uncommon especially in Jazz’s early days. An uninformed person might forget that jazz was an aural tradition (meaning no sheet music) for a long time before white people ‘Westernized’ it. Luciano Pavoratti, one of classical music’s most famous names, was known to not have the ability to read music. And in the case of ‘classical’ music, it was once considered part of a musician’s training to improvise, compose, and play by ear but now these skills are discouraged, and this article is a prime example of how bad it’s gotten.

In my experience, “quality music” (whatever that means) can be made and composed without knowing how to read music. I can read music but rarely have to use it in the real music making world that exists outside of school and academia. I only need to use that skill in a community band setting, in a big band, or a quartet. The first two only exist because of the school system. Outside of the army, there are virtually no professional wind bands, or big bands and the latter is certainly not a money maker. They are just not a viable source of income for most musicians. I’ve had to unlearn most of my classical training and learn to improvise, jam, play by ear, and ‘fake it’ because those skills are much more coveted than reading. Any time I play in popular styles, I never read, not because I can’t but because I have no need to. And a lot of the time my knowledge of theory and notation gets in the way.

I find it troubling when the author writes, “When artists like Taylor Swift claim they write their own music, it is partially true, insofar as she writes her own lyrics about her latest boyfriend breakup, but she cannot read music and lacks the ability to compose what she plays.” This insinuates that because it’s not written down that it’s not considered a real composition, which is entirely not true. Don’t even get me started on the “…boyfriend breakup” bit because music is supposed to evoke emotion isn’t it? A breakup can bring out a wide range of emotion and why not write a song about it? What the uninformed author of this clearly one-sided article forgets is that compositions do not–I repeat–do not have to be written down to be considered compositions. Composing, in it’s traditional form, has for a long time been considered a ‘God-like’ ability reserved for only the finest trained musicians or extremely “talented” (another word I have issue with) among us. Composing happens all the time in every genre. For something to be considered a composition it just needs to be, more or less, set in stone, but even then can be ‘played with’ in a live setting. Consider all of the rock, and popular music compositions that have never been written down since the beginning of popular music. Are they not good enough because they have not been written down? If it’s recorded first, it’s a composition too.

Also, to insinuate that Dr. Luke and Max Martin are anything but pop music compositional geniuses is, frankly, ridiculous and insulting. Max Martin alone has 22 top-100 hits that he either composed solely or co-composed. The ability to read music has nothing to do with musical talent and to assume otherwise is pretentious and elitist. It is clear too that the author has no idea what methods are used to compose popular music since the early 2000s. The track-and-hook method used by Max Martin and Dr. Luke relies heavily on tracks that are composed by a producer (composer) and melodic hooks composed by a musician (yes they are musicians even if they can’t read music) called a ‘topliner’ that either improvises over the track or composes a finished melody, and hook with lyrics (in the case of Ne-Yo) in under 20 minutes. Autotune, as the author mentioned, can be used as as “musical training wheels” but what he does not understand is that it is more often used as a compositional tool or as a choice musical timbre within a pop tune. Choosing to use autotune during the composition process lets the ‘topliner’ improvise unhindered without worrying about hitting all the notes. Then, common practice in the business is to take multiple takes from a single topliner or multiple topliners and cut and paste them together to create the composition. Then, they hire a singer, or compose it with a particular artist in mind, to re-record the track with their voice. I don’t know for sure but I am confident that ‘traditional’ composers of ‘classical’ music take small ideas and fit them together to make a larger composition too. The only difference is one uses traditional standard notation, the other uses a computer screen with sound clips and loops. It’s the exact same concept, just two different medias.

And, what makes Billy Joel stand out? It certainly isn’t his music reading ability because I really don’t think anyone cares about that in the industry. It is just not a needed skill in the popular music world, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

All pop music sounds the same? One might argue that all of Mozart’s music sounds the same (which it does in my opinion) if they are unfamiliar with his music. One might argue, too, that because most movie music, that happens to be composed largely by the same person, all sounds the same and lacks “…creativity and originality.” Every producer in the pop music world has their own distinctive sound, from Max Martin to Timbaland to Jay-Z, and like classical music, if you don’t really know the difference, it does all sound the same.

Another problematic quote from this article is, “Pitch content has also decreased, with the number of chords and different melodies declining as musicians today are less adventurous in moving from one chord or note to another, opting for well-trod paths by their predecessors.” There is a reason the same compositional techniques have been used for decades. It’s because they sound good and they work. Do you think Bach did what he did because it sounded bad? For the era he was in, that is what sounded good, and most baroque composers of the time sounded like that too. The author clearly does not understand either that theory does not inform practice. The reason theory exists is because some person did that thing for a long time and then a bunch of people sat around trying to figure out why it sounded so good; thus, inventing a set of musical ‘rules’ called “theory.”

My point is that no music educator should be endorsing this article as truth. It only succeeds in further separating classical music and jazz from the reach of the general public and popular worlds. It also touts that music is only for the selected “talented” few and that you are not a musician if you cannot read music or only compose with a computer. There are no gains made in putting down other forms of music and ways of musicking by naming them as ‘lower quality.’ It is no different than calling down a group of people based on their skin colour or their sexual orientation. All music is the same, just as all people are.

Until next time, Happy Musicking, whatever way you do it best.

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