Teaching and learning notation

This is a blog wherein I think out loud, as it were, about the current emphasis on the teaching and learning of notation. It is also a bit of a trip down academic memory lane, as we’ve been here before, and I worry that some of our young teachers (good on you, young teachers, you are the future!) have missed out on this, as they weren’t there (or even born!) for previous iterations. This is made worse by our current de-emphasising the history of education. We are doomed to keep making the same mistakes if we are not careful. Anyway, this is a bit rambling, a bit personal, and probably very tedious!
But here goes….
I’ve been worrying about the teaching of notation for quite some time, and the recent report by Ofsted (Ofsted, 2013) got me thinking. I first read the report on the train up to Manchester for the Music Mark conference (November 2013), and doing a quick word-count search on my iPad, found that the word ‘notation’ received 7 hits, whereas composition only gets 1, and composing none at all. Now, word counts are a blunt tool to investigate texts, as my documentary analysis colleagues will say, but I wondered if this heralded a shift in direction, or a change of emphasis. And this made me reflect on what I have said, and thought, and, importantly, enacted in the past.
So, as is often the case, let us begin with the self. Sorry. It is no surprise that as a music educator I can read staff notation. And perform from it, compose with, have taught analysis using it, and although my 4-part harmony skills may be a tad rusty I can still parse a passing 6/4 and a cadential 6/4. So, why am I uneasy about its use? Well, I venture to suggest that along with many people who read and use staff notation, I learned it in tandem with learning to play instruments where its utility was appropriate. I didn’t find I could read music, so cast around for an instrument to play, it was the other way round.
But then, along with many others I’m sure, I also learned alternate notations – guitar chords, and like hundreds of other children of the third quarter of the C20, I learned to play the electronic organ using guitar chord symbols. Simultaneously doing ‘academic’ music the translation of chord symbols into roman numerals was straightforward, and, later, figured basses seemed to me to be built on the same sets of premises.
At the time I played in orchestras using notation, dance bands using a hybrid of staff notation and chord symbols, and in the pit for shows from charts entirely consisting of chord symbols. But I’ve also played in acoustic folk bands, rock bands, and, for a brief while in the wacky 80s, kraut-rock inspired synth multitracking, with none of the above, Many of these non-formal musickings were undertaken with musicians far better than me who could ‘just do it’, some of whom were kids in my classes.
But enough of me, the point of this is to say that staff notation is but one system. Around the corner from the University where I work, in inner-city Birmingham, is a Primary school, with a cracking dhol drum group, and a stunning African drumming ensemble. A secondary school has an astounding sitar and tabla group, another school has an energetic gospel choir. In none of these musics is staff notation a prerequisite. Away from the inner city, I have seen astonishing work by techno-geeks with laptops and electronica, again, no dots. I have heard breath-taking performances by singer-songwriters who get a scrumpled tatty sheet of words out of their blazer pocket, and then perform original compositions of ravishing beauty. So I wonder, would all these kids’ lives be richer if we make them learn to read music for their instruments? Well, Paul Terry got to this point nearly 20 years ago, when he observed:
“The learning of staff notation will only be of value to specialist performers who intend to spend the greater part of their professional lives performing or studying an existing musical literature. If the National Curriculum is genuinely intended to encourage all pupils at Key Stages 1 to 4 to engage with sound, then there is no practical reason why they need to be burdened with an anachronistic notational system: technology allows students to compose directly onto a retrievable system.” (Terry, 1994 p.110)
So, why am I still uneasy? Well, let us go back even further in the BJME archives – 1984 – 30 years ago. I share with the authors of this next piece a worry that:
“….a pedagogical concern that an over-emphasis upon the teaching of notation can impede musicality, whatever the musical style …” (Vulliamy & Shepherd, 1984 p.255)
And in classroom, one thing we don’t have is time! But its more, much more than that, as the 1984 Authors go on to observe:
“… in addition to such pedagogical problems concerning the role of notation, we contend that there are qualitatively different relationships between ‘classical’ music and notation and Afro-American musical styles and notation” (Vulliamy & Shepherd, 1984 p.256)
This is where we start to get towards the point of saying western classical music is ‘the best than man has thought and said’. We have a hierarchy of music types, which the authors of that 1984 article explored in their book “Whose Music” (Shepherd et al., 1977), observing that:
“In terms of Young’s (1971) sociological analysis of the school curriculum, ‘serious’ music is defined as high status knowledge, and ‘pop’ music as low status knowledge.” (Shepherd et al., 1977 p.207)
And this is where we seem to be with staff notation. In the Ofsted report it states:
“Classical music, as a serious component of the curriculum, was treated as a step too far in most of the primary and secondary schools surveyed, at least until Key Stage 4. It was felt by teachers and leaders to be too difficult or inaccessible for pupils. This reluctance created an unnecessary gap in pupils’ musical and cultural education. Schools failed to grasp the fact that, for example, a Mozart symphony or song may be based on the same three chords – tonic, dominant and sub-dominant – and be in the same time signature as many pop songs and a typical 12-bar blues pattern, and that understanding one of these styles could lead directly to understanding another” (Oftsed, 2013, p11)
Well, maybe! But the underlying tone of this argument is that Mozart is better than pop and blues. As Shepherd et al said – “whose music?”.
But even if western classical may be ‘the best than man has thought and said’, leading a group of teenagers to it is not best achieved by a return to musical appreciation lessons, ‘what Beethoven liked for breakfast’ lessons, how many semiquavers in a breve worksheets, and cycle of fifths colouring-in. Now let me make it clear what I am not doing. I am not, in some sort of Goveian Marxist blob fashion, deliberately withholding knowledge of these things from our pupils, I am, after all, a boy from Peckham at heart! I would really like these kids to come to know and appreciate many types of music, but I do not think that knowledge of staff notation should precede knowing music directly through its own means – musical sounds. I would like young people to be open to all kinds of music, and inventive teachers can, and always have, done this. Either as Mrs Curwen observed back in 1886:
“proceed from the known to the related unknown” (Curwen, 1886), or by shock and awe tactics, playing Varèse, Ligeti, Stockhausen, or Boulez, and then thinking with the pupils about what they have listened to.
The mistake that lies at the heart of all of the things I have been writing about is essentially, I think, a category error. This is to assume that staff notation facilitates musical thinking in and of itself. But as Swanwick noted:
“…music itself is an activity that is in some way representative of our experience of the world. Music is a primary symbolic system. Notations, verbal descriptions or graphic representations are secondary systems, offering a translation from one representational domain to another. In this process some loss of information is inevitable.” (Swanwick, 2001 p.232)
And this is what I think too. However important staff notation is, I have met very few people who actually really think in it. I am convinced that if you play a CD of, say, ‘The Rite of Spring’ to a musically literate performer, they do not have a scrolling version of the full score constructed internally by their brains in real time as they listen to it. Nor do such people construct mental scores as they watch TV, or drive along with the radio on. Staff notation is not a primary thinking system, it is an information retrieval system.
What I am saying is that I think it is musical sound that moves people. It is musical sounds that young people want to perform, compose, create, and pour their souls into. If staff notation helps them do this, they may already be working towards ways wherein it is appropriate. If it is not, then they will arrive at staff notation if and when they need it, and this is the role of the teacher.
Now I’m quite aware that critics will accuse me of suppressing cultural awareness in the young, of having limited aspirations for young people, and of being happy with the not very good status of music teaching in (secondary) schools. I’m not. I’m definitely not saying that at all. In fact even the instrumentalists I referred to earlier may not be best served learning staff notation as they go along:
“A curious contradiction in music pedagogy is that teaching practice is often in conflict with theories of instrumental teaching about how to introduce notation to child. Whereas most children learning an instrument in Western styles of education are introduced to musical notation from their very early lessons, prominent instrumental teachers throughout history have advocated that ear playing should be emphasised before the introduction of notation” (McPherson & Gabrielsson, 2002)
So, where does this leave us, and what do I think we ought to do about it? I think good teachers – classroom and instrumental – will teach staff, graphic, chordal, letter-names, and any other notation systems as and when required. I do not think they purposely withhold this knowledge from their pupils. I think that there are, bound up in this discussion, a whole host of issues, opinions, prejudices, errors, unthinking mistakes, and preferences. Good teachers know their pupils, and take them on a journey of experience and challenge.
What I do think is that we do not teach random alphabets and spellings in isolation when we have no intention of learning the language which uses them.
Curwen, A. J. (1886) The Teacher’s Guide to Mrs. Curwen’s Pianoforte method (the child pianist). Being a practical course in the elements of music, London, Curwen’s Edition.
McPherson, G. & Gabrielsson, A. (2002) ‘From Sound to Sign’. In Parncutt, R. & McPherson, G. (Eds), The Science and Psychology of Music Performance: Creative Strategies for Teaching and Learning, New York, Oxford University Press.
Ofsted, 2013 Music in schools: what hubs must do: URL: http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/music-schools-what-hubs-must-do Accessed 11/13
Shepherd, J., Virden, P., Vulliamy, G. & Wishart, T. (1977) Whose Music? A Sociology of Musical Languages, London: Transaction Books.
Swanwick, K. (2001) Musical Development Theories Revisited. Music Education Research, 3, 2, 227-42.
Terry, P. (1994) Musical notation in secondary education: some aspects of theory and practice. British Journal of Music Education, 11, 2, 99–111.
Vulliamy, G. & Shepherd, J. (1984) The application of a critical sociology to music education. British Journal of Music Education, 1, 3, 247-66.
Young, M. (Ed) (1971) Knowledge and Control, London, Collier-Macmillan.
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2 Responses to Teaching and learning notation

  1. Great article, Martin – and the case you make is compelling. I’m currently writing an article making the case for keeping the doors open for those who may need notation reading skills somewhere down the line…..and this article of yours is certainly making me stop and reconsider one or two paragraphs! Thanks for that…..

  2. dguerrard says:

    I am over a year late replying to this but i found it searching for responses to the music hub report. What you are saying is interesting but I think the report was trying to say that many music teachers won’t even touch staff notation, it has become taboo by some. I know on my teacher training many years ago staff notation was discouraged until gcse. I work now with the youngest of our students aged 3-7 teaching music. I teach staff notation, just 5 notes from c-g for my Y2’s to play simple tunes I have made up on glockenspiels and xylophones. They love it and they start to understand how pitch works. I could do the same with coloured squares or different symbols and I do from time to time but I think it puts the children an equitable footing as they go up the school to have the ability to understand how staff notation works. I do think if we focus on our youngest students standards, we will not have as many challenges as they get older.

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