The place of Notation in Music Education

This topic has been bothering me for a while, and will doubtless continue so to do. My latest thoughts are in the British Journal of Music Education, which CUP have kindly made available here.

Maybe you are one of our PGCE graduates, and remember the notation argument from your year? Or maybe you didn’t have it in your pre-service preparation?

I know there has been some activity in the press on this topic recently, much of which I feel is wrong-headed, and in the limited space afforded by an editorial, I try and explain why! anyway, see what you think.

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6 Responses to The place of Notation in Music Education

  1. Chris Philpott says:

    Thanks for your post Martin. I do not do much on ‘the social media’ and have held off contributing to this debate, and although my views can easily be inferred from my published writing (I think), you have inspired me to respond.

    I am with Terry (1994, as quoted in your editorial) and do not believe that notation should be a priority in classroom music and I never have. As a secondary music teacher for 16 years it did not loom large in my practice and if I could get away with it, neither would it today. As a teacher educator for the past 22 years I have also provoked and been witness to what you call ‘the notation argument’. However, despite my views I have taken my responsibilities seriously when equipping music teachers to deal with the prescribed curriculum! I will briefly outline my personal perspective which has psychological, philosophical and pragmatic dimensions.

    From a psychological perspective, and if I must teach notation, then the sequence of learning is always from the music to the sign. In short, we need to be fully immersed in sounds and meaning before we code them. This is an obvious and long standing mantra but is less easily turned into a pedagogy that has musical integrity. However, the likes of Dalcroze and Kodaly knew all about this i.e. the body must be the beats (or tones) and must live as the beats (or tones) before we consider writing them down in any way. It is about immersion and internalisation.

    Philosophically I believe that the most important thing about music is the meaning that we derive from it, and the meanings that we create and recreate with it. Fundamentally this is an intuitive and encultured understanding where to be musically literate is to understand and engage with musical meaning. It is because music means something to us that we engage with it in the first place and on this account of literacy everyone has the capacity to be musical. Furthermore, in this account other aspects of musical knowledge such as know-how and knowing about are hierarchically related to knowledge of music by acquaintance. Finally, on this account notation is just one of a clutch of literacies that constitute musical behaviour. Again, if we must teach notation then we should move from a foundational and intuitive literacy to written notation, although in order to be musically literate there is absolutely no reason to do so. My full argument here can be found in Philpott, C. (2015) ‘Musical Literacy’ in Macpherson, G. (ed) The Child as Musician: A handbook of Musical Development, OUP. This argument could be seen as a version of your ‘speaking’ music.

    We then come to the pragmatic perspective we need to remember (please) that we are talking here about classroom music. One of the classic justifications for teaching notation is the independence it affords to those who learn it and I cannot argue with that. However, I think of how long it took me to learn to read music to a state where I had any useful independence. Individual cornet lessons, practice every day, band practice three times a week – I loved it but it took time and it was not in the classroom. I then think of my work with a typical year 7 class (called 1st years in those days) which when seen for 1 hour a week amounted to say 40 hours a year (perhaps), around 120 hundred hours across the first three years of secondary school music. By today’s standards this is a very generous allocation! If I was being even more generous I might add another 100 hours for primary school music (!). Now I may have been unlucky, but having been in music education for most of my life, and given these parameters, I have yet to experience or witness a classroom programme that achieved anything musically worthwhile in the teaching of notation and in relation to its avowed aims. There is just not the time. Throw into the mix Terry’s important point about the use of technology to record and my question is why bother when there are so many more important things to be doing with children in music?

    In conclusion, when faced with the psychological, philosophical and pragmatic perspectives I believe we should focus class music on that which is most important about music i.e. a foundational musical literacy that is present during the understanding, creation and recreation of musical meaning. After all, plenty of musicians in plenty of cultures have done quite well by this approach, so why would we not consider it good for the classroom.

    Having said all of this, even if the pragmatics were more favourably disposed (some chance!) I would probably come to the same conclusion.

    Chris Philpott

  2. jfin107 says:

    Thanks to Martin for enabling debate on this topic, one so easily deadened by positional responses and sectarian interests. And now Chris’s thoughts that enable further thinking about the place of notation in a musical education. It needs to be placed in the order of things. Chris enters the order of things of music education by providing the wider perspective of what it might mean to be musically literate in which intuitively felt experience knowledge of music is in a symbiotic relationship with making meaning. Herein lies the reason for making music, for the very existence of music.

    I only wish to add a thought about the psychology of music reading. Chris refers to the wisdom of Dalcroze and Kodaly who well realised that it was unwise and musically debilitating to view notation as a code to crack. Rather a felt cognitive experience of what the notation represented was a pre-requisite. I have found a way of making sense of what is involved in this. See here: Bruner’s simple idea of the interaction between the enactive, iconic and symbolic modes of representation is I believe a powerful way of understanding what is at stake. The move from the iconic to the symbolic (staff notation) involves the potential loss of the personally felt and the privately cherished. The move from iconic to symbolic has proved troublesome. John Curwen abandoned it altogether. It continues to be a source of poor practice with meaning making sacrificed. Time given over to learning to read notation as part of a classroom general music education is high risk. History is populated by innumerable casualties.

    As Chris points out we learn to read music through sustained and often prolonged periods of instrumental (vocal) learning, and I add, that enable mental schemas to be formed (in Bruner’s terms a well integrated enactive-iconic-symbolic level of representation). In this way notation becomes invested with feeling and meaning.

    So I agree with Paul Terry and Chris Philpott. A classroom general music education with its severe time constraints needs to place music reading in the order of things and this means that is unlikely to serve the prize of gaining intuitively felt experience knowledge and the making of meaning manifest in expressive and fluent musical performance.

  3. janethoskyns says:

    Thank you Chris. You echo my thoughts well and Paul Terry 1994 was a former trainee of mine – an academic man who did not teach following his PGCE but went into academic work and was very thoughtful about what did and didn’t work in teaching music! (Interesting postscript)

  4. pepperdog says:

    The North Americans teach band and choir with notation very much part of their schemes from about Year 5 after an Orff or Kodaly approach from R to 4. All children learn an instrument. Almost all children can read notation. Yes it takes time, but if you talk to any children or parents they will say that music lessons are a waste of time unless you are learning to play instruments. Standard notation is a world-wide common language and when you have got to grips with it it relatively transferable. What a gift to give a child with life-long opportunities to play in bands and sing in choirs. Why on earth would we sacrifice musical literacy? Teach it early with classroom percussion in R-Year 2. Teach it with recorders from Year 3. Teach it with ukes in Year 4. And from Year 5 just do what they do in Canada and the USA and teach it in a full band. But end this ideological madness where we say it really should not be taught. If they can do it in Canada and the USA why can’t we?

    • janethoskyns says:

      But do ALL children learn to play an instrument? I rather think not if you speak to individuals! If they have a need…as suggested above then yes, it is a means to an end….if they don’t, especially with the descant recorder, then they can experience a hatred of music for life….that is worrying.

  5. Keith Evans says:

    The problem of teaching notation first on the basis that it will somehow automatically give access to a lifetime of music making is rightly put to bed in this quotation from the Selected Writings of Zoltan Kodály, Boosey & Hawkes, 1974. p.120:
    “Music must not be approached from its intellectual, rational side, nor should it be conveyed to the child as a system of algebraic symbols, or as the secret writing of a language with which he has no connection. The way should be paved for direct intuition.”

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