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Music Literacy and Connection

allisonletts's picture

I want to expand on a definition of literacy that I’ve been working on through this class and my Music Education class. @jrbacch tweeted “Music a form of literacy? Music notes themselves, crescendos, learning how to read music, etc? #BMCed250” and I responded “thinking of literacy as access to a way of connecting w/ppl, ex cultural literacy, tech literacy makes music fit” [into a definition of literacy].

I spend a lot of my free time working on music for my a cappella group--I teach songs to the group and arrange music for the group to learn. When I’m deciding who will sing which voice part on any particular song, as well as while I’m leading rehearsal, I think a lot about who can read music. In auditions for my group, we ask if the auditioner can read music, because it’s a valuable skill. Within the context of a cappella, if I ask “can she read?” I’m asking about whether a singer can read music. And it does feel that fundamental to me. It is possible to be in the group and succeed without being able to read music, but it requires that I take a different approach in my teaching. I have to refer to notes’ position within the measure rather than their duration and name (e.g., “the altos need to watch the second-to-last note in measure 85--it should be longer and higher” instead of “altos: in measure 85, you’re jumping up a third, and it’s a half note, so be sure to hold it out”).

Really, I guess being able to read music aids in that first connection with the composer--you can look at a piece of music and know what he/she wanted without being told. If you are performing a piece from written music, you have more agency in the performance if you can read the music yourself instead of needing someone to translate. Otherwise, the teacher’s emphasis on certain points in the music (such as tempo, dynamics, rhythm, or pitch) might outweigh other considerations that the composer wanted addressed.

I think music connects people whether or not they can read music, but being able to read music connects the performer directly back to the composer, whether or not the composer is alive or thousands of miles away. That’s really one of the advantages of being able to read books, too, right? Storytelling is an art, whether it’s oral or written. I like the idea of passing down stories orally for generations, with details slowly changing with each new storyteller. But the direct connection with the author that comes from reading a book in the language in which it was written? It’s totally different.


alesnick's picture

reading and agency

It's interesting to think about how ability to read music strengthens a performers agency (connection to self, to world?) as well as her connection to the composer.  An intriguing paradox!  With regard to your evolving definition of literacy as access to connection with other people, a question: how does power enter in?  How might Gee revise your definition?