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Doreen Bridges

SOME MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT MUSIC LITERACY

Dr. Doreen Bridges

Bridges, Doreen; Comte, Martin

Abstract: Dr Doreen Bridges is a highly distinguished music educator and researcher who has been recognised both in Australia and internationally. ‘Doreen Bridges: Music Educator’ is the second in the ASME Monograph Series and was published to celebrate ASME’s 25th anniversary. The writings contained in this volume represent some of Dr. Bridges’ contribution to ongoing debate and the implementation of music programs within the broad field of music education both in Australia and overseas.

Although we make many assumptions about music literacy, there are some widespread misconceptions concerning its nature, the processes of acquiring it, and its role in music education. One problem arises because we interpret the words ‘music literacy’ too literally! The dictionary defines literacy as ‘the ability to read and write’. Applied to language, this definition surely implies comprehension, so that what we read or write has some meaning, and is not simply a matter of pronouncing or copying words. Music literacy too involves reading and writing, using music’s symbolic system. But unless there is aural comprehension as well – the ability to form mental images of the sounds represented by music notation – we cannot claim to be musically literate. To read music we must hear the notes we see before (or even without) producing them vocally or on an instrument, and we should be able to reverse the process and notate the aural images we have in our minds.

People who can play from the notes, have some knowledge of music theory, and can deal with what the British used to call ‘paperwork’, normally claim to be able to read and write music. But all too often they are musically illiterate because they have by-passed the aural process and have not internalised what they are reading, playing, or writing. It is of course quite possible to transfer the map of the printed score through the hands to the geography of an instrument by means of automatic motor responses. Pianists in particular can get away with such short-circuiting of the reading process and omit the conceptual pre-hearing stage, at least in relation to pitch, because this is already fixed in the notes on keyboard.

But there are no short cuts. Despite knowing the letter names of staff lines and spaces – after all, every good boy deserves fruit, and all cows eat grass – thousands of children, hurried through the early stages of music reading so that they can get into the first exam book (usually in response to parental pressure) drop out after two or three years of lessons, much to the relief of the teacher. It is no wonder, though, that so many children, used to an education system in which the problems of early learning have been identified and sorted out, particularly in relation to language and number, cannot cope with learning music – a subject in which research lags behind when it comes to analysing the learning process. Not only must they deal with the physical and technical problems of playing, but at the same time they are often confronted with an automatic and tedious approach to note-reading which by-passes the aural – visual perceptual – motor stage on which conceptual understanding is dependent. There are, of course, many survivors. Most of us are among them. But it is a sombre thought that hundreds of thousands of people in this country have battled their way through piano and theory exams, and emerge at the end-of their school days unable to play fluently (let alone sing) at sight, still dependent on a teacher to tell them if they are playing wrong notes, unable to improvise, to transpose at the keyboard, to play by ear or notate correctly a known tune, or even to remember the four pieces they learnt for the exam last year. Yet, from the beginning they have studied in a system which emphasises playing from the notes, includes aural tests, and examines sight reading and knowledge of the printed score. Something must be wrong. I suggest that many of the problems occur because piano teachers are trying to teach too many things at once in too short a time, especially in the early stages which cannot be hurried. Unfortunately, time is money, and parents want to see quick results.

Where do solutions lie? Some have already tried to find them. Suzuki, for example, postpones the teaching of music reading until a child has mastered the initial physical and technical problems of learning to play an instrument and can play pieces learnt by ear or by rote – the ‘mother-tongue’ approach. Kodaly, on the other hand influenced by the teachings of Dalcroze, felt that instrumental teaching should be preceded by extensive preliminary aural training based on singing and moving. He advocated a system of music education beginning in nursery schools, with the emphasis on musical games and the integration of aural, singing, and movement activities leading to symbolisation and the ability to sing at sight, improvise, and use music notation as outcomes of a carefully structured sequential music program, continuous throughout at least the first few years of schooling. There is plenty of evidence, here and elsewhere, to show that such programs, implemented during early childhood when children are most receptive and learn most easily, do succeed quite painlessly in laying the foundations of music literacy which can underpin instrumental instruction and enrich other musical experiences.

There are, unfortunately, still many misconceptions about teaching music literacy as part of a general education at school – that is unnecessary, that it stops children from ‘enjoying’ music, that it is too difficult, that it is boring and sterile, that note-reading, if it is taught at all, can best be tackled through recorder- playing, that children will come to understand notation if they are continually exposed to it, that teaching music reading is quite outside the province of the class teacher and should be left to specialists, and that anyway, efforts to develop music literacy in children should be postponed till the high school years. In this short paper I cannot discuss misconceptions related to classroom music. I want instead to concentrate on problems and solutions related to music literacy and piano teaching, because the piano seems to be the instrument most widely studied by music students, and because we ourselves have inherited so many assumptions about music reading from our own backgrounds in learning to play the piano. I’d like to offer some suggestions as to what piano teachers can do, in group or individual lessons, to help their pupils acquire firm foundations of music literacy which is a reality and not a phantom.

Some teachers are already conducting classes for their young pupils, so that ‘doing’ and ‘hearing’ can precede symbolisation. Basic music concepts and the language which applies to them are learnt through integrated listening, moving, singing and playing experiences which help children to maintain a steady beat, respond through movement to changes in speed, dynamics, texture, and pitch levels, to form mental images of sound patterns, and to begin to become familiar with the geography of the keyboard. When parents are involved too they get some understanding of the nature of musical growth and can help the child at home. If a studio music teacher cannot timetable such classes, or does not feel able to conduct them, there are still many things that can be done during the lesson time to help the child through the pre-reading stages.

There isn’t a great deal of help in the way of printed material available to piano teachers, and most authors of tutors for young beginners fail to break down all the learning processes and deal with them one at a time, fail to foresee the language difficulties which many children have, and give insufficient examples of activities for developing pre-reading skills and fostering exploration of the keyboard. Recently I looked through twenty-four piano tutors at the primer level. Only two suggested some movement activity to establish the concept of a regular beat. Most began by showing whole, half, and quarter notes, and stated that a quarter note (crochet) was 1 count or clap, and a half-note (minim) 2 counts. Only one book used French time-names. Associating the note values with words was some help, but generally the teacher was left to sort out rhythm problems as best she could. Only three tutors used a few examples of graphic notation to establish the concept of going up – coming down in conjunction with reading from left to right before introducing the staff, and one of these used graphic notation also to represent long/short sounds before teaching relative note values.

We don’t make nearly enough use of graphic notation, and we need to supplement the limited amount of material to which we do have access. A blackboard (or whiteboard) is a great asset in the studio and can provide a resource for playful interaction between teacher and pupil in representing, identifying, and performing rhythm or pitch patterns.

Before introducing the staff, teachers need to spend some time helping children to become thoroughly familiar with the keyboard – the look and sound of the five black keys, and seven white ones, and the twelve-note scale of semitones with their octave transpositions. The letter names of the white keys can then be introduced gradually, also tones and semitones involving black and white keys, and the concept of sharps and flats. The teacher can invent all kinds of games using particular groups of notes to develop finger control, good hand position, and relaxed arms. Children love to improvise on the black keys, or to play single notes or chords in successive octaves up and down the keyboard, with left and right hands crossing alternately. This gives them a wonderful feeling of achievement, especially if they are shown how to use the sustaining pedal where appropriate. Children like also to play simple well-known tunes by ear. If they are encouraged to find different places on the keyboard to play them, the concept of transposition is established. The teacher can add an accompaniment, or show the child how to play a simple ostinato with the other hand. Far from being the sinful activity it was once considered, playing by car has a very important function in early music learning. And if it is done often with the eyes closed, it helps to develop the tactile sense and prepare the ground for reading without watching the hands.

If children are improvising, playing by ear, and learning simple pieces by rote, their need to perform is being satisfied while at the same time the teacher can develop their aural awareness and lay foundations of technique and music reading. At this point I can do no more than list some of the necessary steps for the pupil (not in any particular order), and some of the problems the teacher must deal with in the process of developing a child’s music reading skills in conjunction with inner hearing.

  • numbering the fingers
  • knowing left from right
  • maintaining a steady beat with body movements
  • auditory and visual awareness of spatial relationships in respect of pitch:

– high-middle-low

– higher-lower aurally and visually

– representation or recognition of pitch direction vertically (by movement) or horizontally (on the keyboard)

  • left-right eye movements to read and perform rhythm patterns or graphic pitch directional patterns
  • continuity of performance across bar-lines and from one fine of notes to the next (tracking)
  • ear-hand co-ordination – hear and play (eyes open or closed)
  • eye-hand co-ordination – see and play
  • ear-eye co-ordination – hear and symbolise or see and sing
  • ear-eye-hand co-ordination
  • visual and aural memory relating to layout of keyboard
  • visual and aural memory and recognition of pitch/rhythm patterns
  • recognition of intervals aurally and on keyboard
  • concepts of relative and absolute pitch
  • linking staff with keyboard and establishment of landmarks (middle C, G and F clefs)
  • numbering lines and spaces (lst, 2nd, etc.)
  • association of lines and spaces with keyboard
  • placing notes on fines or in spaces (N.B. ‘on’ is not ‘on top of!)
  • concept of seconds (line, space, line) and thirds (next-door lines or next- door spaces)
  • realisation that equidistant lines and spaces are not all equidistant on keyboard
  • concept of tones and semitones
  • going up/coming down/staying same on staff
  • playing from staff by interval without watching hand
  • reading vertically and horizontally at the same time
  • reading combined pitch and rhythm notation (sing and clap before playing)
  • reading/playing two or more notes at once with one hand
  • reading/playing two hands together

This list of course is not exhaustive but the task seems formidable. However, time taken at this stage is well-spent. There needs to be a great deal of practice through games linking staff notation, ear, and keyboard in various ways. The letter names of the staff can be learnt gradually – names are not nearly as important as we have been brought up to think, and are only convenient labels to be used after what they stand for has been thoroughly assimilated.

A word about language, which we adults so often take for granted. Children are often confused about the musical meanings of words used differently in everyday life, for example, note, tone, interval even high and lowin some contexts, and we need to be aware of problems that can occur in this area.

I think the main message behind all that I’ve been saying is that we have to take time now in order to save time later on, for children progress quickly once the foundations are secure. We must educate parents too, so that they don’t thwart our endeavours by expecting results too quickly. My old professor, Dr Harold Davies, used to say, ‘You can’t force growth’. How true this is. The musical growth of the children we teach is in our hands. Can we meet the challenge?

Paper presented at the Fifth National Conference of the Australian Society for Music Education, Sydney, 1984