Let’s Make Music (forget reading it for now)!

Perhaps because we, in our western ‘classical’ culture, tend to regard instrumentalists primarily as interpreters of other people’s (composers) ideas, learning to read music has become ‘part and parcel’ of the process of learning to play an instrument. Often from the first lesson, letter names, note values and fingerings are taught alongside technical matters such as hand position and/or grasp of the instrument, embouchure, breathing, fingering… the list goes on.

ScoreAndBatonOnBlack

To so many music teachers, it seems blindingly obvious that if you want to play an instrument you are going to need to learn to read music. As the director of an instrumental music teaching service, I interviewed hundreds of teachers over the course of eight or nine years. One of my regular questions in these interviews, with a view to gaining an understanding of how the prospective teacher aimed to motivate his/her new students, was about their objectives for the very first lesson.  Most, and by that I mean 80% or more, said – and note the words carefully – “well, obviously, to get them reading music”! Obviously.

This really set me thinking. It set me thinking because all I had to do was think back to my first piano lesson at the age of 8, my first guitar lesson at the age of nine and then, my first brass lesson at the age of 11! Only in the last did I feel as though I had achieved something remotely musical, so I didn’t give up!

But I mustn’t be too unfair: in both my piano and my guitar lessons, I learned that ‘Every Green Bus Drives Fast’!

 Let us think about the claim that reading music is an essential component of musical success – in its performance or its creation. Would the majority of the guitarists or drummers in our most popular rock bands agree that the first thing a beginner needs to do is to learn to read music?  Would the thousands of jazz celebrities who improvise their music or the blind singer/pianist Stevie Wonder agree and what would Ravi Shankar,, the celebrated Indian sitar virtuoso, have had to say?

The problem is that many music teachers are ‘classically’ trained and so tend to regard anything that is not notated, as opposed to much popular and jazz music that is not, as unworthy of consideration.   The people who hold that view are entitled to hold it of course, but I think they would do well to stop and ask some searching questions about the supposed necessity for reading music in the early stages of instrumental playing, and to weigh the perceived advantages against the possible disadvantages, in terms of instrumental skill development and musicianship, of introducing it too soon.

Musical literacy has come to be regarded as important because it allows composers to encode their musical creations in such a way as to enable their repeated and consistent realisation.  As western music developed, musical notation also evolved into a highly sophisticated symbolic system by means of which composers were able to specify their intentions as to how their music should be played with increasing degrees of precision.

Because of the resulting complexity of this code and, consequently, the commitment of time required for its mastery, it has tended to remain generally incomprehensible: laymen often regard the deciphering of the elaborate, though often beautiful and beguiling, hieroglyphics as completely beyond them. On the other hand, there are countless highly successful musicians, working today, who do not use, and never have used, notation. If we were to list them, the list would include many highly respected – even celebrated – performers from the fields of Rock & Pop, Jazz, and Folk and Ethnic music. Likewise, there have, throughout history, been innumerable musicians, accepted as masters of their art, who have, at no time, had occasion to read or write music.

From a historical perspective, music, as an essential component of many kinds of social or ceremonial activity, can be traced back thousands of years to ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians or the Aztecs. What little we know of this music comes perhaps from contemporary writings or illustrations rather than from notated music. Musical ‘literacy’ is then, a relatively isolated phenomenon in terms of both history and locality.  It is more or less confined to western societies over the last millennium or so.  Taking rock and pop music plus the music of non-western cultures, it is probably true to say that even today there is more music that is improvised or transmitted via aural tradition than there is notated. Looked at from this point of view, it might begin to seem rather curious that by far the most widely accepted approaches to instrumental music teaching in present-day western societies are so tightly bound to the practice of reading notation.

Efed up musicxpecting beginners to learn notation alongside the basics of their instrumental technique can, in fact, impede musical progress. Most people who take up musical instruments do so because they want to play them, not because they want to learn them.  This may seem obvious, but the distinction is important: the desire to make music is uppermost. So the insistence on learning letter names and note values before being able to do anything which feels like actually playing music is not going to help their motivation either – quite the opposite is likely.  Even if their motivation survives, a conspicuous barrier to fluency and expression will have been formed if the accurate reading of notation takes precedence over the production of truly musical results, i.e. those that embody awareness and sensitivity.

It is interesting to draw parallels with language development:  imagine the spoken communication of someone who had learned to pronounce his earliest words at the same time as being taught to read! How bizarre would it be if people were prevented from uttering sentences (even if they weren’t, at first, grammatically perfect) just because the sounds of letters, visual recognition of words and principles of sentence construction hadn’t been learned? This is not as fanciful an example as it might at first seem.  Mastering a language and mastering a musical instrument are very similar in many ways. However, although through the work of Chomsky et al, it is now more or less universally accepted that human beings are born with an inbuilt propensity for the acquisition of spoken language, I know of no similar evidence relating to written language. It follows that this would be less so in the case of musical performance and musical notation. It is often the case, however, that teachers working with beginners regarding it essential to get their students reading music as soon as possible. Sometimes they worry that if pupils learn tunes that they know by ear, they will be playing what they remember and not what is written!

In terms of how the brain works and how its functions affect musicianship, there are strong arguments to support the postponement of reading notation until after some fluency has been developed. It is now common knowledge and generally accepted, although recently the simplicity of this division has been contested, that two hemispheres of the human brain have different roles. Generally speaking, the left side of the brain controls the right-hand side of the body and vice versa. The left is principally engaged in analytical functions and governs speech, mathematical calculation, storing of factual data, and logical processes. It is objective in nature i.e. it deals with facts and data rather than feelings or intuition.  The skills associated with the left side of the brain are dominant in our society hence the preponderance of right-handed individuals.

brain hemispheres

The right hemisphere processes aspects of feeling, metaphor, shape orientation and spatial awareness; those aspects of cognition which are referred to as affective in nature. These include those associated with the practice or appreciation of the arts; in the case of musical study, the elements which go to make up ‘musicality’ i.e. sensitivity to pitch, timbre, harmony, shape and proportion are the province of the right brain hemisphere.

With this in mind, whilst acknowledging the longer-term value of teaching musical literacy, George Odam[i] sees a more far-reaching danger in over-reliance on notation in the early stages;

“All these symbol systems need to be experienced by children when they are appropriate to learning, but all of them carry with them an inherent and fundamental learning problem. Because written symbols are processed largely by the left brain it is possible and likely that, since we are all so much more adept at left brain work, the right brain can be by-passed, the necessary body action being processed by the left brain. A musical action can result that may be profoundly unmusical in quality simply because the fine processing system for sound in the brain has been circumnavigated.”

The logical consequence of Odam’s assertion is therefore, that if early music tuition centres around analysing the symbols which go to make up notation (all left brain activities) the areas of activity in the right brain, which are involved in the development of ‘musicianship’ in the broadest sense, are by-passed.  One could conclude from this that the insistence on a teaching framework that is fundamentally notation based is a sure way of producing instrumentalists who will be found lacking in aural awareness or musical sensitivity.  Musical competencies that depend on acute aural awareness or inventiveness (for example jazz improvisation at one extreme and just accurate, musical playing at the other) are inevitable casualties in this scenario.

It is interesting, and possibly enlightening, to consider whether reading notation, the very preoccupation that has dominated the thinking so many instrumental teachers for so long, is a musical skill at all. After all, if most people were asked to identify the skills involved in driving a car, they might mention spatial awareness, coordination, response time, decision making, eyesight (!) etc, but few, if any, would mention map-reading. This is a supplementary ability; it won’t help you drive your car more competently or more safely, but it will help you to plan your journey and end up in the right place! In terms of the priorities for music education, Phillip Priest [ii] puts it thus;

“Naming notes and recognising signs are ancillary skills for a player, not essential to performance nor to understanding if by understanding we mean thinking in sounds and being able to appreciate and convey artistic expression through music.”

The problems that arise in lessons where notation is emphasised before instrumental fluency are typically, confusion, frustration, irritation, or despondency. This is not surprising if we consider exactly what a beginner has to go through in order to read and play a simple sequence of notes such as that in Example 5. He or she is expected to perform the various tasks associated with reading music and establishing basic instrumental technique at the same time

In order to appreciate fully what this entails, let us consider, in some detail, the things the novice pupil’s brain has to deal with in the course of playing this fragment;

early reading example

1.       Recognise which note is to be played, the recognition being dependent on the child having memorised the letter names of the lines and spaces with the aid of mnemonics such as “Every Green Bus Drives Fast”.

(Even if he/she does this, in many cases (that of the piano most notably) the first note to play will be written on an additional ‘ledger’ line below the treble staff i.e. ‘middle C’! Has anyone ever stopped to think how absurdly demanding this is?)

2.       Recall the correct fingering together with the correct embouchure or string for the note having recognised – or more likely, worked out – what it is.

3.       Remember the procedure for producing the note – which in itself may require the coordination of several faculties – for example coordination of tongue and breath in the case of a wind instrument.

4.       Recognise, from the shape of the note, how many beats it should be held for.puzzled boy

5.        Attempt to establish a pulse and play the note while counting the required number of beats.

6.       Repeat his procedure for each new note in the excerpt.

7.       Listen to the quality of sound and…

8.       Aaaah, forget it!

There is simply too much to deal with here. Very quickly, a child confronted with such a deluge of information will come to an ‘overload’ situation, and because of the delays due to the thinking required between the notes, the resulting aural experience will bear very little resemblance to music as he/she understands it.

This is hardly likely to be encouraging!

To gain more insight into this last point it is helpful to consider the principles of Gestalt psychology as applied to perception. A gestalt could be described as a configuration or pattern in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. An example would be a picture or pattern such as the following (please stay with this, it really is leading somewhere);

Gestalt rectangle

 What we see here is a series of small squares placed in such a way as to make us see the outline of a rectangle. Our immediate perception is of a single whole rectangle rather than of several individual squares. The ‘rectangle’ in this case is the gestalt.  To be perceived as a totality in this way, the elements forming the gestalt must satisfy the set of principles known as the Law of Prägnanz: they must exhibit similarity, proximity, continuity and closure. In the rectangle example above, the small squares are of similar size, shape and colour, they are close to each other, so they fulfil the requirement of proximity, and there is continuity because they are equally spaced and there are none ‘missing’. Because these criteria are met, closure will follow. Closure is where our brains compensate for, or ‘connect’ the spaces between the dots resulting in the perception of a single rectangle.

Now let us replace space on the page with time, and the dots with notes, so that we are dealing with a melody as opposed to a visual pattern. A melody is also a type of gestalt and so to be readily perceived as such it too must conform to the Law of Prägnanz. If the notes in a melody are not similar, perhaps in terms of tone colour or tessitura, then they would not be perceived as a melody. If they do not demonstrate proximity either in time or ‘pitch space’ they will not be perceived as a melody either. The reader is invited to play the following examples the first of which is a succession of notes that do not accord with the Law of Prägnanz.

getsalt ex 1 reduced

In the following example, we take the same notes (or to be precise, pitch classes) and give them proximity by placing them in the same octave while reducing the time interval between them. This, together with the use of similar note values without rests, also lends continuity. In addition, we make them alike in terms of timbre and dynamic, giving them similarity. Thus, we achieve closure and the perception of an instantly recognisable melody:

Twinkle gestalt 2

So long as there is, in a young student’s attempts at music making, such a lack of similarity, proximity, continuity and closure (and there isn’t likely to be, given the procedure he/she has to go to just to play a single note – as described above) there will be no perception of the resulting succession of sounds as melody, hence the pupils’ failure to recognise anything ‘musical’ in their efforts.  Demotivating.

It is worth noting, in this regard, that this is one of the principal reasons why certain styles of ‘modern’ music particularly the ‘serialism’ of composers like Boulez, Stockhausen et al in the 1950s, fails to make any kind of sense to so many people. As we have seen, it is also crucial to the full understanding of how the disjointed playing so often brought about by putting music reading before fluency is so unsatisfying and frustrating for pupils.

A final but significant point to consider is to do with the stages of cognitive development.  Up to the age of around seven years, but often later, children’s thinking demonstrates the inability to focus on more than one dimension of an object or one aspect of a situation at a time. Jean Piaget[iii] referred to this phenomenon as ‘centring’. In relation music reading, it means that many children will fail to recognise the similarities between symbols and become confused because they are focusing on an insignificant detail which older children or adults might readily accommodate. There are, in my own experience, several examples of this, but one, in particular, stands out. A seven-year-old flautist was confounded by a passage similar to the following;

This pupil was unable to recognise the pitch of the first note in the third bar even though he had played it quite successfully twice in the preceding bars. His teacher was at a loss to understand why he should be so insistent that this note was not ‘B’ just like the previous two. The increasingly desperate teacher continued to invoke the lines of the treble clef with Every… Green… Bus” etc, etc.!  The pupil remained adamant that this could not possibly be the same note and it became alarmingly clear that this situation was not about to be resolved easily.  The situation became progressively more fraught until finally, the boy cried out in complete exasperation; “It can’t be the same as the others because the stick goes down instead of up!”

In this case, the publishing convention that the stems of notes on the middle line go up when preceded and followed by a lower note, had caused confusion, because the pupil was focusing or ‘centring’ on stem direction: because this aspect of the symbol was different to those used to represent previous instances of the note ‘B’, he assumed that it stood for a different note.

 So here was a clear indication that insistence on reading musical notation before any degree of fluency had been achieved could easily become a recipe for frustration. Such frustration is often pronounced, as we have seen, especially in the case of younger children, can produce strong emotional reactions, which might range from crying with anger or feelings of inadequacy, to simply ‘switching off’.

Many colleagues will recall inPractice-Frustationstances where a pupil has stamped a foot in annoyance or thrown an instrument down in exasperation at his or her inability to satisfy the teacher’s demands. As well as producing a negative frame of mind for the pupils, reactions such as these bring unnecessary challenges for the teacher, who might respond by desperately attempting further explanation, or even by berating the unfortunate pupils for not understanding, not concentrating or forgetting. The teacher of a group will, in this situation, find that his or her problems are simply multiplied by the number of pupils, and exacerbated by the different temperaments brought into play. A great deal of time can easily be wasted and it might, rapidly, become a totally demotivating experience for all concerned.

It cannot fail to be recognised that musical literacy is, clearly, a most significant part of our artistic heritage.  The existence of countless works, many of which represent the most exalted accomplishments of human feeling and intellect; the Fugues of J S Bach, the operas of Mozart, the symphonies of Mahler, or the ballets of Stravinsky would probably have been inconceivable – quite apart from whether they could be performed – without musical notation. It is, however, equally true that without musicians of sensibility, refinement and sensitivity there would always be a vital dimension missing from their realisation in sound. So whilst the inestimable value of musical literacy is undeniable, it is debatable whether its study contributes in any meaningful way to the development of these essential qualities of musicianship.

All that is being proposed here with regard to learning to read notation is that it can wait!

The immediate mission for an instrumental teacher is to provide opportunities for the development of his/her students’ potential in terms of facility in making music at the earliest opportunity. This approach brings with it ample scope for ensuring that young pupils are stimulated and enlivened by their experience and so, motivated to continue instead of joining the thousands who give up each and every year because music making is ‘too hard’.


[i] George Odam; The Sounding Symbol, Stanley Thornes Ltd, Cheltenham 1995.

[ii] Phillip Priest, 1989.

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