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.
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 anteaching 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 firstat 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.
Expecting 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.