Issue 48: Music “Literacy”

I follow Michael Rosen’s blog at http://michaelrosenblog.blogspot.com . He writes with passion about children’s literacy issues, and libraries, and the importance of books.

It set me thinking about how “literacy” is part of music teaching.

Last week I posted about learning by rote, and then transferring the “learned” phrase back to the notation. In fact many of the songs and rhythms that I use are very easy to learn by “listen and copy” methods, but become seriously complicated when written down in stand music notation.

In samba classes, we tend to use words and phrases as a starting point. I use the “Beatlife” samba book which has the rhythms for a number of different sambas, complete with audio tracks, phrases for the different instruments (“fish and chips, sausage and chips”) and music notation. I have to admit that, even as a seasoned and experienced music reader, it is SO much easier to learn the patterns from the audio tracks and phrases!

It’s the same with teaching djembe. I do teach quavers and crotchets using rhythm cards, but apart from that I hardly ever use notation, and teach just about everything by rote. 

However, when I am teaching recorders, or keyboards, or clarinets, I introduce “real” music notation almost from the very beginning. The children would much rather just have the letters written over the notes, but I resist this for as long as I can. Compared to learning to read words, music notation is relatively simple. On more than one occasion I have had a dyslexic pupil discover that they can read music more easily than words – a great confidence booster.

I have no idea how you would go about teaching a child how to read and spell words such as “through” “thought” “cough” “thorough”. At least music notation doesn’t keep changing its meaning in such a random and idiosyncratic fashion.

The only time I will give way easily over “writing in the letters” is when the children set words to music. I get them to mark all the syllables, and then write the letter of their tune for each syllable. This avoids the intricacies of working out the rhythmic notation (which is, after all, a Grade 5 theory exam question!).

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