People learn through a variety of methods, from the visual to the auditory to the experiential. To accommodate this, the methods of passing down information must be just as varied. From a musicologist’s perspective, there exists a question over whether music is passed down predominantly through written notation, which is perfect for the visual learner, or aural methods, which rely more heavily on experience.

“Musical Literacy: A Historical Perspective”

Friday at 4 p.m.
Burton Memorial Tower
Free

It’s a conundrum that James Grier, Professor of Music History at the University of Western Ontario and guest lecturer in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s Musicology Distinguished Lecture series, will ponder on Friday at Burton Memorial Tower. According to Grier, the two methods are complimentary and have both played a significant role in the “recording, preservation and communication of music.”

Grier claims the difference between notation and the aural experience is “largely a matter of tradition and convention.”

“Notation was invented in the medieval West to preserve details that certain singers found difficult to retain in memory for cultural reasons,” he explained in an e-mail interview. “It has evolved into a complex set of instructions from composer to performer or between performers. Oral processes could preserve these details with equal fidelity, but the use of notation has become a short form for composers to coordinate a large number of musical events in an economical way.”

“If you go to the British Library or Museum and go to the Beatles exhibit, you can see what The Beatles wrote down in terms of notation,” explained School of MT&D Professor James Borders.

“You’d have ‘Yesterday,’ with chord changes on top, but not the notation note for note,” Borders added, showing how the musical dictation processes of some of history’s greatest songwriters bridges the gap between the aural and the written.

But the question of music’s endurance through history becomes more intriguing when applied to personal experience. The question becomes “how do I acquire musical knowledge” in an individual’s own interaction with music.

The obvious answer is that it varies from person to person.

Whether someone began to play an instrument by ear or through the aid of notes on a page can provide some insight into the background of a musician. However, it doesn’t limit that person to one way of learning about music. For most, the process goes in stages, starting by picking up an instrument, fiddling around with it and then investigating what those arranged black dots mean, or vice versa.

From Grier’s perspective, the correlation between the two is complimentary.

“The relationship between eye and ear is problematic, but all musicians use their ears to regulate the sound they are producing from the notation in front of them,” Grier wrote.

“It is constantly a push-and-pull situation,” he added. “Performers experiment with musical practices that composers or arrangers wish to work out in writing. And composers and arrangers hear things in their heads that require innovative notations. Individual cases and musicians engage in this push-and-pull in different ways.”

Push-and-pull aside, which way of learning is more enjoyable? In other words, has a preferred method emerged among modern musicians?

In Borders’s opinion, it’s a moot question.

He claims that all musicians are “reliant on the skills (they’ve) developed.”

“I have a ton of colleagues that enjoy the hell out of playing the notes on the page,” he explained. “Where they live is in the interpretation of the notation.”

The more important concern for Grier is not one of personal fulfillment, but rather of definition and cultural acceptance.

There’s nothing he loathes more than a student who says, “I’m not a musician because I can’t read music.”

“All of this (musical) literacy is a matter of analogy to written and spoken language,” Grier wrote. “Like all analogies it limps; it’s insufficient.”

“To define yourself in our culture as being a musician only if you can translate the black dots on a page, I find a little bit culturally problematic, because I think it shuts people out, rather than including them,” Borders added.

So the next logical question is whether musicians should be judged based on their ability to read music. Does it really speak to an essential technical skill?

Grier’s response is, at least partially, yes.

“In the Western tradition, there needs to be equal emphasis on both, as one regulates the other,” he wrote.

Borders went so far as to question the significance of notation in an age where music can be recorded and manipulated in so many different ways.

“(Written notation) can be terrifically valuable,” Borders explained, “but we can record music digitally.”

“Composers can say ‘OK I’ve got these notes. Put them on the screen, let’s move this one around, make this one louder, I think we need a little more space there, let’s cut and paste that 50 times,’ ” he added.

Taking it a step further to the world of reality TV, Borders referred to “American Idol.”

“Watch ‘American Idol’ — you’ve got two genres that succeed in that show,” Borders said, specifying the reoccurring gospel and country idioms.

“None of the ornamentation that they’re using has ever been noted down,” he added. “The way these people learn (the songs) has nothing to do with recording in writing, it has to do with recording on a tape or digital space.”

But ultimately it doesn’t matter if one method prevails. There is a rich cultural history in the passing down of musical knowledge, be it through written notation or aural experience. And both methods have proven fruitful, so next time you make fun of that bro in your dorm or hippie in the Diag strumming on a beat-up acoustic, think of John Lennon, Kelly Clarkson and all those other “musical illiterates.”

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