Sunday, February 24, 2013
Many students warn me that they "can't read a note of music" and are surprised when I pooh-pooh their concern. But music is a hearing art. It is not a visual art. People played music for millenia before anyone ever thunk up how to paint sounds on paper. If sound-recording devices had been invented hundreds of years ago, would we now be using written music notation? Can music writing long endure in this, the Age of YouTube?
"Think different" is not a new concept. I can hardly imagine the leaps and arabesques of abstraction it took to start from scratch, invent, and refine our modern two-dimensional mapping of sounds. Standard music notation is an impressively complex, efficient set of symbols. It's called standard notation for good reason. But there other systems.
I'm used to working in tablature, an alternate graphic system which is instrument specific. Banjo tab uses a five-line system to map out where to place the fingers; guitar tab uses six lines. Many instruction books written in tab also add parallel standard notation, a handy Rosetta stone for literate musicians. But that gets to be a lot of blobs swimming on the page and looks downright scary if you're already shy of reading. I had one banjo teacher who sketched out quick ideas for me using only a large numeral with small superscript to indicate string and fret, respectively. I use that minimalist system when it works best.
I have found that if I invite my youngest students -- who haven't seen standard music -- to invent their own music writing, they'll come up with some pretty creative ideas. Then I can mix their own graphic ideas with normal music symbols for more organic learning.
And for the adult students who warn me they can't read music -- or are worried because they've tried and failed? We get out our smart phones and make a little video of me showing them what to play; they can watch at home to jog their memory, and voila!
(Disclaimer: I do still write things down in tab or music, as needed. Literacy for its own sake is good. But when a bunch of dots on paper keeps you from the joy of making music, it's time to throw that page upon the fire of the ages!)