On Musical Literacy

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Neumes: How did that go again?Neumes: How did that go again?The question of do you have to be able to read music to sing in a choir can be a point of some contention. The battle lines are (possibly rather notionally) drawn between ‘classical’ choirs as representing the pro-literacy lobby and ‘community’ choirs representing the non-readers. These lines probably relate more to repertoire expectations and working methods than the skill levels of the actual participants, though. Plenty of classical choirs include non-readers picking things up by ear, while plenty of community choirs include readers mentally writing down their parts as they hear them sung.

So in real life, readers and non-readers often sing side by side. The divisions arise more as matters of ideology. Community choirs may argue that to insist on musical literacy excludes people who have not had the opportunity to learn, and that would both deprive the singers of rewarding experiences and deprive the choir of the singers’ vocal and moral support.

This is a fair point, and, whilst all choirs can quite reasonably define a set of skills they want from prospective members, it is surely healthy that many do not wish to make the ability to read music a barrier to entry. Having said this, I don’t see that it follows that once people have joined a choir they needn’t start to learn. Ear-singing is a useful skill for sure, but written music can also be useful in its way.

People tend to think of literacy as binary, as all or nothing – and with reading words, maybe it is. But written music can be useful in all kinds of ways to people who could not necessarily sight-read their part from cold.

Imagine you were having trouble remembering how your part of a piece of music went and you wanted to invent a mnemonic to help remind you. You would probably write out the words and annotate them with squiggles up and down to indicate its contours. Both Chris Rowbury and Dan Newman have written about working with ear singers who invent this kind of system.

Well, back in the dark ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire, when the Church was establishing itself as a significant cultural power across Western Europe, singers faced the same problem. One of the ways the church used to unify Christendom was to enforce a uniform liturgy, so that everyone had to use the same chant. Now, if you’ve got a whole liturgical cycle’s worth of chant to learn by ear, and it is deemed important that you remember it correctly, you’re going to find some squiggles over the words very useful to keep you on track. Apart from the fact that the squiggles were called ‘neumes’ (which sounds more grown-up), both the principle and the process is exactly the same as the amateur singers Chris and Dan write about.

This was the origin of our modern music notation, and it remains useful today. You don’t have to know the meaning of all the symbols on the page to be able to check where your part stays on the same note, and where it goes up and down. If you learn something by ear in rehearsal, you can look at the music the next day to help you remember what you learned while it is still fresh, so that next week you don’t have to learn it all over again.

Now, along about the 10th Century, a guy called Guido was finding it frustrating to try and teach all this chant just using neumes. People kept forgetting things still, and while they might go up and down in the right places, they might not go up and down by the right amount. ‘Of all men,’ he is reputed to have said, ‘singers are the most foolish.’

So he had this bright idea of adding horizontal lines across the page to hang the neumes on so you could see not only where the lines went up and down, but when they visited specific pitches. You may notice that we still use these – and they are a great tool to help our sense not only of contour but of musical memory. If you have a leap to a note, you can use the lines to compare where else you might have sung that note earlier in the piece to help you pitch it.

The invention of the stave (these horizontal lines) was the turning point in western music history that made it possible for someone to write down music in one place, send the written down version to someone else, and have them know what to sing without having also heard it. And all the other stuff that has been developed since (and which makes musical notation look so complex on the page) are basically ways to make this encoding and decoding process more precise and reliable. The more of this stuff you learn, the more able you will be to work out how your part goes without having heard it first.

But the fundamental question of where does my part go up and where does it go down as an aide-memoire remains useful without all that guff. And indeed, it is your stepping-stone to acquiring more detailed knowledge of notation.

You also need to be aware, if you think of yourself as a ‘non-reader’, that the people you think of as really good readers are themselves only too aware of their limitations. Someone who reads a single line fluently may have to stop and think about chords in more detail. Somebody who reads a vocal score fluently might get tripped up by the odd clefs and transpositions on an orchestral score. I don’t know anybody who never wishes they were just a bit better at doing this.

So, it really is a continuum of skills, not a you-have-it-or-you-don’t scenario. If someone asks you if you read music, the correct answer isn’t ‘yes’ or ‘no’, it’s ‘quite well’ or ‘a bit’.

Hi Liz

You're right to say it's not an either/ or. But there are some people in the Natural Voice Network who wouldn't be seen dead with sheet music as if it's poisonous! Mind you, a lot depends on the kind of repertoire you're dealing with. Most of mine is from traditional/ folk sources.

Coincidentally the next two posts on my own blog are about music notation! Do drop by and let me know what you think.

From the Front of the Choir

You make an interesting point in your penultimate paragraph about thinking about chords in more detail. I was comparing notes (arf, arf!) with a very accomplished violist recently who also sings and plays traditional folk music. She said she thinks in notes, or melodies, and not chords and was amazed at my instinctive understanding of chords. Needless to say I struggle with reading notation athough can learn readily by ear, yet can harmonise without any brain (or ear!) ache. The funny thing is I never realised this before the conversation when we analysed complimentary skills...

What I am wondering is where does this instinct come from?


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