So what she really wants is to return music to the pre-literate state it had before the invention of music notation a thousand years ago. As is so often the case, the author's attitude is shaped by her own biography:For a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way, meaning that theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement. While there are routes into musical careers for the untrained, and many pop, rap and grime artists have never studied music formally, there are also dozens of choirs and amateur collectives that put a huge focus on musical notation.This is a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education. Children who do not have the resources, or ability, to comprehend it, are written off. Even when they are capable performers.
I cannot sight read. This is something that means I cannot join the many choirs around the UK that name this as a requirement. The patterns and figures of music don’t easily unravel in my mind. I suspect that’s the case for many other children and adults; some get notation, others don’t. Neither is indicative of talent, but while we do not find lateral, inclusive ways to engage people – as well as loosening our ideas of what constitutes musical ability – we are losing masses of would-be performers.The inability to sight-read is certainly indicative of a lack of talent in that area, one would think.
The insistence on theoretical understanding is underpinned by the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, which sets the most widely-used music exams. To meet its requirements, pupils must work through limited repertoires of old, mostly classical music, focusing most of their efforts on mastering musical literacy, above songwriting, composing, or even enjoyment.Damn those Associated Boards for privileging classical music over songwriting!
Well, I won't keep quoting, as you get the idea. The basic precept of post-modernism is that there are no values and therefore, no need to teach any understanding of them, theoretical, aesthetic or otherwise. The only thing that matters is your subjective whim, here cleverly disguised as "enjoyment" as if the very idea that anyone anywhere might actually enjoy performing and listening to classical music is a very peculiar one.
Ms Gill got rather a lot of pushback from professional musicians, as related at Slipped Disc:
Charlotte C. Gill (‘Music education is now only for the white and wealthy’) argues that ‘to enable more children to learn [music], we must stop teaching in such an academic way.’ While rightly noting the increasing chasm between state and private education in terms of music provision, her conclusions about musical notation and theoretical skills amount to simple anti-intellectualism.
Gill dismisses the study of music ‘theory’ and argues patronisingly that musical notation is ‘a cryptic, tricky language (…) that can only be read by a small number of people’. This claim flies in the face of countless initiatives over two centuries making musical literacy available to those of many backgrounds. As with written language, musical notation enables effective and accurate communication, as well as critical access to huge amounts of knowledge. In many musical fields, those without it will be at a deep disadvantage and dependent upon others.
Gill’s comments about ‘limited repertoires of old, mostly classical music’ are unfounded and presented without evidence: composing, listening, singing, and playing are embedded in much musical education, which also widely encompasses jazz, popular, and non-Western traditions. Claiming that classical music comprises a limited repertory is inaccurate: composers have been adding to its repertory for centuries and continue to do so. We agree with Gill that aural and other skills are equally important as those in notation. However, through her romanticisation of illiteracy, Gill’s position could serve to make literate musical education even more exclusive through being marginalised in state schools yet further.There follows a very, very, very long list of signatories.
Speaking of choirs, Guido of Arezzo invented the idea of a lined staff largely to be able to record specific melodies. He also invented a way of sight-singing to help choirs learn to read this new-fangled writing.
If things keep going in the direction they have, then in a few years I fully expect someone to be opining in the Guardian that the idea of requiring students to read at all is unnecessary. English is, after all, a cryptic, tricky language and learning how to read it largely unneeded now that we have audible books. If you are creative, just dictate your novel into your iPad or iPhone. Really, what is the point of requiring anyone to read written languages?
Our envoi is the Symphony No. 5 by Prokofiev conducted at the Proms by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. You will notice that many of the people onstage are actually reading from musical notation. The performance itself starts just before the 5 minute mark: