Uproar Over Claims That Teaching Music Notation is Elitist

Graham Strahle · April 10, 2017

Several Australian music academics, teachers and performers have added their names to a letter protesting against an article in The Guardian that says teaching musical notation is elitist. Charlotte C Gill, in ‘Music education is now only for the white and wealthy’, has claimed that “music has always been taught in a far too academic way” to children, with too much emphasis on acquiring musical literacy at the expense of creativity.

She controversially dismisses notation as “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”, and implores educational institutions instead to find “lateral, inclusive ways” of teaching music to those who have the talent and desire to learn.

The article has sparked a storm of criticism. British pianist Ian Pace initiated a protest letter in his own blog that has so far collected 650 signatories and has now been published in The Guardian. In it he describes Gill’s views as “anti-intellectual” that only serves to push musical literacy further into the margins of the school system.

Amongst the signatories to his letter are Peter Tregear, former Head of the ANU’s School of Music (now at Royal Holloway, University of London), Nicholas Bannan (UWA), Michael Hooper (UNSW) and Alexander Hunter (ANU), pianist Sally Whitwell, and the director of music at Melbourne Grammar School, Melinda Sawers. They join such eminent overseas figures as Simon Rattle, Howard Goodall, Michael Nyman, Marc-André Hamelin, Stephen Hough and Stephen Isserlis in endorsing the letter.

Contentiously, Gill characterises the teaching of notation as uncreative and exclusionary. That is patently untrue. Yet her article triggers a debate that is worth having. With the steady disappearance of sheet music from school libraries, plus an increasing reliance in schools and universities upon technology for the creation and dissemination music, we must ask: What kinds of musical literacy should be taught to young people if standard notation is perhaps no longer the only answer?

For anyone contemplating a career as an orchestral musician, pianist, opera singer or score-based composer, it is self-evident that learning how to read sheet music has a central place. On the other hand, it is entirely true that none of the four Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Danny Elfman or Taylor Swift could, or can, read music. As Robbie Gennet argues, they probably didn’t need to either, “in order to create and perform some of the most indelible music of their time”.

So there may be no single answer. Instead there may now be multiple avenues for gaining musical literacy, and what happens in the classroom may depend on what the profession wants. As Sarah Derbyshire, author of Musical Routes: A Landscape for Music Education, points out: “The music profession needs to work harder to articulate clearly what musical progression and success looks like in terms that are relevant and applicable across different genres and traditions. It needs to better value all areas of provision and signpost more clearly to children and their families the diversity of musical routes open to them.”

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