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‘The Notation Argument’: A Contested Area in Music Education

Image Credit: Musika
Graham Strahle
| October 23, 2018

To teach music notation, or not to teach music notation: that is a question that classroom music teachers are continually forced to consider. Does staff notation have a place in enhancing young people’s understanding of and ability to participate in music? Is it necessary at all?

One of the year’s more controversial talking points on the so-called ‘notation argument’ was an opinion column by Jon Henschen that appeared recently in Intellectual Takeout. Titled ‘The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy and Quality’, it provoked a good deal of debate around this subject – not just among music educationists but also professional musicians and the wider public.

In it, Henschen contends that musical literacy has been seriously eroded in public schools and music teaching institutions in the US over the last 20 years, and he links this trend to a loss of quality that he argues has taken place in pop music. He received a wave of support in social media for his views, but also some condemnation: see here for example for the range of responses.

Now Henschen is not himself a music educator, nor is he a professional musician. He is a broker dealer in the US financial services industry who mentions how he played jazz and learned music theory class in his college years. He says that experience “gave me the ability to visualize music” and made him appreciate the skills musical literacy brings. “Sight reading would quickly reveal how fine-tuned playing “chops” really were,” he says.

Henschen’s views about the importance of proficiency in notation in jazz and classical have generally been well supported by music professionals. Mark Evans, for instance, who studied composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, wrote in Cultural Conversation: “Henschen’s conclusions are right to the point; we need to encourage musical literacy in schools and parents should recognize the value of music education and the arts in the children’s lives.”

However, Henschen draws most controversy is when he turns to contemporary pop. Citing research by Joan Serrà in the journal Scientific Reports, he makes sweeping claims about a growing homogeneity and banality in pop music since the 1960s. This caused a storm of protest, and even inspired a parody by one US music theorist who took exception to his assertions – it makes amusing reading.

But never mind that diversion. Henschen has thrown a wild card into the debate, and on the question of musical literacy he makes some good points.

For a much more penetrating treatment of the topic, though, one needs only to turn to Martin Fautley, professor of education at Birmingham City University. In an article he wrote last year in the British Journal of Music Education, he observed: “This notation argument can rage, on and off, for a good proportion of the first term, depending on how the issues are dealt with, and how passionate the various advocates are.” See his article here.

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