Here’s a question I was asked: Will technology raise the level of musical literacy?

This came up in a panel discussion, during my visit last week to the University of Missouri. And as I considered the answer, something occurred to me. There’s more than one kind of musical literacy. So this is what I said. In classical music, we of course think musical literacy means being able to read music. And, maybe also it means knowing about classical music — the composers, their works, the instruments, important periods in classical music history.

But outside classical music, musical literacy means other things. Think about pop record production. Anyone musically literate in that world knows how (among many, many, many other things) to add delay to a sound, to make it repeat one or more times after it’s heard. You can control the delay — how many times you hear it, how fast it happens (maybe in sync with the beat, or maybe out of sync in interesting ways). What its tone quality is (maybe not the same as the original sound). And much more.

I was on this panel with wonderful people. Tod Machover, Matt Haimovitz, Tim Page, and three members of eighth blackbird, Tim Munro, Nic Photinos, Lisa Kaplan. Lisa was right at my left; I’ve known her for a few years, and adore both her and her playing. “Lisa,” I said, “Of course you ace thy first kind of musical literacy. You read music like a champ. But — and I know you won’t take this as any kind of criticism — I’m going to guess you’ve never added delay to a sound on a recording.” No, she said.

So who’s musically literate? It depends what kind of music you’re talking about.

A brief footnote: Google “musical literacy,” click on “Images,” and you’ll find almost all the images that show up picture either musical notes or classical instruments. The one I chose was the only (or only possible) exception.

I remember many times when I’ve felt illiterate. Once at a party I was talking to Bon Jovi’s drummer, Tico Torres. I told him I liked his drumming on one of Bon Jovi’s songs, and, very seriously, he said something like, “Yes, that’s the XXXXXX beat, and I varied it in these ways [description followed]” Illiterate me — I’d never heard of that beat, of course couldn’t recognize it, and can’t even remember its name.

Or, in Tunisia when I went to a conference there, I heard Tunisian groups play Tunisian music, and in one piece was astonished to hear what I thought was a whole series of prominent major thirds, an interval I thought I’d never heard in North African or Middle Eastern music. I asked a Tunisian musicologist about it. “That’s not a major third,” he said, in a patient tone one might use with a very slow student. “That’s a microtonal interval that to your ears sounds like a major third.” Again, illiterate me. I couldn’t hear, wasn’t looking for microtones.

So here we come round again to the first of my four keys to the future: Understand and respect the culture outside classical music. Understand, in this case, that there are ways to make music that classical music doesn’t know about, and that musical literacy might not mean knowing what classical music does.


My trip to Mizzou was a delight. So many thanks to Rob Shay, the imaginative, enterprising director of the School of Music there, and Jonathan Kuukowski, Director of Entrepreneurship and Community Programs, who was my minder much of the time, and fun conversation partner (come to DC, and we’ll drink some fabulous bourbon neither of us have ever had before). He’s live wire, full of ideas, probably one of the best people working on entrepreneurship at any music school.

And thanks, too, to Andrea Heiss, from the School of Journalism, which arranged parts of my visit. (And whom I forgot to acknowledge in my last post! Slapping myself on the wrist.) Mizzou is full of smart, thoughtful people, and I’ve only scratched the surface naming a few of them here.


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  1. says

    Excellent point. In fact, I’ve just had published a book chapter on this topic of multiple music literacies – “Notating music and sound” in Andrew Brown’s book “Sound Musicianship”, about to come out. It’s about how interacting with screen-based tools, such as Pro Tools and other DAWs, can be seen as complex multi-modal forms of music literacy. Also that the principle functions of music notation, which I agree with Nick Cook are communication, conservation and conception, are divided up between a large range of tools that have sprung up since recording was invented. Fascinating topic.

    • says

      Thanks for expanding my point, Rob. One aspect of this not always noted is that classical musicians, by concentrating too much on notation, may be weak in other forms of musical literacy. I vividly remember a student at the Guildhall School in London, whom I met when I was invited to watch a session in which music students were taught to improvise (something required at Guildhall). The student, a violist, had trouble hearing when simple chords changed. Until, t hat is, he put down his instrument! Then he heard them just fine. I asked him why he thought this was, and he readily answered that he was used to reading music while he played. Reading it, let’s note, rather than listening to it.

      Ideally musicians would be multi-literate in music — able to understand music in many ways.

      • says

        I agree. I know musicians who can improvise on one instrument, but not on another (the latter is the one they learnt in the classical music manner, based on notation).

        Multi-literacy is the way of the future (and probably of the past, when “classical” musicians routinely improvised).

        David Dolan is doing great work there at Guildhall in expanding improvisation skills isn’t he?

        • says

          I like what David does. Had the pleasure of meeting him in London last year. He invited me to visit his improvisation class, and I was very impressed.

  2. says

    Another important kind of music literacy I’ve been noticing in folk and bluegrass circles is the ability to rapidly read another player’s fingers on their instruments, eg. to keep up with the chord changes by watching a guitarist’s left hand. This happens at such a rate as to be subconcious.

    • says

      Love it! Reminds me — though this is very different — of old-time Italian conductors, who could almost magically sense the flow of a singer’s breath.

  3. says

    Thanks for your kind words, Greg! It was such a pleasure having you at Mizzou. What an inspiring couple of days. And your points are well taken, as are those in the thread above. I wonder how Schools of Music will adjust their priorities to keep up with the new forms of literacy emerging, particularly in the realms of technology, within the next generation of students. It’s ironic that we simultaneously underestimate the value of multiple intelligences while at the same time continually stress about how to make classical music fresh and relevant again. It seems like navigating this paradox is perhaps a key to bridging the gap(s) to our broader culture. I’m looking forward to continuing our conversations in person — I hope it will be soon and over some bourbon!

    • says

      Thanks, Jonathan! And yes, bourbon! Come to Washington. As I told you, I know just the place, mere blocks from my apartment. (Bourbon, on 18th St., in Adams Morgan.)

      Music schools definitely need to expand their notions of musical literacy. Or, more broadly, of what students need to learn about music. I’ve been reading a seminal book on ethnomusicology, by Bruno Nettl (which an ethnomusicologist at Mizzou told me about!)and (no surprise) find they’re way ahead of me on this literacy question. They’ve been said what I said, for years before I said it. They understand that the emphasis in the west on notated music at first hampered ethnomusicologists, who, having been trained in western classical music, took a while to shed the idea that music from other cultures had to be transcribed into western notation.