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.