Notation vs. Musicians

Good evening. For my first post, I will visit a very contentious subject that is sure to get me in plenty of trouble: notation.

We have a trend here – fewer students are really learning notation each year. Less is conveyed in general music classes, and even less is used in real world applications, outside of classical music. Thom Yorke, of Radiohead fame, speaks up on notation:

“If someone lays the notes on a page in front of me, it’s meaningless… because to me you can’t express the rhythms properly like that. It’s a very ineffective way of doing it, so I’ve never really bothered picking it up.”

How then is music represented? In today’s brave new world, music can be visually expressed in a number of different ways, many of which can be seen and reproduced easily by a regular person with very little music training. Looking at a DAW’s sequencer window is fast becoming a more recognizable metaphor for music than tiny dots and stems on a page.

So what’s the big deal?

Music educators are stuck on notation, little realizing that the rules have already changed in mainstream music. Take a great songwriter like Allen Toussaint: he writes music the old fashioned way; pen and paper. Now look at today’s great songwriters – even composers – write their music in a DAW program, and use software to convert to notation if necessary.

Let’s make it clear: classical musicians will always need to read notation of some form. It’s the preservation aspect of their craft. Just as period musicians preserve the antiquated styles of old, classical musicians will always cling to the conventions of that era, and rightly so.

Is this the goal of music in our schools? The elementary program says no (Orff, Gordon, etc.) The music technology program says no. The performance groups, however, give us a resounding “yes.”

Expect a lengthy debate on this topic as music/tech processes are refined, and as the old metaphor becomes less relevant with our popular culture.

Author: Will Kuhn

I teach music technology to high schoolers. I do some other stuff too. @willkuhn on Twitter.

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