Music Literacy – Why it’s declining and how to improve your reading skills

Having a certain degree of proficiency in reading music notation is considered an important skill for most musicians. If you’re going to perform classical music music literacy is essential. Many of the jazz performances I do require the musicians to sight read charts. If you want to play in a pit orchestra for a musical theater production you will need to know how to read music. In spite of this requirement for these musical endeavors, music literacy appears to be on the decline.

Writing in the Journal of Music Teacher Education, Edward P. Asmus wrote:

I have noticed a phenomenon that seems to be on the rise: an increasing number of applicants auditioning for entrance into undergraduate music programs are unable to read music. Colleagues across the nation, music recruiters, ensemble directors, and theory teachers are all reporting an increasing number of entering music majors who are unable to read music notation and produce music on their major instruments from it. Those auditioning are able to play or sing prepared pieces with performance levels sufficient for admission. However, when they are asked to sight-read musical notation, the results are dreadful.

I’ve noticed something similar, not just with undergraduate students but also even many professional musicians. The reasons for this decline are varied, but I believe that some of this trend comes from pressures placed on music educators at the high school level.

Consider a typical high school band program. During the fall semester, it’s much more likely that the only band experience the students will have will be marching band. While the music is usually initially learned through sheet music, there isn’t much emphasis placed on reading it. In fact, the goal is to have the music memorized as quickly as possible. Once the music has been learned, the show often emphasizes the drill over the music. While I don’t want to denigrate the hard work that great marching band programs put into their show, these bands typically work the same music for months. There’s not much opportunity for these students to spend time practicing their music reading skills.

High school chorus programs are often worse at teaching music literacy. It’s very easy to resort to teaching the music by rote imitation and vocal students often struggle with music notation. It takes some effort on the part of the choir director to help students improve their sight singing.

For both the band and choral programs at high school there are also the pressures of contests. Receiving a high rating on a contest is often one of the main ways that music educators will be judged on their teaching by administrators who likely have little to no music education themselves. It can be tempting for the music teacher to teach primarily for the contest and play the same music for a long time, rather than spend time learning new music through notation. When students don’t get much opportunity to practice their reading, they don’t improve.

Some of the professional musicians that I’m familiar with also struggle with sight reading. Often times these musicians are very talented players, with good technique and abilities, but they too may spend a lot of their time either performing music that is already learned, learned by rote, or never notated in the first place. It’s a shame, because I enjoy playing with many of these players but so many of the gigs I play and book require good sight reading ability.

What can individual musicians do to improve their music literacy? Of course one of the best ways to improve your sight reading is to practice sight reading, there are some other things that players can do to work on reading notation better.

  1. Learn scales and chord arpeggios – The trend is to get these memorized as quickly as possible, and while I agree that this is an important goal for all musicians, there’s some value in practicing scales and patterns while reading them. Most tonal music will be made up of scales and chords and it’s useful to be able to visually recognize these patterns. When you’re sight reading a piece of music that has a fragment of a scale you will recognize it faster and spend less time processing it and more time scanning ahead.
  2. Follow along with a score while listening to a recording – This is a similar idea to reading scales and chords. You want to make a connection between the visual schema (in this case, the schema is a notated “packet” of musical information) and the aural realization of it. Much like reading text, your eyes and brain quickly skim over words that you’ve read many times and no longer need to slow down to process it.
  3. Transcribe music – Jazz musicians use transcription all the time as a tool for learning improvisation. There’s something to be said for memorizing the a solo without resorting to notating it, but by writing it down you’re approaching it from the opposite direction of #2 above. It can be quite difficult to work out rhythmic notation for many musicians, but this process helps you assimilate what the visual representation of that sound looks like on paper.
  4. Learn lots of music from notation – I don’t mean to sight read lots of music here, I mean to really learn to play a piece of music. The trouble with practicing sight reading is that the goal is to get through the music, not fix mistakes. By spending time learning to play music from the written page and ensuring that it’s accurate you will learn to make the corrections in your reading that you have to skip over when you’re playing in real time.
  5. Learn to recover while reading – There are different ways to approach practicing a piece of music, and they all have some validity. If you’re performing or rehearsing with other players you don’t have the luxury to stop and go back, you need to recover and pick up with your part as quickly as you can. This is why I strongly encourage music students to always finish the phrase you’re playing before you stop and go back to practice a trouble area. If you always stop right after a mistake, you will not develop the ability to recover when a mistake happens in performance. This is sort of the opposite side of the coin from #4 above. You have to be able to continue playing past a mistake, but you also need to go back and learn how to not make the same mistake again.

There are other strategies that individual musicians can employ in their practice. There is also some pedagogical research I’ve recently looked at that investigates effective ways to teach music literacy in the classroom. There’s a lot more that can be said about music literacy, but I’d also like to hear your ideas. Do you feel your reading skills are strong enough? What have you done to practice your sight reading skills? What strategies do you employ with your students? Leave your comments below.

Editing Audio Mixing In Video

MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has created software that can take a look a a video of musicians and isolate the sounds of specific instruments to make them louder or softer.

Pretty neat. Right now it appears as if it’s limited to just two different instruments, but I’m looking forward to the time when they will be able to take an audio file and isolate specific players. I want to be able to take a Duke Ellington Orchestra recording, for example, and be able to accurately transcribe the exact voicing that Ellington wrote. One band I perform with regularly will recreate classic traditional jazz recordings and sometimes it’s very difficult to hear specific instruments because of the early recording technology used. Software like this could make it easier to boost the instrument sound that we’re having trouble hearing or turn down the instruments coving up what we’re trying to transcribe.

Bozo As Played By Ed Cuffee

One of my favorite bands to play with is the Low-Down Sires. We strive to recreate the spirit of early jazz styles as authentically as possible, frequently even through recreating performances of groups that pioneered the style. One tune we recently added to our repertoire is Bozo, as recorded by Clarence Williams (featuring King Oliver).

After learning to play this solo, we discovered that the tune “Bozo” appears to be a plagiarized version of “Tozo,” by Fletcher Henderson. Check out what the blogger for Pop From Yestercentury noticed in his post, Tozo and Bozo.

Regardless of who originally composed this tune, here is the melody/paraphrase of this tune as played by trombonist Ed Coffee on the Clarence Williams recording of “Bozo.” Check out the first four measures and think about the historical context of the melody and chord.

Listen closely to the recording on the embedded video above and let me know if you hear it the same. I hear the harmony pretty clearly as an Eb7 chord. While an Eb7 chord isn’t all that unusual in a tune in G major during this style period, having it right at the beginning of the tune is odd. Even more strange is the A natural and E natural (enharmonically Fb) in the melody notes.

For a jazz tune composed at least as early as 1927 this is harmonically surprising, very much ahead of its time. This is quite early in jazz for an altered dominant chord. You will find examples in swing style tunes, but it’s not until the emergence of bebop where this sort of harmonic relationship becomes common.

In the context of this tune, which is in the key of G major, an Eb7 chord more commonly leads by resolving down a half step to the dominant, D7. In “Bozo” it skips the dominant chord and jumps immediately to the tonic, but only after a fairly long time. In most jazz tunes of this time period it’s not uncommon for chords to remain static for so long, but a harmonically sophisticated chord of this type would normally not sit statically for so long.

Then there’s the altered extensions of this chord. Looking forward again to the 1940s and later, it became common in jazz to alter the dominant chord extensions by altering certain chord tones like the 9ths and 11ths. It’s unusual in a jazz tune from the late 1920s.

As an interesting aside, I’ve often heard of this chord relationship (VI7 chord) as called the “pineapple chord,” but never understood the context of why. My formal music theory background compares it to the Neapolitan chord, but my jazz theory background things about it as a tritone substitution to the V chord.

Does anyone know why “pineapple chord” has become a common term for this chord function?

The link below is a PDF to my transcription of the melody/paraphrase. As always, take it with a grain of salt and check it yourself for errors. Let me know if you find any.

Bozo – Trombone

Weekend Picks

I’m a little late today posting my weekend picks. I’ll make it up to you by posting one more than usual today.

VictrolaHave you ever wondered Why Nerdy White Guys Who Love the Blues Are Obsessed With a Wisconsin Chair Factory?

Paramount is this incredible label that was born from a company called the Wisconsin Chair Company, which was making chairs, obviously. The company had started building phonograph cabinets to contain turntables, which they also were licensing. And they developed, like many furniture companies, an arm that was a record label so that they could make records to sell with the cabinets. This was before a time in which record stores existed. People bought their records at the furniture store, because they were things you needed to make your furniture work.

Transcribing music is one of the best things you can do for all around musicianship. It helps train your ear, writing it down improves your sight reading, you develop expressive nuances in your own playing, and it helps you develop a vocabulary for improvisation.

Kathy Jensen’s signature laugh with transcription. She has endless licks and can laugh in any key. She’s also a killer sax player.

Her laughter is infectious. You can check out more about Kathy Jensen at www.hornheads.com.

If you’re a jazz musician or a fan of jazz jam sessions you’ll recognize what Bill Anschell has to say about jam sessions. Consider, for example, the vocalists you run into at jam sessions.

Vocalists are whimsical creations of the all-powerful jazz gods. They are placed in sessions to test musicians’ capacity for suffering. They are not of the jazz world, but enter it surrepticiously. Example: A young woman is playing minor roles in college musical theater. One day, a misguided campus newspaper critic describes her singing as …”jazzy.” Voila! A star is born! Quickly she learns “My Funny Valentine,” “Summertime,” and “Route 66.” Her training complete, she embarks on a campaign of session terrorism. Musicians flee from the bandstand as she approaches. Those who must remain feel the full fury of the jazz universe (see “The Vocalist” below). IH: The vocalist will try to seduce you—and the rest of the audience—by making eye contact, acknowledging your presence, even talking to you between tunes. DO NOT FALL INTO THIS TRAP! Look away, your distaste obvious. Otherwise the musicians will avoid you during their breaks. Incidentally, if you talk to a vocalist during a break, she will introduce you to her “manager.”

Read a whole lot more at Bill Anschell’s Jazz Jam Sessions: A First-Timer’s Guide.

On a more serious note, I found Bob Gillis’s discussion on trumpet embouchures to be fascinating. I have some minor quibbles with a couple of his points, but those are based on the perspective of an upstream embouchure player. I’m guessing that Bob must be a downstream embouchure type (not a wild guess, the majority of brass players are). Here’s a sample.

By then stopping the incoming mouthpiece weight when it first contacts this ideal preset of the embouchure, the player will have taken all of the steps to create the best possible seal before involving any action of the embouchure musculature. This extremely close proximity of the mouthpiece serves as a great reference…meaning it will clearly reveal what specific gaps still remain, and what exact shape the embouchure must assume to complete its interface with the mouthpiece. This embouchure “sandwich” (like the filling of the Oreo cookie) between the mouthpiece rim and teeth (with their irregularities) must fulfill much more than a role of a seal or gasket though, for it also functions as the instrument’s reed and facing (the top and bottom lips, respectively). That means the act of sealing the interface between mouthpiece and teeth formation must be done in a way that does not disrupt the vibration of the top lip, but that instead increases the efficiency of its vibration. This efficiency is achieved by also simultaneously focusing the size and shape of the lip aperture, all the while making sure the top lip is as relaxed as possible.

Read more on his post, The Landing: The Final Focus and Seal. It looks like he has a lot more interesting stuff there which I will need to look through more carefully later.

And lastly, the Mnozil Brass will be touring not too far from me in February. If you’re not familiar with them, they are incredible musicians and also very entertaining performers. Here is their performance of Lonely Boy.

Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton’s Solo on East St. Louis Toodle-Oo

When performing with the Low-Down Sires, a traditional jazz group, we frequently decide (either collectively or individually) to perform the solos off of recordings rather than to improvise our own. We recently added Duke Ellington’s composition East St. Louis Toodle-Oo (Harlem Twist) to our repertoire and I really enjoyed the trombone solo on the recording. We all thought this would be a good one for me to play the recorded solo on, so I transcribed “Tricky Sam” Nanton’s solo from it.

It’s got a couple of interesting things on it. The opening lick is cool for the motive he played with a three note melodic idea superimposed over different parts of the first couple of measures.

Nanton Lick 1

Nanton also plays around with some chromatic passing tones on his solo break, specifically a passing tone between the 5th and 6th notes of the major scale and then the 2nd and 3rd notes. This chromatic passing tone usage would become pretty common with bebop musicians and sometimes is called a “bebop scale” today. For example, a major scale with the passing tone between the 5th and 6th notes is frequently called a “major bebop scale” and a major scale with a passing tone between the 6th and 7th notes is sometimes called the “dominant bebop scale.” Here is Nanton’s solo break.

Nanton Lick 2

It’s a short, but very tasty solo. Click here to download a PDF of the whole thing. As always, I recommend you at least double check my accuracy here and let me know if you spot any errors. It’s best to do your own transcribing, since you’ll learn the whole stylistic language (articulation, vibrato, swing feeling, etc.) as well as develop your own ear much better that way.

Bill Harris (?) Solo on “Blues on Parade”

I just finished a quick solo transcription of a trombonist soloing on “Blues on Parade.” I was helping Tad out with this transcription and he thinks it must be Bill Harris from Woody Herman’s Live, Volume 2 album (which seems plausible to me, but I don’t have the entire album and the album credits). Here’s the transcription I did (pdf here).

Bill Harris solo Blues on Parade

It’s a simple solo, but swings hard and was played with a lot of energy and excitement (just like Bill Harris usually played). There are some elements of tailgate trombone style in there with some of the bends and glisses. Note the use of a lot of rhythmically simple quarter notes and lots of silence throughout.

Does anyone out there have this album and can confirm that this solo was played by Bill Harris?

Lou McGarity’s Solo On “King Porter Stomp”

I’ve recently begun playing with the Low-Down Sires, a dixieland group based out of Asheville, NC. I have always enjoyed playing dixieland, although I hadn’t been playing a whole lot of it lately, so it’s a lot of fun to be playing it again regularly. One of the things I really appreciate about this group is that everyone makes a serious effort to play in the style. There’s nothing worse than listening to players who don’t play stylistically correct, regardless of what genre of music they’re performing.

One of the tunes we’ve been playing that’s been giving me some trouble is Jelly Roll Morton’s King Porter Stomp. This tune is challenging for me to solo over, in part because of the changes (it starts on the IV chord, not rare but somewhat unusual), key (Ab major, not too hairy, but a little tricky if I’m not focused), and bright tempo. Taken together, it’s not usually a big deal for me to adjust to these changes and tempo, but I keep finding myself wanting to bop over it. In order to give me some ideas for a more stylistically correct approach I decided to transcribe Lou McGarity’s solo over this tune and get inside it a bit.

There’s a couple of things in it I find interesting. McGarity uses a lot of Ab major pentatonic over it, but with some added passing tones between the 5th (Eb) and 6th (F) as well as a lower neighbor passing tone to the 3rd (C). Here’s an example from the first 4 measures of his solo.

McGarity 1

The Ab major pentatonic scale (Ab, Bb, C, Eb, and F) provides a nice sound to blanket over this chord sequence (which makes up most of the solo changes). The chromatic passing tones (E/Fb and B/Cb) give it a little more color without sounding to bopish in the dixieland style.

McGarity recorded this solo in 1951, quite a while after the tailgate trombone style evolved, but he plays some of the typical glisses and long notes in this solo. Somewhat unusually, he also shows off his solid upper register by screaming a high Eb in this solo. Here’s an example from last 8 measures of the second chorus.

McGarity 2

If you’d like to see the whole transcription, you can use this link. As I always like to recommend, you shouldn’t trust my transcription for complete accuracy. For one thing, I’ve only approximated some of the glisses and smears McGarity plays. If you don’t really listen closely to the sound you’re going and try to learn this solo you’re going to miss a huge part of the style. Here’s a YouTube video I found of this recording, but be aware that the sound was sped up so that it is playing back a half step higher. You can buy this track here.

Hard Days Night Chord Solved

The opening chord from the Beatles’ tune A Hard Days Night has been infamously difficult to transcribe by fans wanting to recreate the sound. I have a book of complete Beatles transcriptions that lists this chord as a Gsus4/D. In 2008 a mathematician, Jason Brown, used a Fourier analysis to accurately transcribe the opening chord.

What he found was interesting: the frequencies he found didn’t match the instruments on the song. George played a 12-string Rickenbacker, John Lennon played his 6 string, Paul had his bass – none of them quite fit what he found. He then realized what was missing – the 5th Beatle. George Martin was also on the record, playing a piano in the opening chord, which accounted for the problematic frequencies.

What did he find the chord to be?

George Harrison was playing the following notes on his 12 string guitar: a2, a3, d3, d4, g3, g4, c4, and another c4; Paul McCartney played a d3 on his bass; producer George Martin was playing d3, f3, d5, g5, and e6 on the piano, while Lennon played a loud c5 on his six-string guitar.

 

Hard Days Night Chord

For fun I took the pitches in this chord and used them to compose a melody and then wrote a short fugue using that melody as a subject (because composing fugues are what I do for fun). It’s in the style of Hindemith, not a baroque style fugue, so I had some fun with dissonance. Here’s a MIDI realization of it. Listen for the Beatles quote near the end.