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.

What Do J.S. Bach and Charlie Parker Have In Common?

Rick Beato has a neat YouTube channel he calls Everything Music. I haven’t had the chance yet to watch more than this one, but it’s a really nice discussion about octave displacement.

In this episode of Everything Music we will explore what Bach and Charlie Parker had in common which was octave displacement. It is a way for you to make your melodies more interesting and more intervallic. It will also give your lines much more interesting shapes.

432 Hz Tuning – Fact vs Fiction

I posted about this topic a while back, but I recently came across a very nice article by Assaf Dar Sagol called 432 Hz Tuning – Separating Fact From Fiction.

432 Hz. The magic number everybody is talking about. It is said to be the natural frequency of the universe, to have cosmic healing powers and to attract masses of audience to our music. Just by tuning our music less than a semitone below our standard A=440Hz we are promised direct access to the universe’s hidden treasures.

There are many articles presenting so-called “scientific evidence” in favor of 432 Hz. But how much of what are being presented with is fact, and how much of it is fiction? Let’s find out!

Sagol goes through several myths and claims about 432 Hz being a special note somehow and offers an overview of the actual history and science behind those claims – including linking to his sources. Real history and science are always so much more interesting then pseudo-history and pseudo-science.

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

Using Modal Interchange to Compose Chord Progressions

I recently came across this excellent introduction to using parallel modes to select different chord possibilities in an original chord progression. The production and explanation of the techniques is very well done.

Although it might seem that this technique is primarily geared towards the jazz composer, “classical” composers who want to explore tonal harmonies but move outside common practice harmonic language will find some interesting sounds to explore with this technique. Pop or rock songwriters might find an unexpected chord borrowed from parallel modes a great way to explore a harmonic “hook” in their tune. Improvisers will want to study the basic advice on how to select melody notes over a chord progression like this.

This can also become a standalone composition exercise. Just like performers will practice etudes and other exercises that aren’t intended to be performed for an audience, composers can get a lot of value from doing short composition projects that force you to be creative within the constraints of a box. Try taking a very basic diatonic chord progression of 4-8 measures and reharmonizing it musing modal interchange, then write a melody or improvise over it. Exploring different sounds like this increases your compositional pallet, even if the specific short composition never gets expanded into something you want performed.

Standard Jazz Notation

Just a quick post today because I’m in the midst of a composition that needs to be completed.

I came across Tim Davies’s orchestration blog while looking for something that I could send to some friends about how jazz horn players will interpret articulations. One of the search engine hits was this post by Davies that not only covers how to mark articulations, but also what the default jazz notation practice is and how to make your score and parts look nice. He offers advice that is specific to computer notation.

There’s a lot of other nice stuff in Davies’s blog. If you’re a composer, arranger, or do copy work, you will find a lot of his writings helpful.

Memorial Day

Today, May 29, 2017, is Memorial Day in the United States. On this day we remember men and women who have died in service for the country. Here is a big band arrangement I wrote a while back of the armed forces marches, as performed by the Trinity Jazz Orchestra.

Composition Exercises

It’s common for instrumentalists to practice exercises and etudes to practice technique or expressive playing. These materials usually are never intended to be performed, but are instead done for the benefit they offer the musician. Composers can similarly practice composition exercises that aren’t intended to be heard by anyone, but help the composer get comfortable using a particular approach or get the creative juices flowing. Here’s a resource with 4 exercises.

Exercise 1: Compose Three Short One Minute Compositions

In this exercise you have two weeks to complete three short compositions. I like the idea of challenging yourself to complete something specific on a deadline. Some arranging commissions I have gotten are like this exercise, the client needs an arrangement of a specific tune by a specific date.

Exercise 1b: Compose One Composition Two Minutes Long

The details of this exercise include avoiding your compositional comfort zone. Again, it’s not an uncommon situation for a professional composer or arranger to be commissioned to write something that he or she might not take on as a personal project. It’s useful to be able to put your personal preferences aside and explore something completely different from your own style.

Exercise 2: Vocal Rhythms

Exercise 2b: Vocal Rhythms in a Foreign Language

I’ve used this idea many times. Select a text from somewhere and say it out loud rhythmically. Write out the rhythms you come up with and they can become the basis for an extended composition. As an aside, this works great with young music students to get them composing music together as a class. Ask them a question about what they did over the weekend and you might get an answer like, “Birthday parties, two in a row!”

Use these rhythms to create percussion music or add pitches to create a melody.

Check out the details of these exercises and then get composing.