Musical Literacy versus Musical Fluency

Excerpt of score for John Cage's "Fontana Mix"

A couple years ago while reading Dick Weissman’s book, Making a Living in Your Local Music Market, I blogged about the section in the book about Musical Literacy. As Weissman related some remarks by Bruce Ronkin:

He defines it as an awareness and understanding of all musical styles, instead of concentrating on technical aspects of music.  I think this is a very useful concept, because it places emphasis on the student and teacher being open to many musical styles.  The truth is that most of us are fixated on specific musical styles and techniques, and many of us don’t listen to a variety of musical styles.

Which tracks well with how we’ve redefined, or rather broadened, the definition of literacy. Or rather, how we’ve come to broadened the scope of what we mean by being literate.  Thing is, I’ve changed my mind about this. Not that what Ronkin states is untrue in any sense or that there isn’t this connotation of possessing knowledge about a subject being something we can refer to as being “literate in the subject.”

Example of Eastern Byzantine chant notation

An Example of Eastern Byzantine chant notation

No, the problem here is that this isn’t the primary definition of literacy and by focusing so much on the secondary, albeit valuable, definition we’ve come to leave behind the denotation relating to the ability to read and write. The two definitions are not the same thing. This shift is precisely what Weissman wants to emphasize:

Bruce’s notion also re-focuses the notion of literacy, removing it from the sheer ability to read and write music notation.  It isn’t that these are not useful skills, it is rather that they don’t necessarily define musicality.

But by shifting away from the reading and writing skills, we’ve also lost all perspective on the wide variety of music notations that actually do exist or have existed in the past (and what might be developed in the future).


An Example of Korean Chôngganbo music notation

Sure, the idea of a “cultural musical literacy” can encompass knowledge of these other notation systems, but simply knowing about them and how they work isn’t the same as being able to read and write in them.  It’s the same way with language.  Knowing that Mandarin doesn’t really have bound morphemes as we find in English isn’t going to show me how to read or write in hanzi or pinyin. It can help me understand the language and how it differs from English, sure, but that’s not the same thing as actually being literate in it.

Hamparsum Limondjian developed the Hamparsum notası (notation) which was the first extensively used notation system for transcribing Ottoman Art Music from the late 1700s till the adoption of Western Music Notation.  The system is still used in Armenian Orthodox Church.

Hamparsum Limondjian developed the Hamparsum notası (notation) which was the first extensively used notation system for transcribing Ottoman Art Music from the late 1700s till the adoption of Western Music Notation. The system is still used in Armenian Orthodox Church.

And that’s the other problem.  We mistake the idea of fluency and literacy often.  Or rather, we tend to be imprecise about the terms. Being fluent in a language is generally a prerequisite to being literate in it.  While some exceptions apply–such as with ancient languages which are no longer spoken (i.e. “dead languages”)–generally we learn how to speak a language, i.e. become fluent in it, before we bother to learn to read and/or write it (if at all).

"Amazing Grace" written in jianpu, a system of notation likely derived from the French Galin-Paris-Cheve system and more commonly used in China than standard Western notation which was more dominant during the cultural revolution period.

“Amazing Grace” written in jianpu, a system of notation likely derived from the French Galin-Paris-Cheve system and more commonly used in China than standard Western notation which was more dominant during the cultural revolution period.

This is almost the exact opposite of what happens in academic musical training where we learn how to read music, an occasionally write, but rarely do we learn how to “speak” it. We even have a special name for this musical speaking–improvisation.  Think of how odd it would seem if we started referring to our ability to speak a language as improvisation (as true as that generally is) rather than simply the more normative (and frankly, descriptive) “speaking.”

Jazz aside, in most orthodox Western musical training, reading music is central. Writing it (i.e. composing) is secondary and Speaking (Improvising) it is probably a good last.

Guitar TAB chart

Guitar TAB chart

Obviously that has changed over the past few decades with the fragmentation of performing institutions once historically informed performance and new music ensembles became more common. And in the past few years, improvisation departments and classes in music conservatories are becoming ubiquitous. Trained musicians are now learning some improvisation techniques from the baroque and classical era as well as from more modern times.

Hurrian hymn to Nikkal in cunieform from Ugarit ca. 1400 BC

Hurrian hymn to Nikkal in cunieform from Ugarit ca. 1400 BC

The SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) have increasingly become specialized performing institutions that present a very specific range of music right in between (mostly late classical, romantic/post-romantic, early modern periods). Whether the latter caused the former or vice versa is besides the point because the consequences of having more and more institutions ultimately mean resources for them become more fragmented as we’re seeing in practically all forms of entertainment in this Post-Pop era. That some of these older institutions are seeing fewer returns in general says nothing about the vitality the Classical Art form as much as it says about how the revenue is becoming more distributed amongst many other “newer” organizations.

Excerpt of score for John Cage's "Fontana Mix"

Excerpt of score for John Cage’s “Fontana Mix”

And once we get outside the “purely” Western Art Music world we find that, despite all the varieties of musical notations I’ve been illustrating this blog post with, most music is transmitted orally and improvisation is the norm. That fragmentation of ensembles into the early music/late classical-romantic-early modern/new music was just one side of the coin and today we have plenty of classically trained musicians who are supplementing their training in more popular and/or world music styles.  The recording industry term “crossover” was coined for marketing purposes pretty much during the heyday of Pop music during the 80s, but musicians like Mario Lanza were already doing what we’d call crossover in the 50s.

Music improvisation is simply musical fluency. Musical Literacy, or the ability to read and/or write music, is a different thing altogether and sadly, doesn’t require fluency to be used as is usually the case with language. I think that the historical separation between music fluency and musical literacy is a side effect of increased specialization which has led to fragmentation of audiences, resources, and ultimately musical styles.

A shift into another style of music presentation will simply shift the musician into another fragmented or fragmenting industry which is why I say that diversifying your performance skills portfolio is far more useful than becoming a hyper-specialist. All classical musicians should learn how to become fluent in music, not just literate.

What Really Handicapped Classical Music?

Prime, retrograde, inverse, and retrograde-inverse permutations.

Bill Eddins wrote a provocative and over the top post claiming it’s Schoenberg’s fault that classical music has lost its audience.  His follow up post, No One Expects the 12-Tone Inquisition, explains some of the method to his madness–namely attacking Sacred Cows, but one statement he made really caught my attention in light of all the issues surrounding the rise of the mass media industry that serves as infrastructural support for more dominant entertainment industries:

The flip side of that coin is that I don’t believe in coincidences.  The “composer as international celebrity” idea effectively died between 1945 and the early ’70s, and I do not believe that it was a “coincidence” that this happened when this particular compositional technique was in the ascendant.

Continue reading

Modern Cello Techniques


Quartertone excercise from Modern Cello Techniques

Modern Cello Techniques is a fantastic new website dedicated to extended cello techniques by Chicago based cellist, Russell Rolen.  Of special interest to my blog readers who also are interested in Arabic and Turkish music, there is a section on Quartertones and a page with some samples from usage of them by Western classical composers.

Be advisd, though, that Western composers use quartertones and microtones in very different ways than you’d find them used in Middle Eastern or South Asian Music so don’t expect to find much that would be useful for pedagogical or learning purposes if you’re interested in non-Western microtonality.  Also, see my caveat about the whole issue of microtones here and here which help to explain some of these differences between the West and the Rest.

What’s really wonderful are all the exercises such as the one picture in this post.  As I slowly brainstorm how to start an Arabic Orchestra, I’ve only given passing thoughts on how to train the string players how to learn the ‘scales’ used in the music.  I actually hadn’t thought of approaching it in the same methodical way that our Western music training does in the copious number of method books for instruments that we have.  Mr. Rolen’s website just pointed me in a direction that I hadn’t thought about in this context and I may have to start developing some form of method book for training Western Classically trained string players in many of the Eastern Classical music styles!

Korean Chôngganbo and Far Eastern music notation systems

An example of Korean Chôngganbo music notation

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been having some relatively in depth discussions about music systems and notation for them with Bryan Townsend.  A statement in one of Bryan’s recent posts got me thinking a bit about notating rhythms, for which the Near Eastern notation systems aren’t particularly well suited. Here’s that statement

So we may be forced to the conclusion that, like accurate music notation, harmony and polyphony were invented exactly once in music history. Even more astonishing, they were both invented at roughly the same time in roughly the same place: southern France, northern Italy around 1000 AD. Nailing down the details of notating rhythms took until about 1500.

However, from what I remembered about some early Far Eastern notation systems, rhythm has been notated for some centuries and with a relatively high degree of precision.  One such system, Chôngganbo (정간보), which was develped by Sejong the Great (1397 – 1450) who is also credited with creating/promulgating what many linguists consider to be the most perfect alphabet, Hangul (한글).

I only happened across Chôngganbo via a strange route.  When I was following the career of Rock and experimental musician, Mike Patton, I was delighted to find and hear a bootleg of a live performance of a collaborative work he did with  William Winant and DJ Eddie Def that was called “Phono Sanjo.”  The piece combined elements of Mike Patton’s vocal acrobatics and Winant using various percussion including some very distinctive Chinese cymbols (for those of you who listen to Chinese Opera with any regularity you know exactly what I’m talking about) and DJ Eddie Def on turntables.  Many of these live performances of the piece took place in the mid to late 90s in the Bay Area.  I first got a bootleg around 1999.

The title of the piece refers to the two aesthetic driving forces of the work.  “Phono” obviously is a reference to “Phonograph” or the turntables; “Sanjo” is actually a style of art music from Korea, so many of the actual samples used by the turntablist are samples from Sanjo recordings.  Most prominently heard in the samples is the gayageum, one of the principle instruments used for this style of music and a close cousin of the Chinese guzheng and Japanese koto (Eric–now you know how I first came across gayageum music!).  Though sanjo is primarily an instrumental style of music, Mike Patton’s vocalizations evoke some of the Far Eastern vocal traditions (in the same way that Winant used a Chinese Cymbal) in the creating of a sort of Pan-East Asian experimental music piece. Continue reading

DaHjaj QeylIS qa’jIH.

A scene from Commedia Beauregard's production of "A Klingon Christmas Carol"

“I am the Spirit of Kahless Present.”

Sometimes I have to be in the business of creating culture, not just re-creating culture (or ‘re-presenting culture’ as I sometimes refer to my musical activities).  I’ve been watching a DVD of the final performance of  “A Klingon Christmas Carol” which is a production by the Commedia Beauregard that has been running during the Christmas season for the past four years.  This is in preparation for scoring incidental music that my group, il Troubadore (or more properly, the il Troubadore Klingon Music Project), will be recording for the live production this season.

As I’ve been developing Klingon Music and the possible theory behind it for the past year or so (though my interest in Klingon music dates back many more years as I’ve mentioned elsewhere) sometimes projects like this are incredibly satisfying.  Nothing like creating not only original music, but a completely ‘original’ style of music for a culture from a Science Fiction series.

While I won’t be posting actual examples that will be used for the score/soundtrack of this production, I will continue to blog about (with other examples) the music as I spend more and more time immersing myself in Klingon Culture.  As I mentioned in a previous status update at my facebook page that I still haven’t gotten the typical post conference/event blues after having the chance to play a concert with Yo-Yo Ma–this project and the project in my previous post are the reasons (amongst so many others).

I’m just so thrilled and pleased that I can have all these exciting musical experiences without having to leave this little quaint part of the world as I’ve said regarding this past month or so of such wonderful strangeness!  As the saying goes–“Show me a bored person, and I’ll show you a lazy person.”

Or, as the Klingons would say, Hoch ‘ebmey tIjon (“Capture all opportunities!”)!