Musical Literacy

with Crystal Gayle after our show with her in Lancaster, PA at the American Music Theatre (Sep. 18, 2008)
with Crystal Gayle after she opened for us in Lancaster, PA at the American Music Theatre (September 18, 2008)

In Chapter 13 of Dick Weissman’s book, Making a Living in Your Local Music Market, has a short section called “Musical Literacy” that is a wonderfully different take on what many of us normally define by the concept.  In the first of two short paragraphs he says:

A friend of mine named Bruce Ronkin, who teaches at Northeastern University, has developed a re-definition of the term “musical literacy.”  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.

He continues in the second (and last paragraph):

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.  Many rock and country music players, and some jazz musicians are extremely musical and have developed advanced technical skills on their instruments.  Such musicians should be encouraged to read music, but this encouragement is best presented as the development of additional tools, rather than presented in a condescending way.  Many teachers would also benefit from a more open attitude toward a variety of musical styles.  Invariably when I hear someone say that they don’t like a specific form of music, like country music, I have found that they, in fact, have listened to very little of that music.  They are not aware that country swing, country rock, and bluegrass, for example, are distinctly different musical styles.

That last sentence is interesting, particularly because of the persistence of the trope “I like everything except rap and country” which usually tells me that not only has the person uttering the trope probably never really listened to much rap or country, but probably has next to no knowledge about the thousands of musical styles outside of mainstream Euro-American pop music styles.

While I was touring with Ray Price, I probably got to hear more country music in those three short years than I’d ever had the opportunity to hear in my life.  While I never particularly used the above trope, I certainly didn’t go out of my way to listen to Country music or any of its subgenres.

I probably have a much healthier appreciation for the various genres, while also having had the wonderful opportunity of playing in venues (and with artists) that I would never have played had I stuck to the classical music track.


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