Teaching Music Literacy – It Ain’t Easy but Must be Done

Young people spend so much of their day listening to music, yet it’s barely addressed in school. Something needs to be done about that – but it won’t be easy. I remember my (Clive’s) grade 5 teacher telling us that Bing Crosby couldn’t sing, he was just a crooner. He probably thought he was “educating” us about music, but he fed into my early prejudice against popular music.

In France there’s a lot of “music appreciation” in schools, which is great because music-making shouldn’t be all we teach. However, again the stress is on classical music.

One of the teachers in our longitudinal study (Candice) recently became a music specialist in her school and established a wonderful approach. In her seventh year she said:

I’ve become keen on the Orff method: it emphasizes improvisation and creating your own music, and leads in the teen years and adulthood to more of a jazz approach…. My focus is on teaching children in such a way that they can create music, understand it, and participate in it. So when they’re listening to pop music they understand what instruments are used, how the music is made, and what mood it creates.

But is there still too much emphasis here on performance?

A respected Toronto columnist recently wrote a rather negative article about popular music. He asked how much of interest could come from a genre where everything is a sentimental song about 3 minutes long in 4/4 time? I asked a musician in my ITE class about this and he said there’s an enormous variety and depth of structure and rhythm in popular songs. We noted that a similar argument could be made against English literature on the ground that it uses just 26 letters and a few punctuation marks (see the quote form Neil Gaiman in Lydia’s recent blog).

Teaching music literacy in schools has many pitfalls. Like the Fiddler on the Roof, teachers will have difficulty keeping their balance. But a way must be found – in many subject areas – if schooling is to be relevant.

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One thought on “Teaching Music Literacy – It Ain’t Easy but Must be Done

  1. Thanks for posting this Clive. So much of what you say here rings true for physical education too. There is a current push in schools to foster “physical literacy”, emphasizing meaning-making, lifelong participation, creativity, interpretation, and so on and much less of an emphasis on performance (which has tended to dominate in the past).
    While I am strongly in favour of physical literacy when the focus is on finding meaning in movement, there seems to be a bit of a debate within physical literacy much like in traditional literacy: there are some who think that physical literacy means going back to the basics of fundamental movement skills such as running, jumping, throwing, etc. (much like the phonics argument maybe), while others see it as much broader than that. I agree wholeheartedly that a balance must be struck, but the jury is still out on where that balance lies.

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