A year after Charlotte C Gill questioned the pedagogical significance of western musical notation in the Guardian, the debate has flared again. In an article published in August on the website Intellectual Takeout (‘The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy and Quality’), Jon Henschen bemoaned the steady erosion of musical literacy. As a result, we’re all being forced to listen to music that’s crushingly unadventurous, highly compressed, relentlessly loud and produced mostly by two all-powerful moguls: an American and a Swede. It’s a flabby, lukewarm, flat-packed musical nightmare that will do nothing for our nourishment as thinking humans (I paraphrase).
There is much in Henschen’s article that rings true. There is plenty that I would take with a few sachets of salt. But when a friend posted it on Facebook, the argument that played out underneath proved what a clash of civilisations the debate around musical notation represents. It might prove the biggest and bloodiest ideological battleground music education has seen for generations.
Commenting underneath the post, one university academic went for the jugular: stave notation is relevant only to ‘the minority music of the elites’, he said, claiming notated music accounts for just ‘3.5% of all concerts and recordings’. Some Facebookers retorted: isn’t ‘the minority music of the elites’ a little incendiary and over-simplified? The academic responded calmly: studies repeatedly tell us that mostly wealthy people enjoy classical music and opera.
Apart from the feeling that it was more sociology than musicology that had led that academic to decide what music was worth serious study, it was bizarre to hear someone in a teaching role dismiss an entire strand of musical literature because of the characteristics of those who have traditionally enjoyed it. The academic clarified his position: sure, students at university can learn western notation if they want to, but they might find it more useful to learn how to use music production software.
Marketplace education has a lot to answer for, not least the redefinition of what it means to study a subject rigorously
That would be fine, if we weren’t talking about undergraduate music degree programmes. To believe western music can be studied at degree level by those with no comprehension of the notation system that has underpinned it for five centuries is to confuse general creativity with academic study. Any of us can list musicians of genius who never read music. That doesn’t mean you can forge for yourself an overview of music history – the foundation of any high-level study – without doing so.
The real reason some universities no longer require music students to be able to read music – and yes, you did read that correctly – is that it widens their potential market. It means lecturers don’t have to consider how best to maintain musical literacy skills in their students, nor take the time and effort required to test them. In some cases, it tells of a faction who wish to see ‘the minority music of the elites’ ousted from university music departments altogether.
Anyone who believes this intellectual debasement will flood higher education with new perspectives and alternative narratives is dreaming. Ditching notation is not about opening music education up, but about closing huge swathes of it off. There is hardly a western musical form in existence that cannot be analysed and contextualised using notation. More importantly, there are questions surrounding instrumental competence, not least for those graduates who proceed to teach practical music-making in schools.
Marketplace education has a lot to answer for, not least the redefinition of what it means to study a subject rigorously. Some universities will go to any length to pander to the whims and parameters of their student ‘customers’. We learned recently that a British university is to launch a joint degree in journalism and PR. If that doesn’t feel like a marketing department defining the content of a degree course, I don’t know what does.
The results of all this will be further inequality and division. The classical music scene in this country is arguably thriving like never before, but if musical notation becomes the preserve of private schools and Oxbridge, five centuries of music really will become the plaything of the minority. What’s worrying is that there are plenty who are willing that to happen, knowing it will lead to all-out extinction. And that’s when Jon Henschen’s nightmarish vision will come to fruition.