More than almost anything else, literacy is the key to freedom, possibility, and advancement. Those who are literate in a collective language are able to work better together, learn from and inspire each other, achieve higher, and discover a world of previously unknown possibilities.
Likewise, since music is a mode of understanding like a language, the means by which we understand, create, interpret, and perform at a higher level is by laying a common foundation of musical literacy
Musical Literacy: Beyond Recognition
Audiation is central to musical literacy. The term “audiation”, coined by Professor Edwin Gordon, describes the ability to decode the sound that the symbols / notation represent based on past musical experiences. (Gordon 2012) Simply put, one who audiates is able to look at a musical selection and “hear” it in his or her mind. It is more comprehensive than the ability to merely recognize musical symbols or note names.
Consider this process in terms of language learning: The ability to read and understand does not begin with reading words, it begins with immersion in the language and the acquisition of an aural / oral vocabulary. This is later reinforced with visual associations that provide additional meaning and understanding. For example, “baby’s first word”-type books, typically have all the same words in them. This is not because these words are any easier than others to learn, but they are the ones that are most prevalent in baby’s environment, so they become a natural part of his or her spoken vocabulary. In addition, baby will likely have interacted with the objects that these words represent, so they have an oft-reinforced association between the sound of the word, the physical qualities of the object, and later, the appearance of the word itself. The more experience the child has with hearing, speaking, and manipulating the objects these words describe, the easier he or she will recognize that word in print, remember it, and be able to pick it out in unfamiliar contexts.
The same is true for your singers’ experiences with tonal and rhythmic material and their ability to recognize and perform that content from the musical notation. Notational literacy is only possible when one has an established aural / oral vocabulary from which to draw.
The Premise: Music Learning Theory
The extensive body of research of Dr. Gordon (known as “Music Learning Theory”) asserts that we learn music according to the same sequence that we become literate in any other language or mode of understanding:
LISTEN → SING → THINK → READ → WRITE
It is generally held in education that the teaching and learning process is most effective and engaging when it is sequential and aligns with students’ most natural modes of understanding. If this is true, we are currently teaching music literacy backwards by starting with the page! To expect a singer to decode the melodic and rhythmic content of musical notation without having a foundational aural / oral musical vocabulary is just as unreasonable as expecting a child to do the same in our language reading example. No wonder our sight-singing efforts are so painful!
However, if we approach teaching literacy in such a way that we follow this universal, natural learning sequence, our instruction would become more efficient and effective, the content would be more memorable, and the skills our singers would acquire would be transferrable to the next sight-singing example, the next audition, the next concert. Can you imagine the time you could save in rehearsal by having more musically independent singers?
Getting There: The Strategies
Note that in the first three steps of this process, one experiences music aurally and orally by rote before any visual associations (notation) are introduced. As learners are hearing, singing, and assimilating musical examples from various tonalities, meters, and styles, they begin to build a musical vocabulary. As the different elements of the music are given their names, verbal associations are made that are specific to the musical qualities themselves (Major, minor, melody, harmony, duple meter, triple meter), not extra-musical associations like “happy / sad”, etc. This gives the director the ability to introduce music theory terms early and make them a part of the regular rehearsal conversation. By engaging in daily warm-ups that give the singers repeated experience with these elements, it solidifies the aural / oral vocabulary and provides strong associations for the concepts.
I teach my choirs Major and minor scales (movable do, la-based minor) and a set of 8 patterns that center around the Major and minor tonic triads, because these form the most recurring tonal material in the music we learn:
Each day, the singers echo these patterns until they have the order memorized. When they can recite the sequence of all 8 patterns in both tonalities, I know they have fully assimilated the tonal content.
At the “think” stage, singers can begin to improvise using the musical vocabulary they have assimilated. If they can “answer” your tonal pattern back with one of their own, or use solfeggio to decode the patterns when heard out of context, they are successfully drawing from their aural/oral vocabulary.
NOW we’re ready to read!
The first attempts at reading should center around the content that your singers have already assimilated. Remember: sound before sight before theory. (Bluestine 2000) Prepare their ears for what the eyes will eventually see.
Begin with the echo patterns notated and numbered. Have singers read the patterns in order, then out of order to assess whether or not they are reading or merely reciting:
Then, move them on to melodies that use these patterns. Prepare the singers’ ability to recognize pitches and patterns by having them echo short melodies that are similar to what they will read, in the same key. When they are ready to read a melody from notation, analyze the score by asking them questions that help to orient them in the music and recall their aural/oral vocabulary:
- Does the selection start and end on do/la?
- How many measures are there?
- In which measures do we * only * have Major/minor tonic triad pitches?
Once the singers realize how much of the material is familiar to them, their reading attempts are far more confident and successful. When engaged in the process of preparing repertoire, take every opportunity to reinforce their vocabulary by highlighting these familiar patterns wherever they appear in the music.
To experience MLT-based literacy training for yourself and learn strategies that are effective in just minutes per rehearsal, join me for this interactive session in Boston! A full resource packet will be provided so you can get started with your singers right away. See you there!
Work Cited & Resources
Blustine. E. (2000). The Ways Children Learn Music. Chicago, IL: GIA Publications.
Conkling, Susan Wharton. (2005). Reframing the Choral Art. In Runfola, Maria & Taggart, Cynthia (Eds.),
The Development and Practical Application of Music Learning Theory. Chicago: GIA Publications.
Gordon, Edwin. (2012). Learning Sequences in Music: Skill, Content, and Patterns. Chicago, IL: GIA
Gordon, Edwin. (2004). The Aural / Visual Experience of Music Learning Theory. Chicago, IL: GIA
Grunow, Richard & Gordon, Edwin. (2001). Jump Right In: The Instrumental Series Teachers Guide for
Winds and Percussion. Chicago, IL: GIA Publications.
Amy Beresik (M.M.) is the choral director at Dorseyville Middle School in the Fox Chapel Area School District, where she has three grade-level ensembles and two award-winning Honor Choirs. Under her direction, the DMS Girls Chamber Chorus has received exclusively Superior ratings in competition and was invited to sing for the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association Annual Conference in 2013. The choirs have been featured in annual competitions as well as many local and regional events.
Mrs. Beresik has served as a clinician for music education methods classes and professional development sessions, as well as PMEA, ACDA-PA, ACDA Eastern Division, ACDA Voices United conferences, and the GIML 5th International Conference on Music Learning Theory. She is an active member of ACDA, PMEA, NAfME, and GIML.