The Language of Musical education
An exploration and proposal
I need to speak out about musical education, because it is in a frightfully poor state. I am a language educator, teaching English as a second and foreign language. My students come with a variety of needs, and of starting points, but all of them come because, in the world of “spoken languages”, English seems to be the one in highest demand. Despite the fact that nearly everybody in the world speaks some variant of English – or desires/needs to – it has not been entitled as “universal”, because that title has already been taken: by music!
Ah, music, the flights of the soul, the sounds of the angels, the dances of the ages, and many other sobriquets – the Universal Language! How much do we know about music?
I learned how to play drums, trombone and then saxophone, as a kid, along with singing. I took private lessons and music classes at school, and lived in a musical family – though not at the “gifted” level, admittedly. What I came away with was some mechanical skill, some scales, and ability to read staff and bar music notation. Reading the sheet music, I was able to learn songs, and even to play songs I had never seen before, pretty quickly. I got good enough to be first chair in the ‘bone section of the school band, at both primary and intermediate schools.
You might think that was pretty good, no complaints, right? Well, not actually. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew that it was not enough. When I said that to the “music people” around me, I got nowhere. I ended up dropping it, but I also sidelined music in my life. Oh, yeah, I continued to love music, had a booking agency and production company, practiced music business law, and DJed in California and England for nearly two decades (as a side gig), but music in my life – it was stuck.
Then my daughter said that she was having a tough time with music theory. [She has gone on to ace her music “theory” courses.] Her singing is excellent, and she’s not shy at all, so performance is comfortable for her. However, I, being an attentive dad, wanted to be able to support her on the theory.
Huh! “Theory”??? where did that label come from, as the identifier for a set of PRACTICAL knowledge for FACTS – many of them mathematical in nature, describing the structure and composition of music? I call it “Music Knowledge”.
I started, in this information age, to gather resources on the internet. Wow, what a deep ocean music is! I made a deep dive of a practical nature as well – I opened up my daughter’s abandoned Fender Squier Stratocaster case, took it out, and started to work on implementing some of the information I was getting. Now, there are pianos in the house, but something about the guitar spoke loudly and persistently to me, it was a bug that would not stop whispering in my ear.
Guitarism is what was unleashed! It helped me learn VERY MUCH, because it is hard for me. I have big hands, but with fingers which are somewhat connected. My hands are big, but not that finely articulate. It would be physically easier for me to play bass than six-string guitar, but that would be evading the matter. No, the exact fact that I could not easily make some of the chord fingerings was what pushed me even further into music knowledge.
Alternate fingerings for chords became a particular area of interest to me, and along with that, the study of just what notes I would need to have in such a chord, in order for the chord to sound the way I wanted it to. Did you know that you can do that on guitar, but there’s very little possibility of doing it on the keyboard instrument? Guitars have their strings, and they share some notes – not just octaves, but the dame frequencies. Those shared frequencies can help the player.
Here’s something even better – if a person is playing a song, or a genre, where the frequencies they want cannot be gotten conveniently from the strings on the guitar, they can CHANGE THE TUNING OF THE STRINGS on the guitar! What? Yup! Betcha can’t do that on your piano! Dang right you can’t! Not only is it possible, but it’s actually fairly commonly done!
There is standard tuning, and then Drop D, and Drop G and then, for the adventurous, Joni Tuning (e.g. G57543, etc.) and then, and then and then… The guitar has those tuning knobs, and you are in complete control of the way the strings sound.
The guitar can be used to emulate other instruments, such as lute or sitar, too, not just different genres or following particular composers. The result is that, by informing one’s self of the effect of different sounds on the ears of their audience, with a guitar a person can make music which expresses a wide range of emotions and feelings. That’s an essential part of music knowledge – the feelings of this universal language.
The tunings are part of making full use of the physical instrument, then there is the sequence of sounds in a grouping to consider – the scales. One might easily grasp that there are scales of eight notes, which we might know as “do-re-mi-so-fa-la-ti-do” getting to the ending note “do” (“doe”, a deer, a female deer) which is twice the frequency (vibrational wave speed) as the beginning not “do”.
That said, there are seven different sets of note groupings, and that is just for the eight-note scales. Seven different types of scales, reaching back through history, ranging across the ancient Hellenic and Turko/Gallician world, and reverberating into the modern day. Now they are called “modes” which makes them sound exotic, but the regular types of scales we play are part of the same group!
The scales are not as simple as just the modes I just touched on! There are scales (“do” to “do”) with five notes, with six notes, and nine notes! Then these types of scales overlap in ways which sound good to our ears, so we can go from one “mode” to another USING THE SAME NOTES but making them sound different, because of grouping them in a different order. That’s called “relative minor”, and lots of music makes use of it! We are accustomed to hearing it, we just didn’t know what it was called.
This is just a toe in the waters of music knowledge, but I need to tell a bit about them, to get to the next point: this is not taught to students, until they get into very advanced music studies. Most of the musicians out there are taught to read music and repeat songs, equipped with physical/mechanical playing skills, and Major/minor scales, full stop. Think about language for a minute: it would be as if the language course were teaching vocabulary, and sentences to memorize, and then also reading but only reading for the purpose of repeating the text on the page.
In language, we learn a few words, and then start learning about the parts of the language, a little bit at a time, with the structure and the form of the language clearly in front of us. We learn the words about things, the words about actions, the words which give us details or modifications of those first two, and the words which connect them.
In language, we learn to make sentences of our own, which tell our own ideas, and information. We learn to make sentences of our own which ask someone to tell us something. We learn to make sentences about things that have (in the past) or do result from another thing, and also about things which might result. The interesting thing is, we all learn those things about spoken language, but very few people learn them about music – many many people learn music without being able to learn how to make their own compositions. Those things are very basic for language learning, but not for the Universal Language of Music, and that is not a good thing.
I would like to see Music Knowledge be taught to all music students, a little at a time, from the beginning. I intend to explore that topic further, and to consult with other musicians and music educators, and put some flesh on the bare bones of that proposal.
I welcome your reactions and input. Thanks for your time. David C.P. Leland
©2020 David C.P. Leland All rights reserved.