February 14, 2019

“Let’s start at the very beginning…”

A very good place to start, indeed! In an iconic scene from a classic musical, “Fraulein Maria” realizes quickly that singing a scale up and down is not the most engaging way to teach her 7 young charges how to sing.

“Let’s see if I can make it any easier,” she says. And she does! In the musical version, she creates a catchy tune on the spot that’s based on the 7 tones of the major diatonic scale. And to each degree of the scale, she adds a fun mnemonic device – “do, a deer, a female deer,” etc.

In equating “do re mi” with “A B C”, Fraulein Maria (or, rather, the creators of the song, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein) demonstrates a perceptive understanding of the nature of music education that many people miss; and that is that learning to sing and learning to read are both forms of literacy.

PianoWe are all familiar with language literacy: the ability to read and write in one’s native language. Large portions of childhood are dedicated to mastering this ability. But music literacy? What’s that? Why should we bother with it? And how do we achieve it?

Music Literacy  - What Is It?
Music literacy is exactly what it sounds like: the ability to read and write the language of music. Just like letters are the keys to unlocking language literacy, notes are the keys to music literacy. And much like reading and writing, all that is required to be musically literate is an ability to equate the written symbols with the sounds they represent.

What’s So Important About Being Musically Literate?
There are many reasons why being musically literate is important, reasons that range from philosophical to historical to practical and everything in between. We’ll stick with two main reasons that resonate strongly with us here at Oak Hill: Biblical and educational.

Even if we narrow our focus to strictly Biblical reasons for strong musical literacy, we have enough material to write several blog posts… or at least a very lengthy one! The main reason, though, is because Scripture commands us to sing: not once, not twice, but 50 times! Here’s just one from the book of Psalms: “Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him: talk ye of all his wondrous works.” Psalms is full of similar injunctives, and this command to sing is not limited to the Old Testament.

With over 400 references to singing and music contained in the Word of God, it is obvious that music is vital to a life of worship. It just makes sense, then, that if we are to fulfill this mandate to sing, then we must learn how to do it, and how to do it well.

In terms of educational reasons for developing musical literacy, it remains pretty much an undisputed fact that learning about music enhances learning in every other area. Experts credit music education with everything from increased spatial intelligence and improved memory to emotional development and better physical coordination1. Inner-city and low income schools have improved their students’ test scores and overall academic ability simply by implementing music into their curriculum – one recent high-profile (due to videos of their success going viral on social media) example of this is Feversham Primary Academy in West Yorkshire, England2.

So How Do We Become Musically Literate?
To quote Fraulein Maria again, we start at the very beginning. Only, in a real life setting with real live children, our beginning looks a little bit different than the one on the screen, where the von Trapp children went from musically illiterate to public performance in five minutes or less.

The beginning of music literacy is very much like the beginning of language literacy. A child learns a language by first hearing and experiencing long before he begins to decode and decipher it with the symbols of letters and punctuation. Similarly, music literacy is learned by first hearing and experiencing its various components (mostly melodic and rhythmic concepts) well before attempting to decode and decipher it. In our music curriculum at Oak Hill, we ensure that by the time a child gets to the point where the teacher shows him a quarter note and tells him it lasts one beat, he has already experienced this many times kinesthetically, aurally and visually with the aid of icons and pictures. Now he is simply naming a concept he is already fully aware of, and the visual representation of it makes perfect sense.

In this way, music literacy is achieved almost effortlessly… and with great joy and full engagement in the process! Using this methodology of “sound to symbol”, by the time our students at Oak Hill arrive in middle school, they have learned all the key components of basic music notation: all the notes of the scale, the letter names of the staff, various rhythm patterns, the most common time signatures, and other symbols such as flats, sharps, etc. They have also amassed a large library of folk songs and hymns, and have had much practice analyzing and enjoying art music. In grades 6-12, students begin to put what they know into practice by sight-reading choral music, all the while deepening their understanding of music theory.

What A Musically Literate Student Looks Like
The end goal for a musically literate student is one who is fully fluent in the language of music. An individual fluent in a language is one who can easily speak, read, and write in that language, and has a solid understanding of the grammar and spelling rules underpinning it. Therefore, a musically literate student should be able to:
  •  Sight-read music from the staff
  •  Write music on the staff, either music he hears or music he creates himself
  •  Understand music that is heard
  • Identify and interpret all the symbols relating to musical notation and perform them as directed
  •  Understand and correctly implement the “grammar and spelling” of music, the theory that underpins harmony and rhythm

From beginning to end, cultivating a heart and a mind for music is a major objective here at Oak Hill!

Written by Anne Simpson music teacher at Oak Hill Christian School


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