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The notation debate

the notation debate in music

I would imagine that most people reading this blog have already noticed that there is quite a discussion in the British music education community about the use of notation in music lessons. This has its origins in the recent OfSTED report ‘What hubs must do’, which has caused no small amount of uproar. I have been a little surprised by the reaction to this report and have been carefully but quietly reading all of the responses I have found in blogs, forums and tweets to be sure that I haven’t missed some central issue that puts me on a different train of thought to many others. In particular, the reaction to the statements that notation should be part of musical learning has surprised me and I wanted to address that here.

Our relationships with notation

It has interested me how most of the responses that I have read included a brief background of the author’s relationship to notation. In particular, I found it interesting to read about the backgrounds of two people who I genuinely admire and respect. Anna Gower’s blog entry tells us how she is a classically trained musician with a background that had a notation heavy emphasis and how this contrasts so drastically with her approach in the classroom. David Price outlines his experience as a gigging musician and how vital his aural learning skills were in this environment, which he then relates to the point that so many people have made. This point is that you do not need notation to become a fantastic musician and that you can reach great heights without it. I couldn’t agree more with both Anna and David on this count, there is no need for notation to develop as a musician and I would debate endlessly to defend that point.

It seems to me that people have a deeply personal relationship with notation, whether that be a relationship of absolute co-dependence (‘I can’t make music without notation and music doesn’t exist without the notation’) or a relationship that resembles a bitter divorce (‘Everyone told me that we needed to be together but I was never happy’). Either way (and the many ways in between), it leaves people with a very emotive argument that seems to allow emotions to run high. To that end (and partly just to jump on the bandwagon!), I think it’s quite important that I start my response by talking about my history with notation.

My relationship with notation

If I had to describe my relationship with notation in one word and with the same ‘love affair’ metaphor, then I would have to say that it has always (and continues to be) somewhat promiscuous.

I started my musical life relatively late. In fact, I genuinely could not abide listening to music until I was eleven years old and heard Chuck Berry singing Johnny B Goode during a family holiday to France. From that moment, I was hooked on rock and roll music as a listener. It wasn’t until I was fourteen that I started to be interested in making music and started teaching myself guitar using the Three Chord Songbook and a nylon string acoustic guitar given to me by a nun. The notation in this book was as simple as possible, featuring just the letter name of each chord change above the lyrics. The chord symbol was in bold and, at the start of the book, there were fretboard diagrams that showed me how to play each of the three chords (G, C and D7).

I soon encouraged myself to break free of the three chord trick and found myself using The Compleat Beatles songbook as a resource. In terms of notation, this was a much more complicated affair. At the top of each song was a collection of fretboard diagrams for all of the chords that were used in the song. Underneath this was a lead sheet featuring the voice part in treble clef and the letter names of each chord above it. At the bottom of the page were the lyrics written in full with the chord symbols in the right place on the lyrics but, helpfully, slashes to represent how many beats were between each chord. I freely admit that I made absolutely no use of the standard notation in here but, instead, learnt a huge variety of chord shapes and learnt about lots of standard chord progressions.

After this, I took to using Harvey Vinson’s Rhythm Guitar. This focused on teaching more chord shapes and explained how to read rhythm notation using a variety of counting strategies that I wish I had learnt at school. Counting quavers as ‘1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and’, etc really helped me. I became proficient at reading rhythms very quickly as a result of using this book. In terms of pitch notation, it was still mostly chord symbols but, in a few places, it used a system for identifying brief single note phrases. This system involved writing the letter name of the string underneath the rhythmic notation and then having the fret number in a circle underneath the apporpriate rhythms. e.g to play a descending G, F#, E, it would have looked like this:

E (3) (2) (0)

This system worked very well for me and I still attribute Vinson’s book as the reason for a lot of my later successes as a musician. Inevitably, however, I soon discovered TAB books. Specifically Oasis an Manic Street Preachers TAB books. A notation system focused on where my finger should be rather than the note I was playing was very much in sync with the method from Vinson’s book and made an awful lot of sense in my mind. I lapped up every TAB book I could get my hands on and used them to really get a handle on lead guitar playing. Perhaps because of the rhythmic notation from Vinson, the books that I enjoyed the most were the ones that included the rhythm slashes above the TAB numbers as I could pretty much sight read anything in this situation. If it doubled up the TAB and the standard notation for the guitar part, then I used the TAB for the pitch and the standard notation for the rhythm.

Soon after this, I found myself studying A-Level Music and freely conceded that it was time for me to get comfortable reading standard notation. I spent quite a bit of time getting familiar with reading treble clef but, if I’m honest, I spent most of Year 12 (as it’s called now) ‘working out’ the bass clef rather than reading it as I should. By the end of the course, I was a reasonably confident reader but still craved TAB if it came to sight reading.

Today, I feel that this background in music reading often gives me an advantage. I’m comfortable with pretty much any system that you can put in front of me. Chord symbols, roman numerals, rhythm, TAB, dots? Yep, you’ve got it. In truth, it probably wouldn’t take you long to find someone who can read any of these systems better/faster than me but I am content that I’m strong enough with each to do whatever job is necessary.

Along this journey, I’ve also made great use of aural learning and, again, I would venture to say that I’ve become pretty good at that too. In fact, my ideal musical learning environment would be to learn music where I have:

  • standard notation
  • chord symbols
  • guitar tablature (if playing guitar…)
  • a recording of the piece

Confronted with this variety of resources, I would certainly make use of all four systems and would probably find myself simultaneously using all three notation systems while playing along to the recording. Since I now find myself using four systems all at the same time, I think it’s best to stay well away from the ‘love affair’ metaphor…

How I feel about teaching notation

With this pretty much all-encompassing approach to notation and aural learning, I would like to suggest that I am relatively unbiased when it comes to my feelings about how and if notation should be taught in the classroom. I am not suggesting and would not suggest that anyone else who has written about this notation debate is biased from their background, I am simply putting forward that I do not feel that my background gives me reason to be biased.

What I think my experiences with notation and my experience of teaching notation has taught me is that it is pretty useful as a skill. Haven’t got a recording? Read the dots. Figured out every part of except that tricky, fast paced section? Read the dots. The rhythm guitar part obscured in the mix? Read the dots (or chord symbol or TAB). It simply doesn’t hurt to have some form of notation about. Is it essential? No. Does it make life easier when you’ve taken the time to develop this skill to even a basic level? Absolutely.

Similarly, aural learning skills are high on my agenda. Haven’t got sheet music? Listen to the recording. Can’t quite interpret the rhythm? Listen to the recording. Finding it difficult to interpret the spirit of the notation? Listen to the recording. Even with pieces that are being recorded for the first time, it’s common enough for the most seasoned of performers to play the dots to the composer and ask if they’ve interpreted it right – in many respects, checking it against the ‘recording’ in the composer’s head.

So, which should we teach? Notation or aural skills

The answer in my mind is a resounding ‘both’. I have no interest in teaching kids just one way of doing things.

That said, I don’t want to sit the whole class down and teach them that ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Football’ (please don’t give me football, I beg you). Nor do I want to give pupils notation for every activity. I just want them to have a basic understanding.

I also have a lot of time for Bill Martin’s approach that he has named ‘Ears and Eyes’. I have been taking some of the spirit of this approach into my Year 7 lessons this year and it’s working better than any other approach to teaching notation I’ve tried. I am not trying to teach them that ‘this note is a G’. I’m just teaching them that when they see that note they play a G. It works. It’s straightforward. It’s effective. Notation lessons don’t have to be arduous and boring because we don’t need lessons that are dedicated to teaching notation, I just want it included as one of the things that are received by the pupils because it’s relevant to them at the time of learning.

So, do I take issue with OfSTED saying that we should ensure that notation is included in our lessons? No. Do I want notation in every lesson? No. Will teaching notation bore the pupils? No.