Music – So Much More Than Notation

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As a Music Technology specialist, I often get questions from educators looking to start a Music Tech program in their school. One of the most common inquiries is about notation software, i.e. which engraving product do I use to teach Music Tech – Sibelius, Finale, Notion, Noteflight etc.? I love all those products and I use them in my personal composing and arranging, but teachers are always surprised that I deflect their question into a question about which DAW software to use instead. If truth be told, I use notation software very little in my teaching, but yet this often catches people off guard. How can you teach music without teaching notation?

I think we’re often confused about what it is we’re actually teaching. We should be teaching children to make music, to compose, to improvise, but often we end up teaching them how to read from a code, which in itself is quite a modern construct in music history. Many World traditions and styles of music do not use notation at all. Notation is not a universal language, but music is.

Recently I had the joy of watching a fine, experienced teacher, teach an African song to her chorus class. She taught it by rote and they sang it very well. Then she handed out the sheet music! I mentioned to her that I taught the kids already knew the song and didn’t need the dots on the page, but she kindly explained to me that this was music class and so the kids had to read the music. I know when to back away from an ideological argument, so I kept my mouth shut, but the conversation really began to get me thinking of what music really is, and what we mean when we say we “teach music.”

Reading and writing notation is a handy skill to have, but it’s not a prerequisite to actually making music. A simple google search will bring up lists of musicians who do not read or write standard notation. I find it telling that many music teachers are astonished that so many “musicians” do not read, but yet many people I know who are not “musicians” do not find this surprising at all. Music is an aural art, not a visual one. The ability to play by ear, the ability to improvise, to ability to audiate, and the ability to teach without relying on notation, are all skills which I believe we as music teachers need to continue to improve.


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Richard McCready is a composer, musician, and the Director of Music Technology at River Hill High School in Columbia, Maryland.  He was born in Northern Ireland and studied tuba performance, piano, and composition at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, England.  Since emigrating to the US in 1992, he has held teaching positions at The Park School of Baltimore, Towson University, and Mayfield Woods Middle School, Elkridge, MD; he has also played professionally with the Monumental Brass Quintet, the Lexington Brass Quintet, and the Denhard/McCready Duo.  He has earned two Masters degrees from Towson University, one in tuba performance and one in vocal performance.  He plays many musical instruments, but the focus of his teaching is Music Technology in which he is widely regarded as one of the outstanding innovators in the US.  His book, Making Music with GarageBand and Mixcraft, was published in 2010. Richard was awarded the TI:ME 2013 Mike Kovins Teacher of the Year Award and also the Howard County 2013 Music Educator of the Year.