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.