The Danger of Extremes: Robbie Gennet and Notation-free Music

Recently, Robbie Gennet, a musician and blogger at the Huffington Post, posted an article claiming that teaching reading and writing was unimportant in today’s world. My gut reaction was to quickly disclaim such an idea. However, I like to chew on ideas for a while. This allows me to choose what to say and how I want to say it.  Here is part one of my response to Mr. Gennet.

First, let me list some ways in which I agree with him. It’s easy to shoot from the hip when there are a lot of incorrect ideas to focus on. I want to be fair.

Notation is a written record of music

Sheet music is a visual copy of a piece of aural art. If you want to reproduce something like what the composer intended, then a copy of sheet music can be indispensable. This is particularly true the older or more complicated something is.

In undergrad and grad school, I learned to read notes precisely. I am very thankful for that focus. It has helped me immensely over my career. Sloppy musicians do not last long in professional music.

A lack of Improvisation

With that said, there does seem to be an overemphasis on reading notation as opposed to improvising in our universities. I received lots of training in reading music; I received little to no instruction on how to improvise. The majority of my training taught the opposite. Read the notes! Get it right! Now! Don’t be a hack!

I learned improvisation by singing melodies and harmonies with my family as a child. It was these unstructured, low-pressure times where I felt free to play. I experimented. I grew.

Some genres do not want exact reproduction. I believe these genres are what Mr. Gennet is talking about-genres like jazz, pop, rock, and others. Even classical music does not always insist on exact reproduction. In other words, some composers assumed that the performer would do improvisation on the written notes.

Too much emphasis on following the rules, not on what sounds good.

Certain minds love rules, and I thank them for it. They establish guidelines so that music-making becomes streamlined. These folks impose order on the chaos. Even musicians untrained in notation use these rules that were developed. They might not know it, but those three chords that they use were codified by others who knew notation. It was preserved for us by our forebears.

Rules create framework, but they do not create art. Musical order is good, but not as an end in and of itself. This is where some musicians, composers, and theoreticians go astray. They exalt the rules™ and are more concerned if a piece of music has parallel fifths than if it sounds good.

You do not need to know how to read to become successful in the music industry.

I concede this point to Mr. Gennet. There are many popular musicians who can’t read a lick of music. They make a whole lot more money than I do. I say, “More power to them.”

Which brings me to Taylor Swift’s quote that Mr. Gennet shares. “I would not have majored in music because when music becomes technical for me I don’t like that part of it. I can’t read music.”  An obsession with getting it right misses the boat, quite frankly. The point of notation is to provide a framework for making and understanding music. Creating a good song should not be about how many rules you got right, but how it sounds. A well-trained ear trumps a well-trained eye, but both are necessary in order to be a well-rounded musician.

Mr. Gennet is right in these areas. Unfortunately, he comes to an extreme, erroneous conclusion. Rather than say that we need to properly emphasize the primacy of the ear in writing music and promote training in improvisation, he advocates blowing up the system. If you can be successful without learning to read, in his mind, then reading is worthless.

The ability to read music is an extremely important tool. I am saying this as someone who learned to read later in life. Reading has helped me immensely. It opened vistas of great music and helped me understand my craft.

In addition, basic notation is not hard for folks to grasp. I have taught basic note-reading to many classes and choirs with ages ranging from 6-80. Musicians young and old can easily learn to read.

Mr. Gennet is mistaken when he says teachers should not teach notation. If taught correctly, it should not create a barrier to understanding and writing. It should only enhance it.

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