A Manifesto For Modern Music Education

Back in 2010, the UK government published a “Music Manifesto” which promised to “provide every young person with first access to a range of music experiences,” and “provide more opportunities for young people to deepen and broaden their musical interests and skills.” I wanted to see what kind of approach they took to teaching music, what kinds of classes, method books, etc. The UK government website has some general course outlines, but I couldn’t find any information about approved books, or anything like that. Their “Manifesto” is mostly about moving money around. The UK’s music program has had mixed reviews over the years.

So I decided to write a “manifesto” for methods and priorities in teaching modern musical styles, because traditional programs don’t necessarily prepare students for performing and recording modern music.

These recommendations apply specifically to guitar, bass guitar, and piano. However, these principles can be adapted to instruction on other instruments as well.

The HoustonGuitar Manifesto:

Teaching modern musical styles requires a different approach from traditional teaching models based on classical music. The first step in creating a modern music program is to divide “music,” and “music education,” into their core components:

(1) There are physical conditioning steps which can make learning an instrument much easier, especially for beginners. Conditioning for beginners should be geared toward playing chords and scales. This prepares them to play parts from popular songs. Many students never get the basic conditioning necessary for them to play their instruments comfortably. Reading-based methods don’t address problems associated with physical conditioning in any meaningful way.

(2) Students need to learn the note-name system of naturals, sharps and flats, apart from staff notation. The best way to understand the note-name system is to demonstrate it on a piano keyboard. Even guitar and bass players should learn how to name notes on the piano, because it takes only a few minutes to explain. For guitar and bass players, learning all of the notes on the fretboard takes more time. It’s also important for students to understand the concept of “octave equivalency.” Ethan Hein points out that animals like monkeys and rats share this musical sense.

(3) Students need to understand basic theory concepts related to chords and scales, apart from staff notation. This includes major and minor scales, modes, and chord triads. This begins with learning chord and scale shapes on the keyboard or fretboard.

(4) Students need to learn the scale degree system apart from staff notation, and how scales, modes and chords relate to scale degrees. In introducing this concept, piano instructors should take advantage of the fact that the first five scale degree numbers correspond to the finger numbers of the right hand. Over time, students need to learn how chords and scales relate to scale degrees and their corresponding letter names.

Students need to understand that in tempered tuning, each note represents an equal musical distance. Melodies aren’t tied to specific groups of notes, but are tied instead to distances between notes. This is what makes it possible to transpose melodies from one key to another.

(5) Students need to learn how to “read music by ear.” Many musicians, both classical and modern, demonstrate an ability to precisely reverse-engineer music based solely on what they hear. There is no mystery about how this ability works, or the methods for teaching it. The ability to read music by ear is important to all musicians. But it is especially important to students of modern styles, because most modern music is not composed in staff notation. This ability is necessary in order to transcribe music.

(6) Students should learn the concept of intervals between notes, and to identify specific intervals by ear. This can be taught effectively by using sections from well-know melodies as mnemonic devices. For instance, the opening notes to the melody of The Eyes of Texas are an example of the sound of a perfect fourth. Using this method, students can learn to identify intervals between notes independent of note names. Over time, the concept of intervals should be integrated into the student’s understanding of note names, scale degrees, and their corresponding shapes on the keyboard or fretboard.

(7) Because the vast majority of modern music in rock, country, blues, and related styles is non-notated, and because so many successful modern songwriters and musicians neither read nor write staff notation, and because in the production of so many of the most enduring and best-loved songs of all times, staff notation played no role whatsoever, it is well past time for modern music educators to create methods and models which acknowledge these long-established realities.

The high rates of attrition in traditional music programs are due in large measure to problems associated with learning to read music. It is time to modernize strategies for teaching staff notation. Reading staff notation is a multifaceted task. The first task is simply to identify the notes names on the staff, and read them from left to right. The second task is to understand the rhythms associated with the individual notes. A third component of learning staff is learning to play as you read. It’s much easier to create effective reading programs when you address each of these three components separately. For instance, apps and worksheets are an easy and effective way to lean to identify notes. Also, a few simple real-time rhythm and counting exercises can produce an immediate and measurable improvement in basic reading abilities.

(8) Students should learn effective memorization strategies for the type of music they’re learning. Classical and modern musicians rely on memorization in different ways. Even classical pianists and violinists rely on memorization differently, in that concert pianists usually memorize their music, while concert violinists read from printed music when they perform.

(9) Students of modern music need to learn the working methods of modern musicians, as distinct from classical musicians. Modern music is based more on groove and arrangement than on “composition” in it’s traditional sense. Staff notation is usually not part of the creative process. Jon Anderson, singer for the progressive rock group Yes, has described how they created new songs by improvising together and recording their sessions on cassette tape, instead of writing their parts in staff notation. The exception was keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who wrote out many of his parts. Wakeman also scored choral arrangements on some of their records. Yes is an ideal case study of the complicated relationship which modern music has with staff notation.

 © 2020 Greg Varhaug