Why is Sheet Music Still Necessary in Music Education? Part 2

This is a sequel to my previous piece, "Why is Sheet Music Still Necessary in Music Education?," which must be read as much for the comments as for the piece itself. Truth is, I know the piece came across as a bit inflammatory and was expecting some of the pushback that I got. What I didn't expect was the level of vitriol that went with it, but I'll address that later. I wanted to clarify my original piece, as it was taken wildly out of context by many who were incensed at the mere suggestion that music could be fundamentally understood without any sheet music (aka notation).

My article was aimed at non-classical/theater music, and yet where was 99.9 percent of my criticism coming from? The classical/theater crowd. It's as if I wanted to discuss something about all humans except for Asians and a large group of angry Asians attacked me. But yes, I could have made my point louder and clearer right up front. Here are three titles which may have worked better:

Why is Sheet Music Still Necessary in Beginning Music Education?
Why is Sheet Music Still Necessary in All Non-Classical Music Education?
Why is Sheet Music Still Necessary in All Music Education?

Perhaps then the Conservatory Crowd (as I'll refer to them with due respect) wouldn't have raised the torches and pitchforks, but I really needed to hear their raw feedback. And while I wasn't necessarily trolling them, I indeed got a much bigger grasp on how they perceive things. To the Conservatory Crowd, may I say I'm hoping for a little shared perspective. So let me start with a statement I think you will all agree on:

European classical music is one of the highest forms of human musical expression in history and will probably stand as a high water mark for what humans can achieve in musical construction of harmony, melody and orchestration.

I might put Hindustani and Carnatic Indian Classical music at those lofty compositional heights but they use an entirely different tuning and system of notation to represent their music, so it may not seem relevant in the equal-temperament world. But putting aside thousands of years of non-European global musical expression, I got the feeling from the Conservatory Crowd that they felt their music -- and the method by which it was notated, and thereby read -- was superior to a non-notated approach and all "lesser" music. And they were very vocal about it, which often came across as elitist, derogatory, judgmental and sometimes just mean.

But here's the thing: Just because the music you play is of superior construct doesn't mean your dreams, goals, desires and passions are superior to others outside your genre or educational level. Everyone's dreams are valid and equal, no matter how small and personal. Here's two quotes on that from my original piece:

But who's to say that this (notation-free) music is not valid, especially in the eyes of its creators?

And whether it hits on the charts or at the very least fulfills your own desire to create music, isn't that all the validity needed nowadays?

Let me clarify something for those who are at the upper echelons of music performance, ability and composition: You don't own music. You don't speak on its behalf, you don't represent its entirety and you are not the gatekeepers to all musical knowledge. Every single person that wants to be musical should have a path, regardless of their desire to be professional or attend a conservatory. Many people are happy being hobbyists, though you see them as lazy and underachieving. We respect you doing what you do but reading your comments, it's clear most of you don't respect anyone who doesn't do it your way or at your level. I read every single comment (and answered quite a few) and the overall fervor I stirred up had a certain smugness to it with a religious-like certainty full of self-righteous scorn and derision for non-believers. And that's not even counting the juvenile insults, such as the guy who suggested someone slap my mother for not having an abortion. Over music! Well, just because you play classical doesn't mean you have any class.

To you all I ask this: You do understand that there are millions of people making music across the globe right now without your permission or validation, right? Why does that burn you so? Is it because they didn't take the time to go to school or study like you did? Because they didn't want a career or to get too deep and are all just having fun being musical and expressing themselves freely without your education or an ability to read notation? Whatever it is, I think I may have found the main schism in this whole "debate" and that is this: triadic music -- all music made of chords (triads) -- is different than European classical music, which is generally not built on simple chord changes.

Sure there have been triad-based folk/ethnic tunes around since before Johannes Lippius coined the term "harmonic triad" in his "Synopsis musicae novae" (1612). But in Europe, the popular music of the following centuries was classical, much of it bankrolled by kings and rich families. The Medici family alone is responsible for the existence of some truly amazing classical music and Ferdinando de Medici purportedly bankrolled the invention of the piano. But it was after the phonograph was invented in 1871 that recorded music changed the paradigm. Before then, people had always not just recorded music via notation, but written that way as well. In the written paradigm, the level of composition soared to clearly amazing heights.

Here is a great synopsis of the history of European classical music. If there was ever a golden era of European classical music, it started with Bach and Mozart in the 18th century and tailed off in the early 20th century with later giants like Prokofiev, Copeland, Gershwin, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. But as for popular music, Classical's hold of the mainstream died off, replaced by triadic music which has since dominated, much to the chagrin of the Conservatory Crowd.

The dawn of the 20th century saw the rise of triads in popular cakewalks and ragtime, followed by the glorious Tin Pan Alley era that birthed many of the modern standards of today. Composers like George Gershwin straddled worlds but as far as popular music was concerned, the 20th century belonged to triadic composers in just about every single genre besides classical/orchestral. Modern classical may have its geniuses (John Adams being one of the best) but John Williams is closer to a populist composer in the 21st century. Seeing films with a full orchestra playing the score is a rising phenomenon, as is the art of orchestrating video game music, which has grown by leaps and bounds. But there is one thing that classical music wasn't meant to do (and isn't easy to do in any case) and that is transpose.

J.S. Bach's "Tocatta and Fugue in D minor" is not called "Tocatta and Fugue in any key you want" for a reason. But your drunk uncle asking me if I can play "Fly Me to the Moon" in "his key" at a wedding? Happens all the time. Triadic music is easy to transpose because chord changes work like simple building blocks within a finite realm of possibilities, parts and pathways. The explanation of triads is not only extremely simple and powerful for contextual language and listening skills but it's easy to explain, understand and use without notation. And classical music is not. And when notation is how you mainly or solely interpret triadic music, I can see how it distorts things a bit.

If the Mount Olympus of European Classical music was surrounded by the Great Wall of Notation, Suzuki breached the gates a long time ago, at least for beginners. Those with the aptitude or the ear can enter and begin ascending the long path towards the top. And as to all the people who have no desire to visit the mountain but like to gaze on it from afar (or not), they're fine. Really, they couldn't care less what you or I think about the music they're making. And yes, we all wish they would aspire to know more (and some will). But I want to draw the Conservatory Crowd's attention to a certain group of people who I hold near and dear to my heart: your rejects.

I meet them all the time, usually later in life. "I woulda loved to play piano" they say, and then proceed to tell me how a well-meaning teacher told them they didn't have the aptitude for music. "Maybe," the teacher said. "This is just not for you." The teacher was speaking of course about notation but since the student didn't get it, they were summarily rejected. And they went through life suppressing this desire to be musical because they were told they weren't good enough or worthy or able. These are people with feelings, dreams and passions and to crush them like that is unconscionable. Music is for everyone, period.

People are allowed to play "Memories" from Cats for their cats at home and be happy. They are allowed to improvise and make music out of pure joyful expression. They are allowed to write and perform songs and even get someone to publish them if they choose. They are allowed to be musical and they do not have to get a formal education to do so. If any of them want to take it to a higher level, the paths are available as they always have been. But at the very beginning, before you bring out the staff paper, everyone and anyone can and should connect directly to the language of music and learn the basics without notation. Those who add notation after can do so with meaning, as opposed to the students I get who can turn a well-played piano into a piece of furniture by removing the sheet music. They need context too, desperately so.

So I ask you to stop rejecting anybody who is not right for a Conservatory Education. Tell them there are other ways to be musical and send them off with hope and their passions/dreams intact. Know that some will rise and some will not, but that a crushed seed will rarely bloom. Cast aside your judgment, your scorn for "lazy hobbyists" and go back to your earliest memories of music. Remember the joy you discovered with sound and the elation you felt to connect with and create it? Now imagine if anyone had crushed you during that pure moment. Be more compassionate to those who seek joy in music, for they are brethren in spirit, if not in aptitude. Fear not those who will not or cannot ascend to your level musically, for they will find their own way and be happy, as should you. Remember that a stellar two hundred year stretch of European classical music has a lot of company in the world then and especially now, much of it exciting and all of it available online worldwide.

And lastly acknowledge that your version of notation is but one way to interpret music as you acknowledge that Indian Classical Music has evolved since the Vedic and Persian chants of 1500BC with its own scales (thaats), melodic foundations (ragas), different tunings and a completely different notation system, too. Plus, Indian classical music has a much larger emphasis on improvising, which is the art of speaking music existing in real time in the mind/intention of the player, not on the page. That language -- music itself -- can be represented by notation for phonetically reproducing music by anyone who can read it. But not everyone gets, needs or wants it to make music and that's OK, ok?

Thanks to all who commented on the last piece and of course, feel free to comment on and share this one. More info on Robbie Gennet at www.thekeyofone.com