New contributions to #notationgate from Jon Henschen and Andrew Mellor

Readers of this blog will recall #notationgate in Spring of 2017, a public debate about the role of Western (and other) musical notations in education and music-making in general, provoked by a polemical article by Charlotte C. Gill, in which she claimed that musical notation was ‘a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people, most of whom have benefited from private education’. This led to a major letter to The Guardian in response, which I and several others co-ordinated, with signatories from a range of leading musicians and musicologists (see here for the full list, and a range of links to other responses). I also wrote a follow-up article for The Conversation (‘The insidious class divide in music teaching’, 17 May 2017). It should be registered, though, that there was another group of mainly musicologists and some music educationalists who drafted another letter in response to ours, but which was never published, arguing that the first response was inflammatory, and insistence on musical notation discriminated against some with various learning and other difficulties. This was however never published.

In August of this year, Jon Henschen published an article for Intellectual Takeout (‘The Tragic Decline of Music Literacy (and Quality)’, 16 August 2018), with statistics showing just 11% of people (presumably in the US) could read music well, and linked this to wider declines in the quality of a good deal of popular music, citing a study (Joan Serra, Álvaro Corral, Marián Boguñá, Martín Haro and Josep Ll. Arcos, ‘Measuring the Evolution of Contemporary Western Popular Music’, Scientific Reports 2, article 521 (2012)) which demonstrated increasing homogeneity of content in terms of pitch, timbre and other parameters. Henschen also alluded to the domination of songwriting by Lukasz Gottwald of the United States and Max Martin from Sweden, suggesting that a lack of wider notational skills provided the opportunity for just a few individuals to dominate, with all that implies in terms of homogeneity.

Anyhow, Andrew Mellor has published another short piece for Classical Music magazine (‘Academics who dismiss musical literacy have confused recreation with study’, 10 October 2018), engaging more deeply with the major academic divides on the subject which did flare up a little during the original #notationgate and continued in responses to Henschen’s article. I have a lot of sympathy with his criticisms of the substitution of music sociology for the study of music (which is not to say that music sociology is not also an important discipline), and the dire consequences of reducing notational requirements in education. Here is a section from the article:

…one university academic went for the jugular: stave notation is relevant only to ‘the minority music of the elites’, he said, claiming notated music accounts for just ‘3.5% of all concerts and recordings’. Some Facebookers retorted: isn’t ‘the minority music of the elites’ a little incendiary and over-simplified? The academic responded calmly: studies repeatedly tell us that mostly wealthy people enjoy classical music and opera. […]The academic clarified his position: sure, students at university can learn western notation if they want to, but they might find it more useful to learn how to use music production software.

[…] The real reason some universities no longer require music students to be able to read music – and yes, you did read that correctly – is that it widens their potential market. It means lecturers don’t have to consider how best to maintain musical literacy skills in their students, nor take the time and effort required to test them. In some cases, it tells of a faction who wish to see ‘the minority music of the elites’ ousted from university music departments altogether.

Anyone who believes this intellectual debasement will flood higher education with new perspectives and alternative narratives is dreaming. Ditching notation is not about opening music education up, but about closing huge swathes of it off. There is hardly a western musical form in existence that cannot be analysed and contextualised using notation. More importantly, there are questions surrounding instrumental competence, not least for those graduates who proceed to teach practical music-making in schools.

Marketplace education has a lot to answer for, not least the redefinition of what it means to study a subject rigorously. Some universities will go to any length to pander to the whims and parameters of their student ‘customers’. We learned recently that a British university is to launch a joint degree in journalism and PR. If that doesn’t feel like a marketing department defining the content of a degree course, I don’t know what does.

The results of all this will be further inequality and division. The classical music scene in this country is arguably thriving like never before, but if musical notation becomes the preserve of private schools and Oxbridge, five centuries of music really will become the plaything of the minority. What’s worrying is that there are plenty who are willing that to happen, knowing it will lead to all-out extinction. And that’s when Jon Henschen’s nightmarish vision will come to fruition.


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