Chapter 3: Literacies across the disciplines
3.6.4 The language of music (research essay)
English 102, November 2020
If asked to name a language, what would be your first answer? If you are reading this in English, that would likely be the first one you would list, followed by French, Spanish, and Mandarin, all considered some of the most common languages in the world. But what if I told you there was an even more universal language, that everyone in the world can understand? That language is that of music. We can all be connected by music in the world, but to do that it has to be seen by the general public first as a language, and then we must all learn how to effectively communicate with it. This paper will highlight music as a language for all, and discuss the flaws in today’s musical teachings, and what can be done to fix this.
When we communicate, we do not often think “what is a language and how does it work?” because it is in our nature to make then noises that pass as words. But what happens when you do analyze what is considered a language and what is not? Do we find that more things pass under the definition than we previously expected, or is it proven that some of the words we even use today are not considered part of our native language? In this essay, I will focus on what a language is considered to be and show you there is more to language than just words on a paper.
As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, language is a means of communication that consists of words, sounds, or gestures between people that are often structured easy to comprehend format that is shared within a community (Oxford Dictionary, n.d.). But why is it that language is limited to what is writing in the pages or spoken word between people? I believe that while there are many languages in the world, one that is universal to all humans, and even some other species, is music. Music can be categorized under limitless genres; based on sound, style, audience perception, or place of origin, but one thing that will never change is its outreach to people. Some may say that music is not a viable language simply because it does not always contain words or an active conversation. But to those people, I would like to make the claim that music is a means of communication between groups of people, varying in many genres, and there is a little something for everyone. I do not think it is humanly possible to dislike all forms of music, because music conveys emotion, something we can all understand thoroughly.
When an artist or arranger wants to release a particular set of feelings, they can easily display their intentions through instrument composition. This is a methodical process to give the song a certain sound, which can either hold meaning on its own or can be accompanied by vocals to further boost the message. Either way, when you hear a song, you can often easily decipher the mood associated with it because of this instrumentation. While I am no arranger myself, I know that this quickly recognized tone is not a simple task to create. With some research from an online source called Music Theory, the structure of timbre, also known as sound quality or sound color (Music Theory, 2015) can be easily explained to anyone, regardless of musical experience. Sound color is an important aspect of music as a whole. When you consider the color, you often first have to focus on the instrumentation of the piece, what instruments were chosen, and more importantly, how does it contribute to the piece as a whole? The variation of instruments then adds dimension to the music, which will help the listener understand, even if they never notice the variety within the composition.
For example, think of the tone of a sad song. Then, try to associate a color group with the tone; most likely, you thought of a group of purples or blues, right? This is no mere coincidence; from the time we were children, this color group has almost always been associated with somber emotions, and the instrumentation of the song can therefore create this color palette. The song I thought of in this example was “Say Something” by A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera. This well-known song features a dramatic piano intro, joined by the solemn tones of the singers and the flowing of the orchestra. This combination will easily convey the tone of the music, giving every component a different intensity, or in this instance, color.
How music is taught
With this in mind, it is easy to see how structured classrooms are not useful for learning the creation of music. If music is actively used to convey emotion what would be the point in replicating someone else’s pieces all day? The piece “Informal Music Learning, Improvisation and Teacher Education” by Wright and Kennellepoulos highlights the extreme creativity of young children in artistic settings (Wright and Kennellepoulos, 71). But while this is true, as students enter primary school, they are often found assimilating to the likes of the teacher’s standards as well as to fit in with their peers. This will lead to a disconnect between the student and teacher, where the teacher assigns, and the student completes without independent thought. In a musical setting, this will lead to a sense of tediousness when it comes to an assigned piece of music. In a basic music class, the student would file in, grab their instruments, and wait for the instructor to tell them the lesson plan. Oftentimes this is as simple as pulling out their most recent piece of sheet music to play all together from start to finish or focusing on a certain section for the entirety of the class. This droning of the music will oftentimes become dull after the first or second class. There would be even less excitement to attend the class if the tone of the music were not appealing to the crowd of students.
For example, if the director of a seventh-grade chamber orchestra were to assign a new piece that was somber in tone and had a slow tempo, the energetic students would not be excited to constantly repeat the sad song during class and would be less engaged overall. But if they attended the class, expecting that somber song, and were surprised with a new, upbeat piece that they had heard on the radio before, they would be more likely to participate and enjoy the day’s lesson. I believe it is common knowledge that allowing a person to pick what they want to do will overall increase their participation in the task. That can then be applied to the music classroom as well. Allowing a student to choose the song they want to practice or perform with foster an informal learning environment, increasing not only participation but also conformability. In my high school orchestra class, my teacher would often allow the class to vote on the piece they wanted to practice for the day. While this did not always please everyone, the class saw fairness in this approach and were generally more comfortable playing aloud than if they were forced to play a piece they had no fondness for.
A big question to be tackled is what is music literacy? Obviously, literacy has something to do with language, but that is not specific enough in this case. In James Gee’s “What is Literacy?,” he explained to his readers that literacy is the control of language, whether it be your primary or secondary discourse (Gee, 23). While he goes into depth about the difference between primary and secondary discourse, he says something that makes my case particularly strong. “For most of us, playing a musical instrument, or dancing or using a second language are skills we attained by some mixture of acquisition and learning” (21). The context around this quote is his discussion of acquisition version learned forms of literacy, such as learning English from home versus learning it in school. But when applied to music it is clear that these guidelines are not as strict, for music cannot be dictated the way the rules of Standard Written English (SWE) are. Music is a secondary discourse according to Gee, whereas a primary discourse would be your native language. He is correct in the claim that music is a mixture of learning and acquisition, but is that always the way that music students come about their musical careers? In the classroom, it is more often a game of call and response than it is the acquisition of new notes and techniques. Teachers have gone to school for years, hopeful to master the art of music, and in the classroom, their dominance is present because of their feeling of superiority from this time in school. Through this dominance, they are oftentimes blocking the creativity of students from the first day in class.
In Sheri Jaffurs’s “The impact of informal music learning practices in the classroom, or how I learned how to teach from a garage band” she discussed the traditional ways of teaching music versus her observations of her past students in a secluded setting for a group rehearsal of their garage band. Jaffurs made a point that society says musical education in two separate categories: the formal and the informal. In the formal, you would find the school educated learning path, while in informal musical development, you find your own time, wherever you desire, and take a lot of time to improvise and discover the instrument yourself (Jaffurs, 190). This conversation is just a translation of Gee’s conversation of literacy via discourse but applied to the musical world. Here, formal music is considered the right way to learn, and the informal suggestions are often overlooked or discredited. This article then focuses on what she calls “versus theory” (190), where she compares informal and formal approaches. The traditional approach to formal music has always included classical music with western styles even if she personally tried to integrate more common and popular pieces into her lesson plans (190-191). After recognizing that musicality and individuality were not encouraged with goals being set and lesson plans being introduced (191). Basically, the teacher taking charge of the class was allowing the students to sit back and go with the flow rather than coming up with unique ideas and bringing some variety to the lessons. Upon her observation of her students’ garage band, she could not help but notice the lack of planning amongst other things. This seemed to really take her by surprise because their seeming spontaneous meetings were followed by a dysfunctional decision on what to practice and what time to call it quits. Although things were not organized up to the teacher’s standards necessarily, she concluded that informal music will always be present in a musical setting (192). Essentially, even in a classroom, when the teacher turns her attention away from a section, the students are bound to fiddle in some way from boredom. Even in a classroom, when the teacher turns her attention away from a section, the students are bound to fiddle in some way from boredom.
How to fix a broken system
In my high school marching and concert band class, this boredom-induced fiddling was exactly the case. Our director would have us form a semi-circle in the band room to rehearse our music together, but if a section had trouble with a particular section of the music, her focus would shift in order to assist them, and we would find ourselves so impatient that we would play our instruments as quietly as possible, going over our personal favorite parts. While this was a helpful practice for the students to stay sharp and somewhat on task, the director heavily discouraged it. In Rontrell Callahan’s “An examination of high school directors’ use of cooperative approaches in a marching band setting” he heavily discusses the role he thinks a marching band director should play in the eyes of the student. First and foremost, the band director should clearly be capable of controlling the students in whatever way is most effective (Callahan, 3). But with this in mind, the question of what is considered too much control comes into play. In my case, my director did not want anything to distract the struggling section from succeeding in their task. But by doing this I believe that she was limiting the musical expression of the other students, while also isolating the struggling section which can consequently further worsen their performance. So, although Callahan’s article justified behaviors exhibited by my teacher such as patience, understanding of different instrument groups and music theory, and putting being a teacher first (3-4), they failed to realize how a modern student can tend to feel isolated and stunted under these conditions. In Rontrell Callahan’s “An examination of high school directors’ use of cooperative approaches in a marching band setting” he heavily discusses the role he thinks a marching band director should play in the eyes of the student. First and foremost, the band director should clearly be capable of controlling the students in whatever way is most effective (Callahan, 3). But with this in mind, the question of what is considered too much control comes into play. In my case, my director did not want anything to distract the struggling section from succeeding in their task. But by doing this I believe that she was limiting the musical expression of the other students, while also isolating the struggling section which can consequently further worsen their performance. So, although Callahan’s article justified behaviors exhibited by my teacher such as patience, understanding of different instrument groups and music theory, and putting being a teacher first (3-4), they failed to realize how a modern student can tend to feel isolated and stunted under these conditions.
In an art class for example, if you were told to paint whatever you desired, and after you were done your art was compared to the teacher’s example for a grade, obviously you would feel as though the teacher deceived you and you were being limited artistically. This is similar in a musical setting as well. I interpret music based on tone, tempo, and how it makes me feel, so to be told my interpretation is wrong because the teacher wants it a specific way is disheartening as a creative musician. Another author, Jennifer Amox, had a similar opinion to mine. She is a middle school band teacher, who specializes in flute and would later become the author of “Polished Gems: A Supplemental Curriculum for Developing the Musical Literacy and Musical Expression Skills of Junior High Flute Students.” Even based on the title you can tell how this was an enticing piece to me. Her first suggestion for improving the learning and expression of musical students was the familiarity of the instrument itself (Amox, 1-2). This fundamental is crucial to achieving musical literacy and can be done in both formal and informal settings. This familiarity with the instrument is essentially making the instrument an extension of your body, where it would be of similar importance to communication as the mouth is to us as humans.
Once the fundamentals of an instrument are fully understood, musical development can take place anywhere. The practice is a crucial part of becoming a musician, but it does not always have to occur in the classroom to be considered quality study time. In a study by Amox’s colleague Welker, it was shown that the students with high-chair placements in the Arkansas band they taught would spend at least three hours a week practicing their instruments (11). Furthermore, the fact that every middle school band student has to audition for a spot in the band will increase competition as well as practice, encouraging the students to only join if they are truly passionate about music. You can only speak music if you are dedicated to learning it, the same as any other language. Amox’s “performance plan” was that guide to becoming fluent in the language of music (12). She believed that a mental picture of your final performance and the glory of it all will help students make steps towards achieving the success they crave (12). This is similar to learning any other language as well, where you start because you want to be able to visit a specific place and fluently speak their language; it gives you a sense of belonging and accomplishment that can rarely be found anywhere else.
One of the most insightful musical experiences I have ever been a part of was my time as a saxophone intern at “Amistad Caribbean Arts Camp” in the summer of 2020. Here I was introduced to a low stress (virtual) environment, with students of all ages and musical expertise. While I was initially an intern, I almost always found myself learning something new alongside the students. In this particular exchange, the music really did speak for itself. Additionally, the teachers were professional musicians who volunteered their time and knowledge to introduce many to a new culture or discourse of music. Circling back to Gee, music has all sorts of discourse based on origin, instruments, and rhythm amongst other factors. Going from school taught saxophone to Caribbean style playing was something I feel as though many formally taught musicians do not get to experience first-hand. I now know how to communicate in another discourse of music, versus just what I was taught inside of a formal classroom setting. Over zoom, I participated in drum circles, engaging lessons on culture and games just for fun. The informal setting allowed for a more personal connection with my instructs as well as the music itself.
One incredibly unique thing about this experience was the approach of the instructors. In a journal done by Lucy Green, called “The Informal Learning Approach” she discusses the steps that a teacher or instructor should take in order to best fit the needs of the students. One principal factor on this list is considering the student’s perspective (Green, 2008). By this, it is meant that the instructor takes a step back from their previously conceived headspace and consider what the students want to do as well. At my band camp, this was a common theme. During the three weeks we met Monday through Friday, there would be consistent feedback from me and my fellow interns, as well as some of the students ranging from four to about seventeen. Richard Goodstein’s “An Investigation into Leadership Behaviors and Descriptive Characteristics of High School Band Directors in the United States” a listing of desirable traits for effective learning in bands. In his research, it was found that factors such as band size, number of assistants, budgeting, and director age all directly correlated with the success of the group (Goodstein, 15-16). These attributes were prevalent in my internship group as well. The entire group was comprised of 30 people, including the staff. Goodstein said that the lesser the numbers, the more one on one interactions can take place, making it a more personal learning experience (15). We know this is true because of college student to teacher ratios. Oftentimes, a student will prioritize a school in order to get this more personal relationship with their instructor, allowing for better feedback and more realistic class sizes where everyone can get the attention they need. As far as the number of assistants goes, there were a total of ten interns scattered across the various instrument sections, allowing the younger children to have multiple outlets for questions and interaction. Our camp was funded through the Boys and Girls Club, as well as private donators, and the virtual aspect of it allowed money to be saved, which could then be redistributed to the students in other ways. And finally, the director’s age, which varied amongst the musical instructors. But this variety of ages, races, and experiences allowed for wisdom and energy to be simultaneously conveyed to the group, making every day more of an adventure.
The real takeaway from this is that music should be a victim of school standardization, for it needs to be able to flow through the creative minds of all people throughout the world. We all come from diverse backgrounds, schooling systems, and all have unique origin stories, but music can help us show all of that and more. Instrumentation, sound color, and lyrics can all be the gateway from one cultural experience to another with open learning styles and informal settings that allow all parties to be comfortable and welcome the presence of innovative ideas. Throughout all of my musical career, I can say I have learned an abundance of techniques, styles, and histories of music. But in the years that I spent in a school setting, I have never felt as comfortable being me and expressing myself through music as I did in those three short weeks at Amistad Caribbean Arts Camp. I believe all musical programs should foster this flexibility in the music as well as in the mindset they maintained.
Amox, J. (2018). Chapters 1 and 2. In 971570742 754142304 P. Quest (Ed.), Polished Gems: A Supplemental Curriculum for Developing the Musical Literacy and Musical Expression Skills of Junior High Flute Students (pp. 1-12). Ann Arbor, Michigan: ProQuest.
Callahan, R. (2013). An Examination of High School Directors’ Use of Cooperative Learning Approaches in a Marching Band Setting (Master’s thesis, Tennessee State University, 2013) (pp. 1-4). Ann Arbor: ProQuest.
Gee, J. (1989). What Is Literacy? Journal of Education, 171(1), 18-25.
Green, L. (2008). Informal Learning. Retrieved November 24, 2020, from http://www.musicalfuturesinternational.org/informal-learning.html
Goodstein, R. E. (1987). An Investigation into Leadership Behaviors and Descriptive Characteristics of High School Band Directors in the United States. Journal of Research in Music Education, 35(1), 13-25. doi:10.2307/3345165
Jaffurs, S. E. (2004). The impact of informal music learning practices in the classroom, or how I learned how to teach from a garage band. International Journal of Music Education, 22(3), 189-200. doi:10.1177/0255761404047401
Music Theory. (2015, September 23). Musical colors and timbre. Retrieved November 08, 2020, from https://www.aboutmusictheory.com/musical-colors.html