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Teaching "Whole Music" Literacy

What do Whole-Language teachers and Music teachers have to learn from one another? (adapted from a Research Forum article published, 1994, Lanley, BC School District)

When considering "literacy," we often assume that we are considering knowledge of communication through the written word. However, the reading and writing of music are also communication skills that fall within the notion of "literacy." Music is a kind of language (some even term it the "Universal Language") with its own logic and syntax. A pedagogy has evolved to teach the skills of reading and writing music with its own methodology and developmental scope and sequence.

While music reading and writing skills are quite different from language reading and writing skills, the early development of musical literacy can also be a powerful tool in developing language literacy. Studies have shown that the study of music increases academic achievement on a number of different fronts, including language and writing skills. This seems to support the idea that the development of music and language literacy in our students may mutually reinforce each other. Perhaps the differences between the skills of reading and writing music and language are not as great as they appear at first glance.

Literacy is about the fluent use of a language. "I speak the lingo. I read the lingo. I write the lingo. I understand the language." To be able to say this is to be an educated man in our society. We speak to communicate information and ideas. But no language is capable of communicating all ideas. The structure of language itself insures that. Whatever form the language takes implies the validity and importance of the concepts expressed in that form. In English the subject and object structure, for instance, imposes its form on our thoughts . It is important, in order to develop diverse creative thought and ideas, to have knowledge of a number of languages or means of expression.

Music is, demonstrably, a language. It is in fact an extremely sophisticated language. It has its own "grammar" and a logic dictated by the harmonic patterns of various frequencies (pitches) sounded simultaneously and in series. We react to these patterns with marked physical and emotional responses. It communicates and in fact encodes and replicates harmonic events in time. Sounds, as we have known from at least the time of Pythagoras, have structure and mathematical relationships to each other. Almost all of us have experienced an intensely emotional response at one time or another to the harmonic structure of music. I think it is important to represent music through reading and writing in order to have a better understanding of that structure and, ultimately, in order to have a better understanding of ourselves.

Until now a truly musically literate society in the "functional literacy" sense, has been considered by many to be impossible, even irrelevant. Noted music educator, Bennett Reimer in his book, A Philosophy of Music Education (1989 p.176) states, "When literacy is equated with...reading and writing in the literal sense - the irrelevance of such literacy will ensure will be considered esoteric." We know the difficulties and the energy that go into educating our children in our native spoken language. It seems inconceivable we could expend such energy on an esoteric language of pure sound like music. However, I believe that the understanding music provides is not irrelevent. I believe learning the musical "lingo" is worth the effort. But it is difficult to do. How can we proceed?

Whole-language methods and techniques for teaching language literacy are showing that music plays an integral role in developing language. I feel that the philosophy of whole-language provides a whole new path that can help to bring about the possibility of truly universal music literacy. The focus of this article will be to look at the methods of whole-language teaching and to see if those methods have lessons for facilitating the development of music literacy in our schools. In the process of making connections between methods of teaching written language and written music, I hope to reveal something of the nature of writing and literacy generally and to show the power of the mutual development of language and musical literacy.

In Prince George where I was Music Advisor, I found that the system the district had in place over from 1982- 1993 or so was been a very interesting experiment in opening up a path towards this universal literacy. Prince George as a district decided it would attempt to in service all elementary teachers to be able to teach the rudiments of musical reading and writing through vocal music training . In that time a good many teachers who previously had no music training became literate enough in music to make their way sight singing through simple five pitch (pentatonic) patterns. These teachers are able to initiate their Kindergarten through Grade 4 students into reading and even writing music.

The experiment of teaching teachers untrained in music to teach music has received mixed reviews to this point. Some would say that we really should have specialists teach all the music to insure our kids receive the best possible training. Indeed, in Prince George, it was certainly never a majority of teachers in the district who were able to teach music reading and writing to their children. Participation in the Prince George Elementary Music Program was voluntary and even those who participated sometimes found teaching the program to be just one more overwhelming imposition on already overburdened schedules.

However the successes seemed to indicate that it is possible to teach basic music literacy to all. I believe that with some of the new ideas and philosophy of whole-language and with the new technological tools now available, we are approaching the possibility of being able to empower our educators to teach music literacy. Perhaps we can even provide them with the means to gain a modicum of literacy themselves. The teaching system in place in Prince George was a very sequential, Kodaly based model.

Margery Littley in her paper presented at the International Kodaly Symposium in Calgary in 1991 pointed out some similarities in the pedagogical principles of Whole Language and the principles espoused by Zoltan Kodaly. Kodaly, an important pioneer in the development of a pedagogy aimed at universal music literacy, did indeed state principles very close to those of whole-language. Probably the most important of these was Kodly's insistence that children should be exposed to only the best music possible, not pedagogical contrived 'children's' music. Whole-Language approaches also stress the importance of using 'real' literature as opposed to basal readers. (Ralston 1990 in Foese (ed.)) Kod·ly, as Littley points out, also emphasized the importance of singing to children at an early age and teaching many songs through games and experience long before teaching reading and writing. Whole-language teachers also stress the importance of reading to children from a young age and richness of oral language experience before reading and writing (Newman 1985 Newman (ed.)). Kodaly also pointed out an important relationship between the rhythms of a given language and the rhythmic structures of that culture's music.

Yet I cannot agree with Littley that the Kodaly system as it currently is practiced is really closely allied to Whole-Language. Kodaly, in my experience is strongly tied to a hierarchical skill sequenced view of learning that does not fit the Whole-language model. While the Kod·ly Method does use authentic folk songs as material, the teacher carefully selects the songs to cover the concepts in the skill sequence. This is contrary to the basic precept of whole-language as stated by Judith Newman in her book Whole Language Theory in Use : "there must be opportunities for children to choose what to read and write about"(Newman 1985 Newman (ed.)). Perhaps the more self directed model of Whole-language can relieve some of the burden teachers feel in having to learn the itricacies of of another scope and sequence.

What is Whole-language teaching? Is it relevant to teaching music? In the introduction to his book, Whole-Language Practice and Theory, Victor Froese (1990) defines whole-language as "a child centered, literature based approach to language learning that immerses students in real communication situations whenever possible." (p. 2) Froese further states three basic points of consensus about the whole-language concept. First, language "is a naturally developing activity." Second, language learning and teaching is personalized to "respect the uniqueness and interest of the learner. " Third," language learning is part of making sense of the world... Language is learned holistically in context rather than bits in isolation." (p. 2-3) It seems to me that one could substitute the word "music" for "language" in the above statements with equal effect. Let us then look in more detail at some methods of whole-language teaching to see if they can be adapted to teach music literacy.

One basic rule of the whole language teacher is that reading and writing should develop out of the experiences that are important to the child. This means that the first priority in teaching reading and writing is reading to the child, demonstrating written language andits ability to tell stories and express feelings in a pleasurable way. Likewise early musical experiences are essential to developing musical literacy later. The primal experience of the lullaby demonstrates the parallel in music education. Studies show the importance of the parent singing to the child in developing music aptitude is similar to the importance parental reading in developing good readers.

A major difficulty in the development of music literacy is apparent in the differences we can show between these early experiences with language and music. The large bulk of story telling for children takes place through parents reading to the child. With music, those parents who do sing to their children (and I think most would agree that in modern society fewer parents sing to their children than read to them) do not sing from written sheet music. The reasons are clear. They refer back to some of the ideas Bennett Reimer expressed as noted earlier.

Basically, we live in a non-literate society in terms of functional music literacy. We know that children who are not read to or who have little experience seeing their parents or other role models read and write don't learn as readily themselves. So, as Reimer says, music literacy is irrelevant in our current society. As someone committed to music literacy then, I see the job I have as a music educator is to make music literacy relevant.

Furthermore, because the rhythms of spoken language are far less restrictive on the reader or performer than musical rhythms, music is seen as much more difficult to read. The singer feels the need to have the song memorized while the reader can stumble over a written word or two without losing the integrity of the "performance." But really this is simply a restatement of the problem: We are not a musically literate society. When parents were by-in-large unable to read to their children they too had to memorize and tell stories rather than read them.

While teaching music literacy is problematic for the generalist, I think that whole-language points a way to help overcome at least some of the problems. First of all we must encourage parents and Early Childhood Education teachers to sing to children. Moreover we must start to produce written materials appropriate for reading, or rather for singing to children. How, one may well ask, can such materials be created when we have already pointed out that most parents, or for that matter, teachers cannot read music?

There are some possible solutions if publishers and educators creatively apply themselves to the challenge. Many books are currently available in which the words to well-known songs form the text. However, if these books include music at all, it is usually printed in small print at the back of the book, often in full score with piano accompaniment. I would like to see these story books produced with simply notated melodies in large print along with the words in the main body of the book. Such story books would not only providechildren the opportunity to see simple, comprehensible music notation, it would also provide the same opportunity to their parents and teachers. This would give these adults "whole music" experiences that could serve to start some of them on the road to musical literacy as well!

Currently, even illustrated children's music books have the music densely printed in full piano score. The music notation is clearly not meant for the benefit of the child, but for the musically literate adult accompanying on the piano. I would advocate that in the story books described, a single line or two of the melody be printed on each page allowing much room for illustrations etc. Music books could have a page with the piano score for teacher or parents accompanying singers, but should also have a page or two with interest provoking illustrations and large, easily decipherable musical notation of melody alone.

Another technique used in whole-language education to make learning relevant to the learner is the use of language labels on everyday objects all around the classroom or home to illustrate words or phrases. Teachers and students place such labels regardless of whether the child has learned the letters and their sounds that make up the words. Such labels could also be used to illustrate written musical motifs.

These musical labels could be developed using several strategies. Teachers could print related familiar musical phrases along with language labels. For instance a sign "door" might have a musical phrase: "3,4, shut the door", printed under it. The classroom clock might have the music for "Hickory Dickery Dock." Alternatively, rhythm notation for the syllabic configuration could reinforce the word label. In order to give children the opportunity to become truly musically literate it is essential that they be surrounded by musical notation in the same way that they are by written language.

Another technique for of Whole-language development is to display complete meaningful sentences in the classroom. These sentences are often generated by the children in morning sessions sharing the news of the day. The teacher writes the sentences down whether or not the children know all the words. Some short phrases of known musical notation are also displayed in primary music classrooms. But these are usually short snippets of rhythm or basic melodic notation. One seldom sees complete songs known by the children printed or displayed in the classroom.

Another tenant of whole-language is that learning to read and write should go hand in hand and not be isolated into subject areas (e.g. spelling, composition, creative writing, reading etc.) Much of the early reading material is generated by the students themselves as they dictate sentences meaningful to them and the teacher transcribes the child's own language to be read back by the child. The theory is that children will be motivated to read language they find meaningful more readily than the stilted, artificial primer language patterns generated by attention to a pedagogical sequence.

How can such a strategy work in teaching music? Music is not the same as language in that children don't use music as readily and naturally as language to express ideas and thoughts. Music is an abstract representation of sound not a language of intrinsic meaning used to express daily routine thoughts and needs. Yet music is a natural activity for children. Music is used from a very early stage to communicate and celebrate. How can we connect the early music experiences with writing or representing music on a written page?

Perhaps the easiest way for a child to begin creating music of their own is to write new words to known tunes. Using this technique a synthesis of music and written language is possible. One of the strengths of teaching music literacy is the affinity of music and language. The folk tunes of our culture are formed by the language patterns of our language. Singing those songs is an important tool in language development. Through the music the child is absorbing the lilt and cadence of the English language. This is particularly important in the teaching of English as a second language.

These rhythms are very deeply ingrained in native speakers of a language. One major strength of music as a written language is that it notates rhythm explicitly. Unlike language writing, music writing indicates the passage of time and the division of time into graphically visual rhythmic units. Children very quickly learn to read rhythm notation. The only pre-requisite is that the child understand the concept of "Beat." This concept is central in the development of all kinds of fluency. Indeed fluency means to have a "free flow" which in turn implies the easy flow of beat. A halting lack of fluency is characterized by a lack of regular meter.

In fact I suspect that the feel for a regular beat is essential to many other areas of learning apart from music. In language learning, where fluency is the goal, the whole learning process can be viewed as mthe process of attaching a symbolic representation to the spoken language to the point that it flows as easily as the spoken language. Indeed the thrust of whole-language, it seems to me is that it seeks to jump into the flow or fluency of the language and its rhythms rather than to analyze and pick apart the flow to be reassembled only when all its individual parts are understood. And finally again it seems to me that the reason to avoid the "analyze and pick apart" of traditional grammar and phonics methods is that in that process many students are lost and discouraged because they lose track of the natural flow and rhythm of meaningful, fluent language.

So perhaps music reading can help students discover this kind of fluency. At any rate, simple rhythmic notation can be used to represent the rhythm of any written phrase. It is not difficult for any teacher, even teachers unfamiliar with music reading, to use rudimentary rhythmic notation to write out the rhythmic pattern of any sentence. Using "(vocalized as "ta") to represent 1 sound per beat, "" (vocalized as "ti-ti"), to represent 2 sounds per beat and "Z" (rest) to represent a beat of silence, any sentence can be notated rhythmically. To demonstrate take the last phrase, " any sentence can be notated rhythmically." Tapping a steady beat while speaking you might get: This kind of notation is not necessarily an exact representation of the speech rhythm pattern. Speech is not that regular and any sentence can also be spoken in several different rhythms. However, by giving children contact with this notation, the flow of language is graphically illustrated. It is also possible to use this notation particularly effectively in conjunction with choral reading activities that require that all student speak with the same rhythm. This notation system can also illustrate the effect on meaning of differing rhythms in speech. In the example given stress on the "can be" can be switched to the word "Any" by lengthening the syllables.


Another step in teaching music writing is the re manipulation of phrases from known song material. This technique could be related to the pattern sentence structure used by language arts teachers. Cards with notation of the phrases of a known song can be placed in a pocket chart. The phrases may then be recombined into new patterns. Essentially this results in a new student generated composition.