Why Whole Music Learning? (Pt. 2)

Musical Thoughts

In Part 1, I discussed how for many years I was aware of all sorts of gaps in my understanding of music, but didn’t know how to remedy it. This changed almost overnight after I began to study with Dr. Gordon and several of his proteges.

First, I came to understand how music learning and language learning have parallels.

Four vocabularies: context vs content
Music learning and language learning share four vocabularies: listening, speaking, reading and writing. In language we listen and speak before we learn to read and write. In music, too, we learn best when we engage in listening and speaking activities first, but we have to clarify what is meant by “speaking”. We “speak” music when we sing, move and play an instrument. Singing can include simply chanting rhythms, singing short fragments of melody and singing an entire song.

As in language, where we routinely improvise in conversation, improvisation is central to music learning. Many of us don’t do it, and are often afraid of it. But it takes knowing how to approach it, and I’ll be glad to give you some of my ideas in my future blogs.

Listening and speaking activities provide the context, or the whole in the whole-part-whole process. Contextual activities include listening to, singing and/or playing entire songs, meaningful sections and fragments of songs, and/or tonal and rhythm patterns that come from a song.

Content activities provide the ability to sing or play the song. Content includes instrumental techniques (the execution skills required to play an instrument), theoretical analysis, and other activities required to understand a song from the inside out.

Where do reading and writing fit into this? Consider that we cannot take meaning from notation, we can only bring meaning to it. Reading and writing can be either context or content activities, depending on how well the player has learned to audiate* from notation. When we audiate, we give meaning to a substantial number of characteristics found in the music. Unfortunately, many players have learned to play their instruments in advance of, or without developing audiation skills. They are limited to how well they are able to decode the notes and rhythms first, and apply what musical understanding they have later.

Therefore, for those whose audiation skills are better developed, reading and writing can help provide the context for learning the song. For those who have primarily learned to play their instruments and rely on decoding skills, they are dealing with content first, and can only hope that repeated playing eventually results in musical performances. That often depends on how well players listen to themselves and others while playing.

*Simply put, audiation has to do with giving meaning to a piece or passage of music without the music necessarily being physically present. When we audiate, we internally understand not only how the notes and rhythms sound, but we also comprehend any number of additional aspects of the music — tonality, rhythm, harmony, style and feel to name a few. 

I’ll continue the discussion in Part 3.

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