Rote vs. Note: Music Literacy

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A music student composing at a grand piano.

Surely an admirable goal of the music educator is to produce literate and independent musicians capable of reading, writing and performing music to their fullest potential. I’m not just talking about those who choose music as a career, but everyone who enjoys music—amateurs, lay musicians, and even appreciators.

Rote teaching and learning (i.e., modeling a song as the students learn by echoing) may therefore seem counterproductive to training them in music literacy (reading and writing musical notation). While the aural tradition is relatively quick and easy (not to mention an important part of our musical heritage for centuries), it does little to help students learn or practice music-reading concepts.

Rote teaching does, however, hold a vital place in our music education process. Children must experience musical concepts before they are introduced to the correlating notation. Hence, the trouble-free way to experience music is to do music by imitation.

This is no different from how children assimilate spoken language. Babies mimic Mom and Dad and eventually become semi-fluent speakers before they learn their ABC’s. This, therefore, is the vital role of rote teaching and learning. It enables even the youngest children to encounter the elements of music in a simple, experiential manner before they discover the underlying notation and theory.

That being said, there should be a critical shift in the ratio between rote teaching and learning and music reading as children grow and increase in musical knowledge. As children are presented musical concepts and then have repeated opportunities to practice these concepts by singing, playing, reading, writing, improvising and composing, the use of rote teaching gradually decreases. Each year, the young music student should be able to read and write music on an escalating basis. True, there will yet be musical unknowns to students through high school, but a steady diet of rote procedures should diminish in the upper elementary grades and be rather infrequent in high school.

Let us all be burdened when we hear middle and high school choirs regularly learning their music by the parts being “pounded out” on the piano or played from a recording while the students repeat the line until learned. It is never too late to teach music reading. It’s always an investment in the future—be it the high school choir, church choir, community chorus, senior adult choir or life-long music making.