Down with the Dots?

August 31, 2017 at 11:41 am

Which is more valuable: being able to read music or being able to play by ear?

Maybe you’ve had some good armchair arguments on this subject. Team Aural (ear) will point at the multitude of musicians who couldn’t read a note (and no, not all of the musically illiterate were popular or jazz musicians), and were unhindered by this supposed deficiency. Team Literacy*** usually concedes to this, but points out how foolish it is to purposefully not learn something that would be hugely beneficial. The negative stereotypes would be the ear-only rock musician who can only play three chords and a handful of tunes, or the stuffy, classical music reader who merely translates dots on a page into notes, playing without any feeling, and not connecting with the audience.

The truth, naturally, is that both literacy and ear are hugely important. A child can learn stories and life lessons aurally, but it would be ridiculous to use that as an excuse to not teach reading and writing; it is equally ridiculous to reject musical literacy. And just as we teach reading comprehension, musicians must learn to do more than reproduce the printed dots into sound. I need not go into any more detail here – you get the idea.

So when you think about it, the legend of Beethoven‘s Third Piano Concerto isn’t as amazing as it may seem. When it was first performed, the composer himself performed the solo piano part – which had yet to be written down! We have this tidbit from his page turner:

I saw almost nothing but empty pages; at the most, on one page or another a few Egyptian hieroglyphs wholly unintelligible to me were scribbled down to serve as clues for him; for he played nearly all the solo part from memory since, as was so often the case, he had not had time to set it all down on paper. (Steinberg, Michael; The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide)

So be like Beethoven. Master music reading – but don’t forget that the page is just paper covered with funny markings. Neither the musician nor the music should be bound to dots on a page.

*** I say “Literacy” as opposed to “Eye” because there are many blind musicians who are musically literate – just as braille text books exist, so do braille scores!

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