AMI Blog

LEARNING BY EAR, PHONICS, AND ALL THAT STUFF

In the USA at the moment, there is a big debate going on over how reading is taught at schools. Perhaps you have heard some podcasts, or read articles about it. This is quite an old debate, I remember something similar being in the news when my son was starting school in the UK over 30 years ago. But the debate centres around whether kids learn best with a kind of whole approach to language, where they look at the pictures in a story book, or figure words out from the context of the story, in an approach called ‘balanced literacy’, or if they learn best by sounding out words and are formally taught phonics. Now the anti-phonics camp reckons that kids will be bored and put off by phonics. So balanced literacy comes out of child-centred approaches that rely on children’s own curiosity to learn, and works on the premise that if you give a child the right kind of support and stimulation, they will figure stuff out on their own. The trouble is, a scary number of American children are not reading at their expected year level and so some States are now mandating that phonics form part of reading programmes.

This debate seems familiar in South Africa – not only because we too have a chronic problem of underachievement in reading, but because in music education right up to tertiary level, there is a growing resistance to reading notation.

Reading words and reading notation are not the same. But they are both symbolic systems that our brains need to decode to make sense of. I think it is useful to think about the parallels between them. The first thing to note is that whilst human brains are wired for language, they are not wired for reading. Reading is something we have to be taught. It is not instinctual. And it takes ages. Beginner readers develop a vocabulary pretty slowly. They come to school speaking fluently but develop reading competence gradually. At the end of year one, no one expects them to be reading Jane Austen. They only grow in skill if they have lots and lots of practice and support. It’s important to note that they already have experience in saying the words they are reading. They know what they sound like, and can understand them.  

In the same way that humans are wired for language, we are wired for music too. Babies are delightful examples, as they wave their arms or kick their legs in time to music, or imitate the contour of their parents sentences with their cooing. We learn to ‘hear’ music, to make sense of it, without needing lessons. We may grow up in communities where we learn to ‘musick’ by doing what everyone else is doing – perhaps singing in harmony, or learning an instrument, or just joining in with ‘Happy Birthday to You’. Some kids are really driven to make music, and they find any which way to teach themselves, driven by their musical curiosity. Most of the time, this learning is ear based – what we call ‘learning by ear’. Eyes play a part, of course, but this is mainly in watching what bodies are doing, not decoding symbols from a page.

Most of us have had those pupils who are staggeringly musical, seem to soak everything up like a sponge, but just balk at reading notation. We could take different views of this. The first is to ask why you need notation? Well, the honest answer is, you don’t. Zillions of musicians don’t. It depends what kind of music you want to play, and which other musicians you want to play with. Plenty of genres survive fine without a written tradition, performed by musicians whose listening and memory skills combine with their muscle memory and kinetic understanding to provide a secure foundation for musicking. And guess what this requires? Time, lots of listening, and interacting with musicians who are more advanced than you. There are initiatives in music education that de-centre notation and it’s worth considering these for our students. Have a look at Musical Futures and Vamoosh.

Marimba bands all over Southern Africa get by without notation, they learn by memory, and they are probably better listeners as a result. But the music lends itself to memorisation because tunes are relatively short, there are repeating chord patterns, and the groove is more important than melodic or harmonic development. It’s not second best that these bands don’t read – their musicking is perfectly possible without it.

Another view is that notation is a worthwhile goal. If we are talking about Western classical music, the whole tradition is embedded in literacy in notation. Somewhere along the line, you are going to get stuck without learning to read. Being a fluent reader is also pretty useful in other genres too – ask any session musician. So let’s go back to phonics.

Kids learn to sound out letters and combinations of letters and sounds step by step. They say the sound – it is embodied, they use their language skills to make sound and at the same time, they focus on the letters. Three things are going on: They form the letter sound in their mouths, they hear the sound they make, they see the letters. This connection between embodied experience of hearing and saying and recognising and decoding the letters is what cements the learning.  

When it comes to reading music notation, it’s helpful to think about the same process. Make the sound/hear the sound/recognise and decode the symbols. Too much music theory teaching is done without reference to sound – never mind the learner making the sound themselves (Beware, this is my favourite hobby horse).

Those balanced literacy folks think phonics is boring because ‘sh’ doesn’t mean anything in isolation. But kids quickly learn to deconstruct and reconstruct words, and they don’t find it boring, they find it liberating. It may be more difficult to deconstruct music, because fragments of music really don’t mean much to our musical brains. That’s why techniques used in Orff method are useful. For example, these take a small element and develop it into a satisfying musical idea by using body movement, speech rhythms, echo, body percussion – in ways that engage the body and allow us to feel the music. The fragments are bite sized and are more manageable when they are translated into symbolic form. Children can gradually master a growing repertoire of musical material – the sound, the way it feels, and the way it looks on the page. Importantly, the sound, the music making, should be very well established before the symbol is introduced. Otherwise, the symbol is just way too disconnected and abstract. Learning by ear should come first.  

The task of the teacher is to figure out why they are teaching notation, and to ask if it is the best way forward. If the answer is no, the focus should be on building skill through listening and experience. If the answer is yes, the focus should be on scaffolding learning in a way that kids can develop competence. No matter which path you choose, building students’ confidence is foundational.

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