Musical Literacy as Musical Legitimacy

While it would be ludicrous of me to consider myself hard-done-by in terms of access to opportunities and resources (the whole white Anglo-Saxon male thing leaves me little ground for grievances against greater society), my interactions with the collegiate Western Classical tradition have not always been gentle or considerate – especially when it comes to the topic of musical literacy (meant here as the ability to READ music, not to compose, perform, or in any other way experience it). One particular instance comes to mind: When auditioning for the composition scholarship prior to formally beginning my studies at Columbia, I was only capable of submitting recordings that I had made of my own work because I was, then, unable to read or write music effectively enough to communicate my thoughts. I submitted songs that I had spent a month recording and mixing, complete with lyrics, and that I was intensely proud of. I knew these things were good. When the instructor (who shall naturally remain nameless) that was assigned to my audition entered the room, he sat down and I put on the recordings I had made. I handed him the lyrics, and he asked me if I had a score, or “is reading not your thing?” I replied that I couldn’t read or write yet, but was excited to do so and to better myself when I began in the fall. The look on his face told me very clearly that I wasn’t getting the scholarship, nor was I really going to get his attention. He spent the rest of the audition talking over what I had recorded, and never looked at the lyrics once. The truly aggravating thing is that, since receiving my education, I’ve been able to look back upon the songs I submitted and see that there were a lot of really interesting and sophisticated things happening – Chromatic mediant relationships, tons of modal mixture, formal clarity, additive rhythm, polyrhythms, and in-depth use of the studio as an instrument – but apparently none of this mattered because I didn’t have the capacity at the time to write it on paper.

I’m not sure that I can say I attempted to overcome this hierarchy so much as I tried (in vain) to assimilate myself to it. I studied hard and learned to read and write very well, hung up my guitar and dedicated an insane amount of hours each day to attempting to become proficient at the piano, and devoted my time to studying scores and writing music on paper instead of writing aurally and recording. None of these practices are inherently bad, nor do I regret how much I’ve learned, but I wish that I hadn’t been so willing to push the things that were dear and familiar to me aside in order to more fully meet the expectations of a music culture that I had been taught was superior. The way I approach these hierarchical expectations is changing, and I feel much more comfortable now with my background as a pop songwriter and electric guitarist, but my feelings are too new (and probably unfairly antagonistic) to put effectively into words at this juncture.

The real kicker for me is that, if I’m really honest with myself, I’ve begun to prize musical literacy as well. I’ve found myself having a harder and harder time interacting with musicians who don’t know theoretical terminology, solfege, music history, or any number of academic topics that I’ve become so familiar with. I sometimes get impatient with their inability to specifically communicate their ideas, especially when such ideas could quickly and easily be written out if only they knew how. I’m glad to be aware of this new tendency of mine, but I do fear that someday I might lose touch and completely underestimate a worthwhile and dedicated musician the same way I was in that audition years ago – thus perpetuating the high/low hierarchy that I’ve come to detest.


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