You are on page 1of 9

King 1

By Note or By Rote: Methods of Teaching Music in the Secondary Music

Teachers of school aged children generally spend most of their classroom time teaching
simple songs than any other aspect of music. Learning simple melodies builds
foundation for almost every aspect of music education. Therefore, it comes as no
surprise that hundreds of songbooks, method books and online resources are available
for music teachers in todays society. Although it is usually agreed upon that learning
simple melodies is extremely important in the everyday music classroom, one debate
remains among some music educators: is it better to teach aurally or by written notation.
The Music Education system in todays schools places a great emphasis on producing
musically literate performers, devoting much less time to teaching students how to make
music aurally. In the music world, many people often consider themselves one of two
types those who reads music and those who play by ear.Throughout this comparative
article review, I will be comparing Robert H. Woodys Playing by Ear: Foundation or
Frill? and John A. Solbodas Experimental Studies of Music Reading: A Review in order
to determine the benefits and/or negativities to teaching with or without musical
Playing by Ear: Foundation or Frill?
Woody, R. H. (2012). Playing by Ear Foundation or Frill?. Music Educators
Journal, 99(2), 82-88.

King 2

Although it is believed by many that playing by ear is a specific skill that is useful only to
popular and traditional musicians, Robert H. Woody argues throughout his article that
there are many reasons to learn music aurally. Woody supports his argument with
formal research to suggest that ear playing and learning song aurally is a necessity to
become a truly fluent music reader. The ability to learn aurally also improves sightreading and sight-singing, performing from memory, composition and improvisation.
Woody implies that a strong tradition in learning by rote can help influence lifelong
creativity and success in music.
In music education classes in secondary schools today, learning by rote usually goes
untaught. For example, in band and orchestra programs, it is not unusual for every note
a student plays to indicated with notation. Throughout his article, Woody advocates the
use of aural ear training and learning in the classroom. He acknowledges that while
notation-guided performance offers opportunities for aural skill development, it has its
limitations. He states that by only learning to read notation, students run the risk of
never improving upon their performance ability or improvisation skills. Even though most
music educators fully understand the importance of ear training, Woody states that they
seem to believe that playing by ear in the classroom is impractical because of the
challenge it poses from some students.
However, Woody points out how learning music by ear is one of the most natural and
organic aspects of music making. In many cultures around the world throughout history,
music traditions and skills are passed down from generation to generation through the

King 3

practice of observing and listening. It can therefore be said that the process of learning
music in this way is not only possible, but educational.
Furthermore, Woody uses the music-as-language analogy to further support his
argument for this method of teaching song:
Infants first listen to the spoken sounds around them and come to identify
patterns in what they hear. They then attempt to vocally imitate what they
have heard. Over time, their babbled approximations of language give way
to actual words and phrases. Soon they achieve speech fluency and can
effortlessly recite memorized texts (nursery rhymes), retell familiar tales,
and spontaneously create original stories. Only after these ear based
competencies are attained are children introduced to the symbols that
represent their language, and these symbols (letters and words) are linked
to the sounds they already know so well. Transferring this developmental
sequence to music learningspecifically to learning to perform on an
instrumentstudents should have much exposure to musical models to
aurally imitate on their instruments. (84)
This theory suggests that learning music should follow the same natural learning stages
of learning a language this perhaps is Woodys strongest and most logical argument
throughout the article. He goes on to advise that when using notation, the visual cues
should be used only to remind the performer of sounds that they already know and have

King 4

Woody shares the results from one of his studies in the article to support his argument.
Throughout his experiment he investigated the learning gap between notation-based
and ear-based learning styles in music students. Twenty-four students learned a simple
eight measure melody by ear. Half of the students had learned primarily in a traditional
notation style, while the other half had strong backgrounds in improvisation and learning
by rote. The research tracked the number of times the musicians needed to listen to the
piece to be able to replay it back accurately. On average, the ear trained musicians
required 3.5 listenings to play back the melody on their instruments and the notation
trained musicians needed10.5! (85) This proves that there is a substantial difference in
the ability to internalize music by these different methods of learning melodies.
Woody concludes by asserting that learning by written notation restricts overall
musicianship and the types of skills needed for a musician to succeed long-term (86).
He believes that given the evidence, it is clear that learning by ear is the most effective
foundation needed by students to become a successful musician.
Experimental Studies of Music Reading: A Review
Sloboda, J. A. (1984). Experimental studies of music reading: A review. Music
Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2(2), 222-236.
Throughout his article Experimental Studies of Music Reading: A Review, John Sloboda
suggests the importance of music notation reading through multiple experiments. He
explores the idea of to what extent is musical knowledge and performance ability
connected to note reading and furthermore, to sight reading. Sloboda implies that more
advanced readers have better visual memories for notation, thus can memorize songs

King 5

better, and improve overall musical perception. Sloboda is a clear advocate for notation
reading through his article, implying that it is the only method of learning music to have
successful performances.
Throughout his article, Sloboda advocates for notation reading as the principle way of
learning music. He states that the most important factor of an accurate music
performance is the ability to read music. He believes that in our society where the main
goal for listeners is to have an aesthetically pleasing experience, the ability to read
music accurately and correctly is the most effective way to deliver an excellent

Sloboda acknowledges that learning music aurally may be the most natural method, it
is not ideal or perhaps even possible for learning music one may hear performed by an
orchestra or in a concert hall, for example (223). He suggests that it is unrealistic to
believe that the cognitive processes underlying the recognition and reproduction
of simple melodies and chord sequences are the same as those underlying the
activity of listening to a long contrapuntally organized composition (223). He
recommends that only after the notes have been learned with notation, allowing
themselves to hear them being played accurately, that any understanding or
musical thinking takes place allowing them to control their performance in a
logical way. The ability to play from memory therefore becomes an extremely important
indicator of learning a song by notation is the superior method. He suggests that once a
piece is learned, the music is only used as an aide-memoire, rather than the source of

King 6

music, pointing out that in performances solo musicians hardly ever look at their music
for an extended amount of time. Sloboda believes that this means that the visual aide of
the music is thus stored in the performers long-term memory (230).

Sloboda suggests that playing from notation is a motor task that does not require any
musical perception. The visual signs of the music are ready-made by the composer for
the performers luxury. The performers hands or voice simply work as a machine made
to accurately produce notes, extra musical devices can be added after the performer
has learned the melody (223). Therefore, the following question becomes a constant
theme throughout Slobodas article: Does the superiority [of a professional
performer] arise because experts have more rapid perceptual coding
processes; or because they have better and more economical ways of storing
what they perceive in memory; or because they have more efficient motor
programs to organize the response? (224) Sloboda would like us to believe that
it is because they have efficient motor programs, or in other words, the ability to sight
read what is on the page. Sloboda also stresses that evidence of musical competence
is implicated in the ability to sight read. The performer is expected to present a piece
of music that he or she has never seen before, with no time to prepare. The success of
the performance can therefore be related to his or her competence to read notes. In one
of the experiments summarized throughout the article, musical ques such as dynamics,
accents, time and key signatures, bar lines, even ending of note values were removed
there performer had no full idea of the context of the piece. It was found that the more
competent the performer was at sight reading, the better they performed the piece with

King 7

the missing information. These performers looked ahead and could better organize their
perception of the piece with a musically higher level of thinking (234).

Both Woody and Sloboda make good arguments for their point of view on methods of
teaching music. Both articles are relevant in their content and express information that
is important, and useful, to todays music educators. Though the essays have points of
view that are on opposite sides of the argument and seem to oppose each other, I
personally believe that the points expressed go hand in hand.
In todays education system, teacher unfortunately believe that teaching students to
read notes is enough of a challenge, so why should they spend their precious time in
the classroom or rehearsal developing their aural skills? Therefore, the dilemma is not
whether it is possible for music teacher to teach their students to learn music by rote,
but whether it is worth their valuable time in the classroom. It is extremely important as
a performer and student to have strong notation reading abilities. Music can be learned
and internalized faster with stronger sight-reading skills. One of Slobodas strongest
arguments is that musicians who have a strong understand of the foundations of music
theory and notation have stronger performance skills, can memorize, and have better
sight reading abilities. Nevertheless, I am a strong advocate in believing that notation
should be used as a reminder like when giving a speech.
However, the development of aural skills in my opinion could only enhance
performance ability. In todays western culture, there are countless garage bands
formed by high school students. Additionally, in the real world most opportunities for

King 8

music-making mostly in informal settings such as parties. Many of these students will go
on to play music they heard on the radio by their favorite artist, not playing with formally
written music, but rather by simple chordal reminders, or even just by ear! This proves
that youth without much formal musical training are able to learn, perform, and create by
using their ears, listening skills, and by internalizing the music.
Very few students will go on to play in profession formal ensembles where they will
need to sight read notation such as professional community bands, choirs, or
orchestras. I therefore believe that music education should provide students with the
skills that will be helpful to them later in life and make them into lifelong music
participants and help them to direct their own musical growth. If planned attentively, time
in the classroom can be allotted for ear-training activities without taking away from other
aspects of musicianship. Activities as simple as singing or clapping back a melody
performed by a teacher before seeing the notation are the first steps to developing a
strong ear!
Woody, R. H. (2012). Playing by Ear Foundation or Frill?. Music Educators
Journal, 99(2), 82-88.
Sloboda, J. A. (1984). Experimental studies of music reading: A review. Music
Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2(2), 222-236.

King 9