WHITEPAPER FOR National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM)
Music-making promotes linguistic facility, intellectual capacity, abstract and symbolic reasoning, emotional sensitivity, social growth, simultaneous competition and cooperation and is an important outlet for emotional expression. All of these faculties are essential for conscientious deliberation and behavior. But our contemporary society is failing to reward these values as much as it used to and concurrently reflects a lack of appreciation for the importance of musical training. We might suggest a correlation. Today, a smaller than critically needed number of musically mature heroes or models may be seen as both causative and reflexive. Consequently, the financial base of the Music Industry may be dwindling and NAMM alone is not able to reverse the trend. Obviously, a big, innovative idea is needed to turn around such a trend in what is, generally, a very conservative industry, despite its sometimes glamorous sheen.
The situation is not NAMM’s fault, but I hope NAMM will claim responsibility for attempting to turn things around decisively. One can point to various factors leading to the decline of our once powerfully musical society, but there is a fundamental contributing factor that is under NAMM’s influence, so obvious as to be hidden in plain site and only recently addressable in a massive way.
A little background: the human brain consumes 20% of the body’s energy and 80% of this energy is devoted to visual processing. During the previous 2000 years in the West, music has gotten increasingly complex – increasingly dense. For example, the struck major seventh chord was rare at the time of Bach but is commonplace today. As music has gotten more complex, notation has followed right along. Today, for many would-be musicians, reading a high density of pitch and rhythmic symbols routinely overwhelms visual comprehension but not so for the ear, for example as evidenced in the self-taught popularity of the guitar, which is arguably more difficult in many aspects than piano.
We’re conditioned to the sounds of music, in fact, conditioned meaning is fundamental to music and we are both hard- and soft-wired for emotional expression and sensitivity as we express ourselves daily in speech.
In a nutshell, music which is easily comprehensible aurally is too complex a task to read for beginners and for many who are not beginners. We are therefore very serious that a person should first learn to play music by ear with muscle memory and then read and interpret the notation for the same or similar music. This mirrors the way that we learn to read text; first speaking, then reading is the most natural process. We can make the same observation that reading aloud has its counterpart in sight-reading piano or orchestral music but has a similar pitfall: just as it is possible to read text mechanically, without comprehending, rather than to read aloud with understanding and comprehension (listeners can hear this in the form of phrasing and emphasis), the same is completely true of music reading. So, the engagement of the second, emotional, limbic brain is essential for training the relationships of music but if the center of gravity is the third, abstracting brain, it’s likely that there will not be enough energy available to make a strong synaptic impression.
Tablet computers finally have made it possible for the game of playing music to be customized to each individual, driven by the emotional desire to play personally interesting music and preparing them to engage with each other in music-making.
With this discussion as background, we reproduce here a letter which was kindly published recently by Music Trades Magazine:
Regarding your editorial, as an industry we have to wake up, in that the only hope for the future lies in the exposure of historically and culturally valuable music to children prior to the ages where we are thinking about training them to play music. Ironically, this is directly correlatable with the lack of emotional development which has brought our country and the world to it’s difficult and unsustainable socio-political climate.
After first addressing this problem, we need to consider that the playing of music has been taught increasingly wrongly for hundreds of years. This is the problem of teaching performance initially from notation. As notated complexity has increased, the number of literate musicians has decreased and will continue to do so. Your remark “Yet, there are no clear answers to why there was a sudden interest in the ukulele or EDM” contains the evidence:
Fretted stringed-instrument players (e.g. ukulele) teach themselves without notation, unlike piano and nearly every other instrument; that’s why guitar has out-stripped piano over the last 50 years and why piano sales are dismal. EDM is the natural consequence of a generation educated during the years of maximum brain plasticity with noise-making toys and bleeping video games; people build upon what they are conditioned with – this is the unseen ‘elephant in the room’. EDM may be a fad, but the problem of notation, which can occupy 80% of the brain’s energy, leaving not much for aural-motor learning, is the unseen ‘gorilla in the room’.
The solution, as I see it, is to convince parents to expose their infants/toddlers to highly complex good music and then transition to apps which train the emulation of human performances without notation, leaving notation until later, just as learning to read words follows speech; no sooner than when they start school and only notation of what they can remember and play. Music teachers need to think about this.
Two apps which begin to solve these problems are “Nuryl” and “The Piano Game.”
Professor John Amaral, Director, usschoolofmusic.com”
PART TWO: A MEASURE OF THE TREND
There are several factors and many perspectives on what the causes are and how to reverse the alleged downward spiral. Addressing just one, we can practically measure musical literacy for our time in the number of keyboards sold. I also allege that it’s not the rise of the guitar which is to blame. In fact, we can learn very much about what is needed from its popularity but let’s make an observation:
During the three years beginning 1934, a million (acoustic) pianos were sold in the US. Today, it takes more than 10 years for all US sales of keyboards and pianos to reach a million units. Furthermore, digital keyboards have brought the price down significantly, decreasing the dollar volume and shifting where pianos are sold. Dealers have been hit hard by the consequences. The piano dealer business which spun off long ago from mainstream music stores, may be suffering the most; fully acoustic piano dealers are more rare today and are often sustained by repair, pre-owned and digital keyboard sales.
At one time, piano playing, particularly in conservatory and college, was considered essential to be a well-rounded music student. When the piano was popular, it was heavily featured in popular media and many genres.
One of the largest music market researches in modern times, now quite dated, was a million-dollar (in 1980 dollars) investment by Mattel Electronics. Two important things it found were 1) that the mainstream idea of what constituted music learning was weekly piano lessons with a private teacher based on the interpretation of sheet-music (not improvisation) and 2) 30% of Intellivision owners would purchase an add-on music keyboard. We imagine that the poll results would be much different and more dispersed today; 30% seems to reflect a constant interest but not so much for piano. We add to this the ubiquitous allegation that 80% of piano students quit within two years. Can we do something about this?
As a consequence of the previously described background condition that formal music training is almost exclusively based on printed music, music has been taught wrongly for a very long time and now this backwards method is so thoroughly entrenched that the right way seems wrong! Simply stated, learning to play music is not typically taught in the sequence that reading is. While this is a problem with all instruments, it’s much worse for piano.
Noting that a monumental effort began in 1964 made by the world’s largest music school to turn raw recruit guitarists into good readers has had mixed results, adds even more credence to the idea that notation is also a component of the problem for educated guitarists.
Considering the ratio of guitar players to pianists, it’s been widely observed that guitarists most often learn by imitation (partly visual), trial and error and memory, while piano students are most often exposed to and dependent on print. Without stressing the reasons for this we suggest that a better approach to learning and music production has always been in front of us, even while we’ve gradually drowned in a visual soup of flowing symbols. We would never allow this to happen en masse to the education of text readers in childhood, but we have foolishly done so with music; it’s a fundamental reason why music lessons don’t stick and why there may not be enough new consumer-musicians for the instrument-based Music Industry to survive. This is exacerbated, of course, by a lack of emphasis on good piano playing in our media.
PART THREE: PROPOSED SOLUTIONS
Here is the 3-stage outline of a radical 5-year Plan to restore the MI consumer-base as a new crop of music consumers ‘from the ground up’, with one to three hours per day of previously atypical musical activity; first implanting the impulse for parents to budget time for this initiative. Leader parents who adopt this approach and observe success will demand and get contiguous training in schools and homeschool, aided by new technological tools which make higher learning efficiency possible. Historically, musicians have led trends of change in society and here is one more way they can do that.
Expose children to high-information musical variety beginning very young, 4 months prenatal to 2 years, with the goal of making a 10 fold leap in the incidence of absolute pitch in the West within five years (now 1/10,000 among romance language speakers – but 1/100 among pitched-based languages such as Mandarin). We note, in passing, that the idea to introduce high-information music runs counter to the notion to raise babies with peaceful musical pablum but minds can be changed and the idea made pervasive! NAMM could undertake this with more precision, intensity and detail than in the past.
While color hearing does not ensure musicality, its incidence among great music leaders is high and such sensitivity promotes music appreciation. Absolute pitch ensure the desire to perform but it does make it more likely, a priori, for an individual to learn and perform, if he or she wishes it. Even for individuals where AP is not achieved, leveraged early exposure to high-information music can have a major positive effect in a relatively short time.
Projects we can point to are the app “Nuryl,” which endeavors to help parents surround fetuses and infants with high-information music; this approach is going viral and there is anecdotal evidence that it works to heighten sensitivity to pitch and may condition emotional expression as a corollary, and also to the app “Note Invaders,” which makes recognition a pre-verbal game. Nuryl has a shortcoming in that its genres are limited but other apps are in the works.
From age 2 to 6, emphasize rich cultural expressions of emotion in music to the high-information musical environment, in the form of an immersive randomized multitude of genres and styles: children’s, folk, classical, pop, ragtime, latin, sacred, blues, jazz, improvisation.
Projects we can point to are “The Piano Game” and “The Guitarist Game.”
Concurrently, add instrumental aural/muscle training without notation, on a series of age-appropriate keyboards and other instruments, having the goal of making a 3% shift in the number of musicians world wide in five years.
Projects we can point to are “The Piano Game,” “The Guitarist Game” and “The Music Game.”
From ages 4-8, expose the music lover to a variety of instruments and let him/her choose.
Concurrently, introduce notation but only of music the student has already learned to play, just as with speaking before reading. A project we might point to for initial exposure is “Joy Tunes.”
The finances for this campaign may be creatively obtained. Parents of young children have a lot of energy and bias to help them succeed.
PART FOUR: MUSIC LEARNING
This area will be fleshed out in a future version of this document but in business, it’s “location, location, location.”
In music, it’s ‘repertoire, repertoire, repertoire.’
PART FIVE: CONSIDERATIONS FOR PARENTS
Mattel Electronics’ research circa 1980 showed that, of their large group of consumers (1.5 million), 30% would buy musical instruments and games. We believe this level of interest in music is instinctive, biological, but offerings in the media today are limited; also parents need to be reached, educated and re-educated.
Who makes the best piano learning software for you or your child? – Using common-sense to evaluate piano learning programs, try this test:
1) Go to YouTube and listen to students who use the software you are considering. You may be astonished to find little evidence of success or musicality.
2) Observe at the posting dates. If there are not a lot of recent postings by customers, is this the approach viable?
3) Determine whether the product’s music library has been robotically entered by optical recognition or is full of human performance nuances. Again, listen to the students if you can and sample lessons on the website. If samples sound ’square’ and boring and ‘joyless’, reconsider.
4) If the interesting music of a lesson is concentrated in a recorded background while the student’s part is repetitive and dumb, will that lead to learning?
5) Read all the reviews you can find.
6) Perhaps most importantly, if the program is notation-based, consider whether beginning with such an approach makes sense or whether your child should learn to play first and learn to read later. As an analogy, could you talk when you learned to read text? What would you think of a method that asked your child to read words before he or she could talk?
I saw my first computerized piano learning software products in 1980 at the Consumer Electronics Show and I’ve seen a lot of them since then. One ran on a Commodore-64 and featured a sliding music score ‘shooting gallery’ with a fixed time-zero, exactly like a popular app today. The other, “Melody Blaster,” was from Mattel and was the first game to use a piano keyboard. Mattel booth salesmen were learning to play on the first day and succeeding! This opened my eyes to the possibilities. Honestly, nothing new has appeared until recently.
ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF MUSIC NOTATION AND SIGHTREADING
You may have heard that an infinite number of monkeys typing could eventually produce a play of the quality of Shakespeare, but ask yourself about the likelihood of ‘monkeying’ around to result in learning to play music in the short time given to us. You can train an individual to read simple limited music notation in the same monkey-ish way that high school kids learn to type, but only humans can make music. They are different skills and we may fail to differentiate them. Unfortunately, most music training nowadays, including with teachers, is preoccupied with notation and so fails to achieve lasting results. A preoccupation with reading almost guarantees a failure to make music. There my be the magical thinking that one will naturally lead to the other and it rarely does.
We should also distinguish between “sight-reading,” which is reading music for the first and only time, ‘recursive reading’ to memorize, ‘dependent reading’ for driving a live performance, from listening, playing, remembering and performing from the heart.
Independent music performance of remembered music depends entirely on a musician’s muscle and aural memories and it is a prerequisite for improvisation of new music. The entire process should evolve naturally like walking and talking.
Stated simply, our opinion is that reading should follow ‘the ability to talk’ music.
PART SIX: IN SUM
A grass-roots change the music market must have a component involving children; the new music market can be grown only with powerful new perspectives.
The first is to make babies and music students more sensitive to sound and music.
The second is to delay the introduction of music notation until basic facility is achieved.
Everybody who talks can and should learn to read text. As good sight-readers of text we generally forget how hard it may have been to acquire this skill, despite that we could speak. We may forget that reading text is a demanding skill for which we have had much practice… and preparation.
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