After playing a concert recently, a woman came up to me and asked in amazement, “How do you play all of those songs without sheet music?” She had no idea that musicians can learn and play music without notation.
It is hard to imagine that there was a time when people did not use notation to make music.
It is similar to imagining life before smartphones or computers. How do people keep track of their calendar? Communicate with each other? Access information quickly?
Computer technology is so ubiquitous that it is not unusual to see very young children with phones in their hands playing games, drawing, designing, listening, watching and communicating.
Notation is a technology that has made an impact on music on a scale similar to the smartphone.
The use of notation changed music fundamentally in 3 important ways.
The complexity of the music. Notation has allowed composers to create complex music and spell out musical ideas (e.g. bowings, tempo, dynamics) to the finest detail.
The permanence of the music. Once a piece of music was completed, it became the reference point for how that music should always be played. Musicians focus on how to best play the notes they read so that a) they adhere to the composers original intent, yet b) express their own musicality.
The number of instruments that could be organized to play together. If the musicians could read and play the notation, there was theoretically no limit to the number of musicians you could have playing on the same piece of music. The only limitation was space to gather to rehearse and perform.
Both my children (23 and 21) say that they (and their friends) are all determined to make technology less present in their children’s lives. Isobel, Theo and their peers love the entertainment and easy communication smartphones technology has provided. But they want to avoid the problems they have seen first-hand from an overuse of technology.
That appreciation-yet-resistance of technology rings true for me. Notation has allowed for music that I love. But I have experienced how a reliance and overuse of notation creates unintended consequences for young musicians.
My work is to find a balance in teaching that utilizes notation as a harmless tool in the artistic and social aspects of music-making.
**I’ll be away for the next week, so more thoughts on music education coming your way on February 25. **