The map is not the territory

This week I want to start with a confession, and it is this: I can’t read music.

I mention this because a couple of weeks back, I was running a session with adults with learning difficulties where the centre was short-staffed (as, frankly, they almost always are). Some of the clients were being helped by a support worker who had not been in one of my sessions before. He suggested – I’m not sure why – that we should sing the Time Warp. And then proceeded to be shocked three times – firstly at the revelation that I didn’t know it off the top of my head, secondly that I didn’t carry the sheet music with me and thirdly that I didn’t read music. It made me feel like a bit of a fraud, even though this was at a centre I’ve worked at for years and where I know they are very happy with my work.

I’ve tried several times to read music, but music (as traditionally noted on a stave with all those dots, like you see on mugs and teatowels) just doesn’t link to what I hear coming out of the instruments in my brain in any useful way. It’s not that I’m musically illiterate – I can still talk with some confidence using most of the language of music, it’s more that I’m somewhat musically dyslexic, unable to equate the dots with the tunes unless I do mental arithmetic that renders the entire process uselessly slow. I can read the ‘piano roll’ style notation used by sequencers as that’s how I’ve grown up and interpreted music for the last 30 years. I sing and play keyboards, and use a modified guitar (open tuned) in my workshops as it makes it easier for me as I can to some extent play it one handed whilst doing something with the other hand. I use a lot of live sequencing and looping in my workshops using Ableton Live on my laptop, and can get musical results out of a Theremin and Soundbeam.

Not being able to read music isn’t uncommon – a quick bit of research suggests that more than half of the world’s population can’t read music, and only 16% identify as being able to read music well. A lot of people struggle with reading music at school and I suspect for many, because of the conventional way music is taught, that the failure to get over this hurdle results in them feeling like they can’t participate in music beyond a rudimentary level. Quite often this feeling of ‘not being good at music’ can stay with them for the rest of their lives. I see it all the time in my work – younger children are used to singing and playing in groups, but from secondary school onwards, where music (if it is taught at all) becomes formalised, young people start to feel like they can no longer join in with the freedom they had enjoyed previously.

To return to the Time Warp anecdote above, it often feels like being able to read music is somehow what sets you apart as a ‘real’ musician. For this reason, I consider myself to be musical rather than a musician as I use the technology to overcome my own barriers to progress, which is why I am such an advocate for helping others do the same. I also think the term ‘music technician’ is undervalued and think that helping others to make music by providing the right equipment and environment is as important as any teaching since you can’t learn fully without this foundation; you should be working with your instruments, not against them.

Whilst reflecting on the ‘Time Warp Incident’ driving between workshops (and, I’ll admit, somewhat nursing my bruised pride), I started to think about the idea of music notation. It struck me that not only is it often of little use in the sessions I run, but sometimes it can be damaging to the creativity of them. Having notation or a model of what is ‘right’ sets out anything that is not the notated music as ‘wrong’. It means there’s a correct way and an incorrect way to play the song. When working with most of the groups I deliver workshops to, doing something right is less important than enjoying the act of making music. Sure, you can coach people to be better musicians, and this is something I consider myself to be really good at, but I don’t think that process is in any way helped by having a binary notion of what is correct and incorrect.

Furthermore, standard music notation is, in the history of music, a relatively new invention, and was only ever intended as an aide memoire. Playing a piece of sheet music always involves a degree of interpretation and relies on the musician or a conductor to make the performance come alive. So much of what makes a song or performance memorable, engaging or emotional is to do with the humanity of the way a piece is played, not the accuracy of it. We don’t assess what’s important in music, we assess what’s easy to assess. Passion, enjoyment, fun – these are all things that rarely get assessed because they can’t be objectively evaluated and put on a spreadsheet.

Yesterday I was working with group of autistic students who were singing the bits of popular songs they knew, but which I didn’t. I remembered the Time Warp Incident, thought about going online, watching the video on YouTube, Googling for the lyrics, looking for guitar tab and chords… and then I remembered my thoughts from previously. I started improvising instead. We worked out our own tune. The session kept its momentum, and we went on to write another 2 original songs, all in the time it would have taken me to find out if what we were doing was ‘correct’ or not.

I still have no idea what Katy Perry’s ‘California Girls’ is supposed to sound like. And I’m okay with that.