What does it mean to be a “literate” musician? This question has been on my mind recently.
One of my best friends in the school of music and I frequently have conversations about philosophical (and political) issues. In a recent discussion, we talked about some stereotypes about different kinds of music majors, particularly vocalists. Vocalists tend to struggle with rhythms and music theory, because they do not regularly perform scales (and such) the way that instrumentalists do. He then told me that he thought that despite this, vocalists were better musicians than many instrumentalists. When I asked him to explain why, he told me that in vocalists’ lessons, they often spend time just improvising; they create music on their own, and they do it easily compared to instrumentalists’ improvisation.
This got me thinking: is music literacy all in the theory, or is it solely in the application? The truth (obviously) is that it comes in a mixture, and this can make it difficult to define what it means to be a literate musician.
I believe that as musicians we have two sets of vocabulary. The first set is the theory. This is knowledge of scales, rhythms, and meters. This vocabulary is measured, and it allows a musician to excel in reading written music. This is important, given that music, unlike many other art forms, is largely performing music that others have written and performed countless times before. This is the “left brain” section of musical vocabulary. It also is composed of technical fluency: the ability of the fingers, tongue, mouth, throat, etc. to produce the sound on the instrument (or voice) the musician is using.
The second set of vocabulary is creation and emotion. This is the inner ear that sets thoughts, feelings, and imagination to notes and chords. This is the ability to improvise countless new melodies in different harmonies; it’s the musician’s “right brain”. This section of the vocabulary is also important to interpret existing music in new ways: should this note be played shorter or longer? Should the line crescendo here?
Musicians need both of these “vocabularies” to be successful. The truth is that all good musicians, instrumental and vocal, possess these vocabularies. The issue comes in the integration of the two vocabularies. How does one get the music they hear inside out into the world? This is the answer to why my friend thought vocalists might be better musicians: to them, this is innate. The voice is such an integral part of who we are as people that the vocalists naturally integrate these two vocabularies; they can sing out exactly what they hear inside. The challenges of the instrumentalist are how to translate what they hear inside onto an instrument. This requires mastery of the technical vocabulary of the instrument, but we see this mastery in many musicians, especially in the jazz scene.
So how does this play into being “musically literate”? A comparison can help here. The first set of vocabulary (the theory) is like a person’s actual vocabulary: the words they know and their grammatical knowledge. This allows them to read text, and it allows them to create their own. The more sentence structures, words, and stylistic elements they know, the better they will be able to write. The second vocabulary is the ideas. These are the thoughts we all have in our heads. Many of us have experienced “writer’s block”, but this often isn’t so much a matter of not having any ideas but of not having the vocabulary or knowledge of sentences to put these ideas into words. Many students struggle with this; they are quite intelligent, and they have ideas that could make a coherent paper or story, but they lack the technical vocabulary to actually write it down. This is the struggle of the instrumentalist! Instrumentalists may have a plethora of musical ideas, but unless they have mastery of the “technical vocabulary” of their instrument, they are left unable to make their ideas into a piece of music. Vocalists are able to simply speak their ideas directly, much like if a student simply said their ideas however they came into their head.
I think that any truly great musician must have a breadth of experience and talent using both of these vocabularies. The truly amazing musicians, though, will have an amazing ability to use their technical vocabulary to express their creative and emotional vocabulary. Instrumentalists can only accomplish this through mastery of the technical vocabulary! So in other words, while vocalists may seem on the surface to be better at integrating these vocabularies, that is because it comes much more naturally to an instrument as personal as the voice.