What is music literacy?

If you ask a variety of educators, students and parents, “what does music literacy mean?” you’ll likely get many answers, none of which are exactly the same.

For example, if the student can name notes with letters and communicate how many beats a note is given, he or she could be considered by some as musically literate. But knowing these things does not mean a student can sight-sing, sight-read, improvise or comprehensively discuss or analyze music. A student who can only name notes cannot “hear” music in their mind from reading the notation. So, most music educators would not deem these students musically literate.

So, back to the question: what does music literacy mean? There may not be one definitive answer these days, but students who achieve a high level of music literacy should have most, if not all, of the following skill sets:

Solo and Ensemble Performance – capabilities such as sight-reading and interpretative skills, plus ensemble skills like score reading, counting, listening, following a director and working with other students.

Sight-Reading and Aural Skills – the ability to sing melodies of moderate difficulty by sight, plus recognize the intervals, types of triads and seventh chords by listening. Students should also be able to write down a melody or bassline by sound.

Rhythm – the basis of music sight-reading is the ability to read rhythm notation correctly.

Analytical Skills – musically literate students should be able to analyze harmonic progressions, modulations and altered and borrowed chords.

Composition and Improvisation – advanced students should be able to compose and harmonize simple melodies and songs and perform uncomplicated improvisations with his or her voice and/or principal instrument.

Technology Skills – students should be familiar with notation programs such as Finale or Mosaic and other technology based on their chosen instrument or specialty.   

Music History – last but not least, music history (ancient times to modern) is an important element in completing a student’s musical literacy.

How is music literacy changing?

For centuries, music literacy was taught and was a requirement for advanced students and those wishing to enter music education or professional careers. These days, musical literacy (at least to the level discussed above) is no longer a prerequisite skill in many music degree courses at major universities.

This is especially the case with courses and careers that focus on popular musical genres and modern music production. The abudance of technology in music production has nearly eliminated the need for transcription into musical notation. Of course, sheet music & scores and tablature is still available and widely used in traditional music education, but in this modern, digital era, the creation and consumption of music no longer demand a written score.

Why is it important to preserve music literacy principles in music education?

With all of today’s technology and the popularity of modern music genres, why does it matter if music literacy is preserved? Simply put: if music is to gain (or keep) acceptance as a core subject, which it must if it hopes to keep funding and maintain interest, then music educators have to live up to standards that other core subjects do, and literacy is key.

An excellent example of a program that is helping to preserve music literacy is The Wisconsin Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance (CMP). The program’s primary goal is to help students perform with understanding. This model says that students should know how the music is put together and why a composer or arranger used various techniques. They should also understand how a piece fits into culture and history, and what makes a piece of music worth performing.

Literacy strategies in the music classroom

Just like learning to read words and compute numbers, young music students need to begin learning music literacy at a young age. A great way to make it fun is with music literacy games for young children. Google “music literacy games” for a wide variety of ideas from other educators as well as orchestras like the New York Philharmonic and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

As students progress through their education, literacy must remain a part of their learning. Music teachers can incorporate literacy strategies such as: explaining to students their rationale for selecting a piece; actively analyzing the selected music with students; constantly assessing student learning; defining success outcomes in your classroom or program; being flexible during rehearsals if you see a chance to insert some literacy learnings; and most importantly as an educator, always be willing to learn and incorporate those learnings into your classroom.

Teaching music literacy doesn’t have to be boring or old-fashioned. As music and music education evolve, so do strategies. This isn’t a bad thing! Keep in mind why it’s important to preserve music literacy and use traditional methods and newly developed ones to keep music literacy alive in your classroom.