I really have enjoyed reading Ralph Shaw’s blog, The Ukulele Entertainer. He has lots of great insights. This last week he posted a story from ukulele education pioneer Chalmers Doane (whose work I am familiar with and greatly respect). The story really bothered me for some reason. You can read the whole article here, but in essence . . .
Caveman Glonk has trouble communicating to the other members of the tribe his special log drumming skills, so he creates a kind of musical notation to communicate the info to his unmusical friends.
Whoa! Hold the presses! Music notation came about to teach music to the unmusical? Not so. Here is my reply:
“I’ve been a long time subscriber and know and admire the work of Chalmers Doane, but somehow this post really bothered me. Now that I’ve had a chance to mull over this over and calm down a bit, I still have some problems with the analogy.
First of all, this is not how our system of musical notation was invented or developed. We actually know quite a bit about the development of early Western notation. The oldest surviving example of a complete composition comes from the Greeks; the Greeks were hardly Glonk, they were an advanced society. The composition is an epitaph, and I think that is symbolically fitting as a kind of ‘forget me not.’ See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seikilos_epitaph
I’ve heard a recording of a recreation of the Seikilos epitaph and it is a lovely little melody. I’m so glad and grateful someone had the foresight to write it down and preserve it for us. It has touched my heart and at one time I even wrote a set of variations on it for a mini Greek mythological drama.
There is no evidence to support the idea that music notation developed to aid the unmusical (which I personally find a repugnant thought – every human being has the potential to be musical if music is treated as an integral part of their development). There is a lot of evidence to suggest that notation was developed to aid our memory and transmit information over time and space. We are awfully forgetful creatures and the act of writing, both linguistic and musical, screams out, “I don’t want to forget this!”
In an age of easy recording, it is easy to lose sight of how important musical notation has been to the development of our musical culture. Each generation has had to opportunity to build on the wealth of musical experimentation of the past, because it has been written down.
It is also important to remember that modern Western notation began with monks, not the folk musicians and troubadours (though they quickly caught on to its power and adapted it for their own purposes). Monks were entrusted with our collective memory in those days and writing was the way to ensure things were not forgotten. On top of that, there was the task of keeping track of a complicated liturgical calendar and the many thousands chants that were created to serve it. That was the origin of our musical notation system.
I highly value the ‘folk’ tradition, the transmission of ideas, music, and stories through word of mouth. That doesn’t mean I have to devalue the ‘classical’ tradition and the benefits and insights it has brought into my life. I’ve lived in both worlds, and I’m frustrated that we seem to have to have this kind of musical snobbery on both sides of the fence. “You guys aren’t real muscians.” “No, its you guys that aren’t real musicians.” Blegh!
Also, the idea that somehow “the people who couldn’t play music got control of a system for teaching it,” is so insulting. This runs hand in hand with the idea that “those who can’t, teach.” Which is so patently ridiculous as to defy reason. You could fill vaults with stories of great musicians that were also great teachers (I recognize you didn’t mean to imply this, you after all are a teacher – I have all your DVDs).
One may as well say, “there are composers and then there are parrots.” If a musician isn’t writing and performing their own material, aren’t they just a parrot? I don’t believe that at all, but this is the kind of divisive logic that the fictional Glonk narrative is based on.
Also, most of the teachers I’ve had in my life (almost all classically trained) have always tried to get me beyond the notes on the page and to be expressive. None of them ever said, “Stop with what’s here on the page, don’t add any musicality to it.” I find it interesting that some (not all) of the best performers in the ukulele world have had some background with classical music: Sarah Maisel (former violinist), Craig Chee (former/current cellist), Daniel Ho (classical guitar) . . .
That said, I’ve loved your work and your blog and am a fan.”