Musical Literacy and Rote Learning: Balancing Thinking and Feeling

SBO Staff • ChoralCommentaryMarch 2008 • March 11, 2008

Margaret BoudreauxThe concepts of teaching music either through notation or through direct rote instruction carry all kinds of baggage unrelated to the final musical experience. Musical literacy is seen as more advanced, more sophisticated, more powerful, more serious, “higher class.” Certainly literacy opens doors which would remain closed without that tool. But if not seen as just that, a tool to something completely unrelated to visual symbolism which is what literacy basically is it can carry unintended consequences.

Learning by ear is fundamentally the most important way to study any kind of music by stimulating and holding the attention of the ear. This is why singing without notation is often referred to as doing it “by heart.” Notation can aid the ear when a person is highly trained in reading music, but attaining that skill is a long haul. For children in school, achieving musical literacy is an important objective, along with many other goals. Learning music in an expressive manner is another. That can be best done with a balance of both music reading and rote learning. The reason this balance is so critical for the ultimate emotional experience of the musician lies in brain structure and function.

For the past several years I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to research many fields related to how the mind and brain respond to making and listening to music. I’ve worked collaboratively with Dr. Paul Mazeroff, senior lecturer of Psychology at McDaniel College, and an ardent music lover. We have twice taught an inter-disciplinary class called, “Music, Mind and Brain.” We found that many fields are involved in this research: Cognitive Psychology, Neuroscience, and Music Therapy, just to name a few. My own interest lies with choral rehearsal pedagogy and music literacy. There are so many ways to approach a score, and reading is just one. Whole styles, such as gospel, exist in which reading plays a minimal role, if any. I’ve observed that many of my choristers who read poorly actually learn more quickly and more musically than their highly literate counterparts, in some situations. I believe that’s because their ears are perhaps a bit more capable of retained music memory when they’re less dependent on the visual tool of notation. Clearly both ear and eye are incredibly valuable when learning complicated scores well and quickly, but research suggests that ear and eye are just the tip of the iceberg.

Many people are aware of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. It is well known, for example, that the right side governs the left side of the body. Also fairly well known is that, typically, the right side is more attuned to context and overall impressions, whereas the left side takes note of details. For example, in most people (though it varies with individuals), the right side sees a face while the left side sees a nose, eyes, lips, et cetera. That right-left hemispheric dichotomy has implications for music. What is less well known is that that entire discussion deals only with the outer surface of the brain, the cortex. The cortex is the part of the brain most associated with thinking and making decisions. Little is said about what takes place below the cortex. I’m particularly interested in an area called the limbic system, which is not part of the cortex, and which governs emotions in many ways. It is valuable for music educators to understand that one of the most important functions of the cortex is to inhibit the limbic system. The “thinker” inhibits the “feeler,” so that learning can take place. That’s great for classroom management and effective teaching of content. But for long-term considerations of our students’ musical experiences, we will not want them to come out of our classes somehow less able to experience the spontaneous levels of emotion we all treasure. The point I’d like to make here is fairly simple: the part of the brain that thinks is not the same as that which feels. In order for those areas to truly become fully integrated in musical experience, both must be equally and simultaneously addressed.

This is made more important by the fact that the human brain is dramatically affected by musical experience. The auditory cortex, the part of the cortex that interprets the meaning of sounds, is much larger in trained musicians than it is in the rest of the population. The corpus callosum, which connects the right and left hemispheres, is similarly affected, as is the cerebellum, which plays a role in rapid cognitive activity as well as physical movement. Our brains are changed as the result of the way we experience music. It’s also true in the brain that things that “fire together, wire together” (quoted from the movie What the Bleep Do We Know Anyway?). The way we teach music will govern the ways in which our students’ brains will develop, and thus the way they will respond to musical experiences in the future.

Reading music is a highly complex cognitive activity requiring understanding of symbolic language and engaging the visual as well as the auditory cortex. It requires a lot of focused thinking, especially in the early stages. There is no doubt that musical literacy is a vital tool that opens doors to countless styles and cultures. Helping students learn to read music well is one of the most important jobs we have. We must keep in mind their ability to feel positive emotions during that learning experience as well. That is a trick, since learning to read is so dominated by the cortex, which will be telling the limbic system to cool it. One suggestion I’d make is simply to ensure that the learning experience is frequently broken up so that many types of learning are experienced during any given rehearsal.

Here are a few techniques I’ve found useful:

  • Start your rehearsal with warm-ups involving physical activity as the students sing. Make some of those activities standard (like backrubs). Make some activities new every time, and related to the music.
  • Teach rounds or part songs by rote on a regular basis as part of the warm-up, and integrate your choir’s favorites into sing-a-long activities in concerts.
  • Mix up the vocal warm-ups, teaching new melodic, rhythmic, or tongue-twister exercises by rote regularly.
  • Program some pieces which use notation, but which you can teach largely by rote before you give the students the score. That way they experience the rhythm and word inflection on a physical and personal level before confronting the notation. This is even better if these pieces have potential for audience participation.
  • Always have something in the folder the kids can learn in one rehearsal and exit singing.
  • “Difficult” and “complicated” does not necessarily mean “better” music. The reward experienced by mastering truly challenging scores is only appreciated if balanced with music that can be more immediately enjoyed. (And the reverse is also true too much simple music makes the brain zone out.) Mix it up!

This article is a revision of a piece that was first published in the Maryland Music Educator in 2006, and subsequently in the Troubadour, the publication of the Eastern Division of the American Choral Directors Association.

Dr. Margaret Boudreaux is professor of Music and director of Choral Activities at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland and the artistic director of the Masterworks Chorale of Carroll County. She adjudicates and guest conducts throughout the region and she has published choral arrangements and editions in a variety of styles and voicings.

Dr. Boudreaux can be reached at

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