Web 2.0: A Return to Participatory Oral Traditions in Music Education

By Hanna, Wendell; Kelly, Kevin | American Music Teacher, October-November 2013 | Go to article overview

Web 2.0: A Return to Participatory Oral Traditions in Music Education


Hanna, Wendell, Kelly, Kevin, American Music Teacher


Music technology is pervasive. Music is on iPods, cell phones, television, radio and the Internet. When placed on hold, or while shopping at the department store, music is in the background. Thousands of kids play Guitar Hero, create music loops on Garage Band and surf YouTube videos. Many adults now listen to automated music recommendation services such as Pandora or share favorite music video clips with friends on Facebook. Technology has merged with the music distribution business and a record number of people have become daily music consumers. Citizens of the industrialized world listen to music for more than one quarter of their waking life. "It is unlikely that any other sign system--the spoken or written word, pictures, dancing, etc.---can on its own rival music's share of our average daily dose of symbolic perception." (1)

The Participatory Oral Tradition In Music

Music has been a part of every culture since the beginning of human civilization. (2) Indeed, for much of human history, music making has been a central aspect of daily life across cultures, regardless of age, status or ability. The use of synchronized movements to music helped in accomplishing large human work projects throughout history, such as singing work songs while building a railroad or sea chanteys while working a boat. In addition, music has always strengthened the sense of community while preserving the transmission of cultural identity. Moving to the sound of music is a human instinct? Observing young children move automatically to music is evidence of the natural connection between rhythm and bodily movement.

Pre-modern societies encouraged active and broad music participation in communal settings without the benefit of music notation. We refer to this as oral tradition learning? The oral tradition valued the empathetic and subjective in the transmission of music, valuing emotion and personal interpretation of the music. Oral music cultures were bound to particulars of the moment in time and space. Further, the oral tradition emphasized communal music, shared by everyone and owned by no one. Communities of music practice--such as dance, drumming, domestic tasks and ritualistic ceremonies--were not considered as stand-alone "art forms," but as integral to the lived experience of everyday life. (See Example 1: "Oral Tradition")

The Emergence Of Music Literacy: Music Notation

Music notation can be traced to Babylonian times; however, sophisticated written notation for music is a relatively recent innovation. Indeed, it was not until the mid-14th century that a need to create exact written notation emerged. The Roman Catholic Church developed a refined notational system, which accurately recorded both pitch and duration and was then able to musically propagate its mission to far-away places. (5) In effect, music notation then became a powerful new "technology." (6)

Music notation was objective and disengaged--it was a factual, unemotional document. Yet, written musical works were able to transcend time and space, a miraculous feat that allowed any literate musician, anywhere in the world, many years later to be able to play a particular piece of music the exact way it was intended. In short, notation preserved music as was originally written. It was an authoritative document, immutable to interpretation, true to the composer's original intent. Music notation functioned as a complete, finished work based on abstract and analytical symbols (see Example 1: "Written Notation").

As notation became more widespread, however, it created a need for fluent music "literacy" and this produced a divide between the literate and the non-literate musician. People who could read music and perform that music were considered "literate" musicians, and those who could not could only be passive listeners of written music or were considered merely as "folk" musicians. (7)

What Is Music "Literacy? …

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