When considering "literacy," we often assume that we are considering knowledge of communication through the written word. However, the reading and writing of music are also communication skills that fall within the notion of "literacy." Music is a kind of language (some even term it the "Universal Language") with its own logic and syntax. A pedagogy has evolved to teach the skills of reading and writing music with its own methodology and developmental scope and sequence.
While music reading and writing skills are quite different from language reading and writing skills, the early development of musical literacy can also be a powerful tool in developing language literacy. Studies have shown that the study of music increases academic achievement on a number of different fronts, including language writing skills. This seems to support the idea that the development of music and language literacy in our students may mutually reinforce each other. Perhaps the differences between the skills of reading and writing music and language are not as great as they appear at first glance.
Literacy is about the fluent use of a language. "I speak the lingo. I read the lingo. I write the lingo. I understand the language." To be able to say this is to be an educated man in our society. We speak to communicate information and ideas. But no language is capable of communicating all ideas. The structure of language itself insures that. Whatever form the language takes implies the validity and importance of the concepts expressed in that form. In English the subject and object structure, for instance, imposes its form on our thoughts . It is important, in order to develop diverse creative thought and ideas, to have knowledge of a number of languages or means of expression.
Music is, demonstrably, a language. It is in fact an extremely sophisticated language. It has its own "grammar" and a logic dictated by the harmonic patterns of various frequencies (pitches) sounded simultaneously and in series. We react to these patterns with marked physical and emotional responses. It communicates and in fact encodes and replicates harmonic events in time. Sounds, as we have known from at least the time of Pythagoras, have structure and mathematical relationships to each other. Almost all of us have experienced an intensely emotional response at one time or another to the harmonic structure of music. I think it is important to represent music through reading and writing in order to have a better understanding of that structure and, ultimately, in order to have a better understanding of ourselves.
If we are to foster music literacy, that we surround ourselves with easily accessible and decipherable music. There are some places to begin in this task. Most schools I have been in have a text book room filled with old music texts no longer "up-to-date" that are rotting on the shelves These books should be in classroom libraries where children can see and look at them. Even if teachers cannot read music or show children how, their interest and perhaps even the teacher's interest can be sparked by just having these books to browse.
An incredible tool is now available to help in the task of making musical notation accessible. Computer programs are fast being developed that can notate music easily and play it back for you. By simply copying music from music books as outlined above on these programs, teachers and students alike can receive immediate feedback on how music notation works. The computer will play back the music for you immediately. A number of programs are now available with this feature.
Source: adapted from a Research Forum article published, 1994, Lanley, BC School District