A New Model For Music Education
D. L. Stieg

In America, music education takes place for the most part in schools. In the prevailing model for music education in schools, virtually all children learn to sing in unison and play simple percussion instruments in the early primary grades. Instruction in playing simple instruments like the recorder is usually offered to all students in the third or fourth grades. Beginning level instruction in playing band and orchestral instruments is sometimes offered in the fourth or fifth grades, but it is normally offered on a voluntary basis rather than to all students.

In the middle school grades, all students normally receive basic general instruction in music history and music appreciation. In schools that can afford a comprehensive music program, recruitment begins in earnest for ensembles (choral, orchestral, and band), participation in which is nearly always voluntary. Universal instruction in playing music is not normally offered, although an increasing number of middle schools are now offering beginning level guitar instruction to all students.

In the high school grades, general musical instruction is sometimes offered to all students, but the predominant emphasis is on performing ensembles, at least in schools that can afford them. Participation in these ensembles is practically always voluntary and open, but in schools that have accomplished orchestras and bands, students who have not already learned to play an instrument are at such a disadvantage that they are effectively barred from participation. Choral ensembles are somewhat less exclusive, since rote learning and only a vague familiarity with notation are common enough even in accomplished high school choral ensembles, and since there is no need to master the technical requirements of playing an instrument.

Because the focus of music education in high schools is on performing ensembles, music learning opportunities are generally much greater for students who are members of these ensembles than for those who are not. However, beyond the school years and throughout adulthood, the availability and accessibility of music education resources is about the same for everyone. The Internet has become an excellent free resource for learning about music and learning the basics of music theory. Apart from church choirs, adult performing ensembles are relatively few and far between, and membership in these ensembles, especially instrumental ensembles, generally requires a high level of skill and musicianship. Most adults who want to play music gravitate toward the piano or the guitar, because they are polyphonic instruments that are capable of playing self-sufficient music, and because they can also be used to accompany singing or other instruments. By the end of the 20th century, the relative dominance of the piano in the 19th and early 20th centuries was reversed, and the guitar became the most popular and the most widely owned musical instrument in America.

The great number of adults (including young adults who are not members of performing ensembles) who want to learn to play music is suggested by the abundance of guitar learning resources, and by the considerable size of the music publishing industry, in which there is a clear emphasis on guitar music. Published guitar scores and online guitar learning resources are based for the most part on tablature. Music education in schools, however, is based more or less exclusively on staff notation, because an understanding of staff is required for participation in performing ensembles. In addition to a consensus on the importance of universal components of a music education like music history and music appreciation, there is general agreement among school music educators that in learning to play music, an understanding of music theory (especially harmony and music analysis) is essential to the development of a high level of musicianship. A new and unique model for music education, one that meets the seemingly disparate needs of adult learners and schools, can be fashioned by considering the definition of notation.

Notation is music in written form. The purpose of notation is to provide a written account of how music is played. In schools, the assumption is made that learning staff notation is the means to the end of learning to play music. This is true for learning to play music on the violin, the oboe, or the trombone, but not for learning to play music on the piano or the guitar. Any complete beginner can pick out the notes of a simple melody on the piano or the guitar, and in time can learn to play that melody. This can be done without recourse to staff notation, which as music educators are well aware poses great difficulty for many learners because it is somewhat abstract. Given a simpler form of notation, and given a concentration on the piano or the guitar, the initial focus of instrumental music education could be shifted from learning staff notation, which is the means to the end, to learning to play music, which is the end in itself.

A simpler form of notation for the piano is probably not possible, because the representation of individual notes would in any case be somewhat complicated. But for the guitar, the use of a simple single line tablature would make learning to play melodies much simpler and much more direct. The visual representation of rhythm is the key to fashioning a simple single line system for notating melodies for the guitar. If the evenly timed beats of meter are represented by evenly spaced marks along a single line, notes can be placed along this line, in relation to the beats, so as to indicate their rhythmic timing. The notes themselves can be represented with string and fret numbers that show where the notes are formed on the fretboard of the guitar. This simple notation can be learned in minutes, and can be of great and immediate assistance in learning to play melodies on the guitar.

Learning to play melodies is an effective way to go about learning to play the guitar for three important reasons. It allows for the gradual development of fretting hand skills, because it is easier to form individual notes than to form chords. It allows for the gradual development of playing hand skills, because melodies can be played either with a flatpick or in fingerstyle. But most importantly, it allows for the development of musicianship, because playing a melody on the guitar in a musical fashion depends greatly on the use of phrasing, damping, and musical sensibility. In learning to play melodies effectively, the guitarist is learning how to make the instrument sing, and the ability to do this is of great value regardless of the guitarist’s level of skill or preferred style of play.

For most learners, the attraction of playing melodies is bound to be short-lived at best, since they will be more interested in learning to play the guitar in rhythmic styles based on chords. Nevertheless, there is a tremendous potential for music education given by the fact that playing melodies and playing monophonic (one note at a time) parts of ensemble arrangements require essentially the same playing and reading skills. The range of the guitar is almost exactly the same as that of the human voice, and guitar ensemble arrangements can be devised in a wide variety of musical styles and genres, including classical music.

In learning to play guitar ensemble music, an actual ensemble would not be required, since playing along with a recording would likewise serve the important purpose of learning to play a part in the context of a parts arrangement. And the opportunity for learning to play all the parts of an arrangement, since all the parts are written for guitar, creates a unique and effective resource for learning about music by playing music. The value of this approach is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in the fact that there is arguably no better way to develop an understanding of how a Bach Chorale is constructed than to learn to play each of the four parts of which it is comprised.

The experience of playing in a competent ensemble is an important component of music education that is also a satisfying and fulfilling social activity. Unfortunately, this experience has traditionally been enjoyed by only a relatively few people, but a guitar ensemble model based on a simple single line tablature could serve to make this experience more universally accessible. Further, this guitar ensemble model might be of particular interest to schools for which the relative affordability of guitars, in comparison with other musical instruments, would be an important consideration. Of equal importance is the fact that the same model could be used in other settings as well, for example in informal living room gatherings, or in music studios, or in houses of worship, or even in civic ensembles. In the performance of guitar ensemble music, players who are skilled at rhythmic styles of play, and players who are proficient at bass guitar or lead guitar, could be called upon to layer other parts above a basic ensemble parts arrangement, which would produce a more interesting and more complicated musical texture.

The advantages of the guitar ensemble music education model are clear enough. In addition to its utility across a wide age demographic, it is based on the guitar, which is far and away the most popular and the most widely owned musical instrument, and is also one of the easiest musical instruments to learn to play with a basic level of skill. No less importantly, it is based on a simple single line notation that removes the formidable obstacle of having to learn staff notation. Because some parts of ensemble arrangements are usually less challenging than other parts, the guitar ensemble model will allow guitarists of various skill levels to come together in music making. And because all styles and genres of music, including classical music, can be arranged for guitar ensemble, the guitar ensemble model can function side by side with, or even in substitution for, the classical music education model in schools. This would allow for providing a more complete and more meaningful music education for students who would not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in a performing ensemble.