Who Sets The Standards In a Post-Literate Music Education Culture?

Technology is constantly changing our world. It’s made everything easier, from taking pictures, to reading (or listening to) books, to keeping in touch with our friends and family around the globe. 

Much of the current disruptive innovation from AirBnB to Uber started with Napster’s disruption of music, but the changes hit more than just pop culture. The field of music education has been evolving in some really interesting ways too. 

Before the advent of notation software, for instance, hand-writing scores was an absolute must. Today, it’s easily skipped out of convenience. Though note, clef, and symbol recognition remain keystones to music theory, physically writing them out is increasingly left for later, in favor of engagement, fun, and keeping shorter and shorter attention spans focused. 

The argument that this all makes things easier on the student is hard to ignore – less time scrutinizing note stems means more time creating and playing. But does making things easier produce better students, more prepared students, more educated students?

That depends on what you’re measuring, and what you’re measuring depends on who sets the standards. 

In the 20th century, it was more common for private lesson teachers to reinforce and help to prepare students for what they would face in their school band, orchestra, chorus, or general music classes. In most public school districts now, success is increasingly measured by test scores, yet at the same time, in private lessons it’s more and more common for engagement, fun, and creative self-expression to be the measure of success.

Literacy isn’t always the focus. 

So who sets the standards in a post-literate musical culture? 

From a pedagogical perspective, consider how revolutionary the birth of the music publishing industry was in the world of music. Prior to this, written music was less common, often hand-written, and only available to certain classes of people. With publishing, the doors opened – printed music became prevalent, cheaper, and available to many more. Every church pianist or organist could become a teacher by following turn-page method books, and it created a lot of freelance music teachers. 

How many kids and adults picked up instruments and took lessons as a result of the sudden affordability of printed music? Like when The Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show and suddenly everyone could see that it was possible for artists to write their own songs, the musical world was inspired by a shift in possibility.

When the publishing industry started, it was the publishers, working with education experts and authors who set the standards, but ironically not all the standards made it to the books. 

For example, many of the standards of improvisation, creativity, composition, playing by ear, memorization, and performance, didn’t make it into the methods, instead passing down various lines of direct lineage.

And what has been passed from one person to the next has always been more difficult to capture and generalize…. Until now. 

Now, technology makes it easier to capture what happens between teacher and student, on the fly. Using phones and iPads, and computers, teachers and students can set their own standards together. They can pull up curriculum from anywhere, and get as deep into any method as they want. 

Or, they can just do their own thing. 

Ultimately, it's up to the teachers to decide whether or not to utilize these tools and off-the-shelf curriculum as part of the learning process. As people who are in a unique position to pass on knowledge, they can help guide the discussion however they see fit.

They can also use those tools that first sparked a student's interest to give them a deeper understanding of music – providing much needed context that might have never made it to a reading-first method. 

Even as it changes, learning and teaching music will still have at it's core the same things it's always had –  a passion for the art, a desire to pass it on, technical foundations, and an eagerness to learn.

But one thing doesn’t change, and it’s good that it stays a timeless truth: 

Teachers set the standards.