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The 'Institute of Composing' and the Southbank Centre recently held a debate entitled, 'the end of literacy'. Chaired by Peter Wiegold and introduced by Gillian Moore, Head of Classical Music at the South Bank, three distinguished speakers, composer Richard Causton, writer Mark Ravenhill and critic Paul Morley, discussed the nature of contemporary literacy.

To see their individual contributions please visit our YouTube channel, and below you can see some of the responses received after the debate.

Clearly 'literacies' are changing fast – in education, in audiences, in writing about music. Students, for example, might know every stylistic nuance of a 70’s heavy metal genre, but would not have heard Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring'. They might have advanced studio skills but no instrumental ability. Be able to sight-read a complex piece, but have no sense of groove.

Journalism is fast shifting its perspectives in what is now understood as common musical 'canon'. Perhaps this is indeed the 'end of history', and there should be a more radical notion of new-music making out of, for example, the fast changing technologies of today.

However, we believe this is an important issue, and a timely moment to consider just what represents knowledge/ability/musical intelligence/history in students, practitioners, audience and writers today. Clearly the issue also goes beyond music.

Click on the names below to read responses to the debate:


Helen Julia Minors (Kingston University)

The end of literacy?

"Or should we be asking is literacy necessary? And indeed, what do we mean by literacy? The discussion on 13th July 2012 took a positive stance: literacy is essential. Significantly however the discussion did not only refer to the ability to read musical notation, but also to understand the texts, contexts and technological forms of musical dissemination. Forms of literacy (be it reading musical scores, interpreting texts and contexts, creating with technology) enable musicians to share ideas, to reproduce musical compositions (by reading a score, performing and via technological dissemination), to experiment and to educate. Literacy enables opportunities for artists to communicate and allows us to share in and understand diversity by providing a means of capturing musics (and its other collaborative arts). Many of the opening comments bore affinity to ideas raised by Edward W. Said in his exploration ‘The Future of Criticism’ (MLN 1984), as presenters explored the current state of musical literacy: has there been ‘a dramatic alteration in the standards defining levels of accepted literacy’ (p. 954)? The conclusion: let’s not marginalise what we do as musicians; let’s open out the conversation and equip the next generation with the literacy skills to converse, learn, engage, critique and create music."

Piers Hellawell (composer Queens University, Belfast)


"I've become very interested in the (albeit not new or original) application of information theory, using redundancy to chart meaning/information in music. Given the depth of our tendency to seek patterns, I think Leonard Meyer's bang-on, that "musical meaning arises when an antecedent situation, requiring an estimate of pattern continuation, produces uncertainty..." and of course a prevailing uncertainty that widens to lack of pattern amounting to very low redundancy, as found in much of the European avant-garde, leads to bemused listenership. Meyer has a brilliant encapsulation of this: "It is probable that new music angers listeners not because their aesthetic sensibilities are offended but because their psychic security - their sense of control - is seriously threatened."

Nowadays I find that everything I enjoy in music, from weird figurations in late Beethoven to clunks in Birtwistle, can be calibrated according to fluctuations on a scale of redundancy. But alas I don't know anything more widely about information theory..."

Simon Holt (composer)

"We are currently experiencing a kind of moment form writ large across the whole of art music (for want of a better term) these days. There is no argument with the past as we seem to choose more and more to completely ignore it, only making it available to ourselves when we need a splash of instant 'integrity' in a new piece, when it's appliquéd to a backdrop of minimalism for example; a quick quote from Handel or whatever, tossed like a salad ingredient into the mix. We are definitely in the eye of some vast blur of storm at the moment, which is difficult to really comprehend or fully visualise. Everything seems to be almost too available and easily come by. Consistency, once so completely sought after, now seems like a dirty word. We have to be a different composer in each piece; 'inspired''/influenced' by this week's current buzzword composing trend. It's an attitude that has killed off any real sense of direction."

Jacob Thompson-Bell (composer and artist, producer of The Sampler for Sound and Music)


"Has musical literacy fallen into decline, and should we care? Well, I don’t really see a drop-off in creativity, there’s plenty of new and innovative work being created in today’s music world. I don’t believe a renewed enthusiasm for the traditional European system of notation needs to be top of our list of musical priorities, which isn’t to say we ought to neglect that system entirely. I wonder if it might be better to concentrate on broadening people’s expectations of what notation can be. Notation plays a large part in this because the way we refer to music makes assumptions about what is, and what isn’t, important – guitar TAB presupposes a music that only needs players to be very specific about chords from one performance to the next, whilst traditional European notation is designed for sounds that, amongst other limitations, don’t become very high or very low. Recognising that all of these are legitimate notational systems (and that they don’t even represent a fraction of what’s possible) would be at the top of my list. Force-feeding students of music with traditional notation from a young age won’t help them be creative if it’s used to keep them in line. On the other hand, a small taste of what written, pictorial, aural and other types of notation in the broadest sense can do for performance would surely have a positive influence."

Manus Carey (Manchester Camerata)

An endangered species

"The recent South bank literacy debate was thought-provoking with very well chosen speakers, across a range of disciplines. We are undoubtedly at a very exciting time in the music world, with a mild breeze of fresh air slowly blowing throughout the industry as new ideas gradually gather pace, something which is long overdue. We need more intelligent debate like this, taking music out of its precious cotton-wrapped surroundings into a wider, perhaps more challenging context. We need to radically rethink how we write about, talk about, think about, perform, market and present music in order to ensure the longevity of what is an extraordinary artform but at the moment a very endangered species."

Ed McKeon (Director 3rd Ear)

Musical Literacy: Listening in the mode of reading?

"The IoC debate on musical literacy compellingly endorsed the need for reading notation as a counterweight to formulaic music, as a means of learning from tradition, and so on. Much the same case can be made for free improvisation. Might there be a more productive distinction between listening and reading, ‘operating’ (as Barthes describes it) a text / score?

The ultimate myth of a founding gesture through text – of the primacy of the written form – is that of Moses and the Ten Commandments, literally ‘written in stone’, as told in Exodus. Moses receives the tablets from God on Mount Sinai. He descends to the Israelites’ camp to find them worshipping the golden calf. Smashing the tablets in disgust, he demands obedience and secretly incites the Levites to massacre those not ‘on the Lord’s side’. Moses returns to the mountain to reinscribe the Law with God’s handiwork, and this become the treasure of the Ark of the Covenant. In short, the written Law is granted authority retrospectively by its performance (the meting out of judgement).

The case for musical literacy too often boils down to a veneration of scores as the repository of musical authority. Yet scores often post-date composition that has already happened through performance or other preparations (e.g. scores of purely electronic works). The same process was at work in the way national music movements from the late 18th century ‘validated’ folk music through transcription. Reading here is a form of unreflexive re-reading.

Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron also focuses on the failure(s) of language. Aaron insists that Moses’ word would be meaningless unless interpreted to the community in terms they understand. Moses declares such (verbal) sophistry misrepresents God’s nature and insists on the superiority of abstract (written) thought. The Austrian Moses believed fundamentally in the value of abstract thought made possible through notation, but it’s the realisation of his music through performance – with all its non-notated contextual and cultural baggage – that has the power to communicate. Purity of abstraction is for score-readers, not listeners; it’s for listening as a form of reading.

The most remarkable retelling of the story comes from Thomas Mann. In The Tables of the Law, Moses invents an alphabetic (phonetic) written language for the Law, an alternative to the pictographic (symbolic) form familiar to the Egyptians and Babylonians. In this account, Moses forms the Law and the sounds of the words in stone. The distinction is equivalent to moving from graphic score (a representation of relationships) to staff notation (a representation of sound). For the Law to gain its true authority, reading must become a form of listening – a kind of ‘aural literacy’, as opposed to a ‘formal literacy’.

In Mann’s story, when Moses returns to the mountain to reinscribe the tablets, he improves on his initial attempts at the script – a possibility he secretly had in mind when smashing the first set. That is, he recognizes that an alphabetic text is both phonetic and at some level also pictographic: a representation of the sound of speech and not the speech itself. Poets (and calligraphists) recognize this when using the shape of words on the page (e.g. Cage’s mesostics) as well as homophony, alliteration and other ‘sonic’ devices.

Perhaps the real lesson, then, is that musical literacy can be a form of listening in the mode of reading: not a substitute for hearing the music (in our heads), but a means of imagining the possibility of the music, including the relationships (with the community, between the musicians, with ancestors) that the music represents and performs. ‘Operating’ a piece of music shouldn’t be a form of music listening to itself, but of music listening to us."

John Miles (composer, jazz saxophonist) 

Literacy as seductive

"Having studied jazz, leadership, screen composition and classical composition formally at post-graduate level, it seems to me that all literacy is useful, but highly seductive. One can get caught up in 'the way' of jazz, or contemporary classical avant-garde, or pop music, or anything else that allows people to feel comfortable, safe and in an exclusive club. There's no doubt that learning musical language can provide you with the tools to craft ideas and potentially transcend the human condition, but it can also be a self-referenced end unto itself! In order for an audience to find a way in, building on or deconstructing the past can be useful - playing with various forms of established literacy that people can reference - but for my money musical literacy is only really useful if it appropriately serves a broader personal artistic vision."