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Why all musicians/music majors need sight singing/aural skills

Hello ACDA Family,

My name is Ocie S. Banks, and I'm a collegiate member at George Mason University. I am currently working on a research paper for my English 101 class. My topic is "Why students (music majors/musicians) need to take sight singing/aural skills/ear-training." Can any of you help me out with identifying the benefits of sight singing? What are its benefits? Why is it imperative that musicians have this skill? Are there any arguments against sight singing/aural skills?

If you have answers to these questions, you can contact me at obanks(a) or ocie.shaquan.banks(a)

If anyone can with this, I'd greatly appreciate it! Thank you so much.

Musically yours,

Ocie S. Banks,
George Mason University Chapter
American Choral Directors Assn.

Replies (7): Threaded | Chronological
on March 12, 2013 8:54pm
Dear Mr/Ms. Banks,
Sight-singing is an exercise in and demonstration of music literacy, as reading aloud is an exercise in and demonstration of verbal literacy.  For musicians, literacy is defined as the ability to hear accurately in one's imagination what one sees in a score.  Anything short of that is illiteracy.
Try a few thought-experiments:
1) Imagine yourself as what, to the general public (that is, to non-musicians), would be considered "illiterate."  You wish to know who George Mason was and what was his significance.  You would be entirely dependent on someone's telling you about him.  However, if you were literate, you would be able to read about George Mason and his role in the Revolutionary struggle, and judge his significance for yourself.
2a) Imagine someone, in a class, asked to read aloud from, say, an essay by Emerson.  The reader, stumbling on most multi-syllable words, stops at the end of every line and restarts at the beginning of the next, clearly unable to perceive the relationship between the sounds s/he is making and the meaning of Emerson's text.  Would you consider such a person's thoughts on Emerson to be worth your attention?
2b) Imagine someone, in a rehearsal, asked to sing aloud a line in a Bach chorale.  The singer, stumbling on any interval larger than a second, stops at the end of every system and restarts at the beginning of the next, ignoring metrical relationships and singing without inflection, clearly unable to perceive the relationship between the sounds s/he is making and the (harmonic) meaning of Bach's text.  Would you consider such a person's thoughts on Bach to be worth your attention?
3a) Imagine yourself a ordinary citizen of the Saxon town of Wittenberg, c. 1517, with the level of education typical of people of your station (and subsisting on a diet of worms?).  You are entirely dependent on your parish priest's sermons for your understanding of the Bible.  Now move ahead about five years.  If in the meantime you have become literate, you are able to read Luther's newly-published translation of the Bible and come to your own understanding of its meaning.  You are free.
3b) Now go back and imagine yourself musically illiterate.  Are you not equally imprisoned within your own ignorance?
4) Now help me understand why so many of my students, when assigned a score to learn, look first to the Internet to read about the work and its composer in order to "study" the music.
Best regards,
Jerome Hoberman
Music Director/Conductor, The Hong Kong Bach Choir & Orchestra
Applauded by an audience of 7
on March 13, 2013 7:15am
Oh, a topic dear to my heart!!
Some other variations on the answer:
Our society, like any vast system with centralized power, is organized via the written transmission and preservation of information and dominated by those who excel in literacy.  Therefore, the cultural production we prize the most highly is written:  the Bible trumps Navajo legend in authority and influence, we are bound by "the letter of the law," etc.  Mark Twain is a cultural hero as a story-teller because of the beauty and interest of the stories he penned; we consider it the birthright of every child in our culture to gain the tools to access Twain's writings, and that is why we believe -- at least on paper -- that we must teach all our young to read.  Oral tales may be as beautiful as any that are written down, and in an oral culture, it is no shame not be literate.  But in a society dominated by the literate, to be illiterate is a disaster.  
The concert tradition of what we call The West (which created itself in part through the rise of literacy and the dissemination, control, and enshrining of written texts), emanating from powerful and literacy-based institutions such as the Church, the court, the university, has been built on music that composers wrote on paper and that assumes the performers' ability to decode that notation in the moment.  Say what you will about this politically:  it is the truth of how we received so much music we love.  
Even in cultural spaces defined as "Western," there has been an undercurrent of appreciation for cultural materials created in oral societies where the most highly prized knowledge is that which is passed from the mouth of one member to the ears of another.  More and more, these "folk-based" materials are finding their way onto our concert stages.  This is all to the good.  I would be the last person to say that notated music, per se, is superior to oral tradition.  I typically work in both kinds of traditions.
What I would say is that:  just as no "formally" trained actor in the West is considered competent who cannot learn her lines from reading her script, no "formally" trained musician in the West is considered competent who cannot read his score.  No more does the theater teacher read and re-read Shakespeare's script aloud until the actors have been able to memorize their lines than we should be stuck teaching all our choral parts by rote.  As we slip further and further in to just that situation, however, we run the risk that -- when the last person literate in Western music notation is dead -- we will lose forever the music of Monteverdi and Bach and Rautavaara and...
Does every child in The West not have the right to access the keys that unlock the musical production of The West?
Bon courage a tous,
Applauded by an audience of 3
on March 13, 2013 5:46pm
Ocie:  You are getting excellent statements of the benefits, but I'd like to speak very specifically to one of your subtopics.  You wrote:  "Why students (music majors/musicians) need to take sight singing/aural skills/ear-training."
In my opinion, sightreading and ear training are SO VERY IMPORTANT to any and every musician that the Sophomore year in college is MUCH TOO LATE to start worrying about them!!!  In fact I have never known anyone to learn the basics of either by taking a college course in them, although it is possible to learn advanced skills if the basics are already mastered.  Zoltan Kodály realized this very well, and built the development of both music literacy and the inner ear into his methodology and materials for use with elementary school students.  That's why 6th graders in Hungary, for the most part, are better readers and better musicians than most college Sophomores in the U.S.!!!  It is our elementary school and secondary school music teachers (and the colleges that train them for their profession) who are letting their students down, and not preparing them through organized and progressive courses of study with clearcut goals and methods for reaching those goals.
This is by no means a radical idea.  Teachers of English, Math, Social Studies, Foreign Languages and many other fields do exactly that, rather than giving their students a series of disconnected "experiences" with no clearcut goals.
What we SHOULD be doing is not admitting any students as music majors unless they ALREADY have highly developed skills in reading music and ear training, but unfortunately if we tried to enforce any such requirements we would not have any music majors!!!
All the best,
Applauded by an audience of 5
on March 18, 2013 8:29am
. . . and in the public elementary schools, music is the first thing on the chopping block in any budget crisis.  So when does a music student actually BEGIN to learn to sightread?  Perhaps we need to revisit the "conservatory" concept?  That doesn't match well with school and work schedules for most students, but there are some who would excel.  Our curriculum and standards need time to work.  Nothing is automatic.  We are being cut just like recess is being cut!  Determined to be less important to the bottom line scores of the high stakes tests . . . I am teaching solfege and intervals to my elementary school students, but if there is no program next year, what then? 
on March 14, 2013 7:04am
I have about 17 years of experience as a band director, along with years of elementary music and full-time church experience, so I feel like I have both feet firmly planted in both worlds.  I have always felt that solfege is invaluable to insturmentalists, from beginner to advanced.  As brass players perform, they adjust their embouchures to move through different partials - that's why a trumpet with three valves can play many more than three or even 7 (the possible combinations) notes.  Recently I was teaching a beginner level class, and the trombones & baritones were having difficulty moving from C to G.  The natural progression, without crossing a partial, is C to D.  All I told them was to think Do to Sol instead of Do to Re.  They got it instantly - a few even sang it with Curwin signs on the spot - and quickly moved on with enthusiasm.
I don't think I even need to describe how solfege can be used in a string class.  Understanding intervals is essential.
Every instrument, no matter how well built, is inherently out of tune somewhere.  A good knowledge of solfege can creates an ingrained awareness of tuning, meaning that advanced players can overcome tuning issues with greater ease.  If you take the time to listen to an outstanding wind ensemble playing big, block chords in a live performance, you will hear overtones created as the group actually perfects the tuning on each note.  Imagine 'moving just intonation.'  It's a spine-tingling sensation when it happens, especially with a DCI-style drum and bugle corps.
I confess, I've never done it, but I would love to incorporate solfege into a beginner band class.  I think they would improve dramatically.
Just my experience--
Ray Cox
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 17, 2013 6:44pm
Would this be a good thesis for my rough draft?
All musicians and music majors need to take sight singing or aural skills courses to develop both the physical and “mind’s” ear, perform/read music at first sight, learn the music quickly, and develop a mental image of the music before it is actually performed.
on March 18, 2013 8:42am
I'm very glad you are using this topic, and your thesis is good.   ("All musicians and music majors need to take sight singing or aural skills courses to develop both the physical and “mind’s” ear, perform/read music at first sight, learn the music quickly, and develop a mental image of the music before it is actually performed.)
I wonder, though, if you might wish to include the idea of these skills being necessary for career competence.  How about something like,
"All musicians and music majors need to take "sight singing" or "aural skills" courses in order to imagine, quite specifically and accurately, how the music sounds, in order to competently perform and lead ensembles,  earning and maintaining  professional validity and respect."
Or, a simpler, more focused version:
"All musicians and music majors need to take "sight singing" or "aural skills" courses in order to imagine the specifics the composer has communicated, and to communicate them competently to the musicians and audience."
The other posts have wonderful reasonings and examples!
Best Wishes - maybe you will publish this?
Applauded by an audience of 1
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