The August 2018 issue of Choral Journal one year ago featured an article from Carol Krueger and Jill Wilson titled “Foundations of Music Literacy: Jerome Bruner’s Contributions to Choral Music Education.”
Below is an excerpt of the article, and you can read it in its entirety in the August 2018 issue! Go to acda.org/choraljournal and click “Search Archives.” Choose August 2018 from the dropdown menu.
Jerome Bruner (1915-2016), distinguished cognitive psychologist and author of The Process of Education (1960), focused much of his life’s work on children’s cognitive development and was best known for his contributions in the areas of curriculum theory and the process of education. By the 1960s, his theory shifted to include the influence of the environment and experience in learning. Influenced by Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), Bruner championed the idea of spiral curriculum and learning readiness.2
He believed that intellect grew in stages and that children develop a deeper understanding if learning is delivered in a manner that becomes progressively more complex. Bruner suggested information be introduced to students at a young age and then revisited as they grow. He believed intellect is developed through environment and experience, specifically in “step-by-step changes in how the mind is used.”
Initially, skills need to be broken down to the most fundamental concepts in order for connections to be explicit. Building a child’s skills and understanding is essential prior to addressing more complex issues. This framework, which Bruner often referred to as scaffolding, plays an important role in facilitating learning.
Bruner proposed three modes of representation to describe the way information is encoded and stored in memory. He believed complex concepts could be taught to students at any stage of development so long as the teacher sequentially progresses through the enactive (action/experience), iconic (picture representations), then symbolic (notation) stages, as one acts as a scaffold for the next.
Based on this three-stage notion, Bruner advocated for first using hands-on learning, then, in the second stage, employing pictures or other visuals to represent that which was enacted in the first stage. The use of icons may help students make sense of concepts that cannot be seen in symbols/code. For example, the symbol used for a rest in no way depicts silence; however, when dictating ta and ta di using popsicle sticks, one might show a rest using a cotton ball, since they make no sound. It is important that adequate attention be given to the first two stages before attempting to address the abstract symbols that comprise musical notation (the symbolic stage).
This is true for music students in elementary schools and in colleges, where an increasing number of students still lack basic musical skills.4 Bruner believed that addressing each stage in sequential order leads to more effective learning.
This article provides music educators multiple strategies for both the enactive and iconic stages, which, as previously mentioned, must be given attention before singers can be successful at the symbolic stage. Resources are provided to enable instant application in the classroom and can be utilized to empower students to be musically literate and fulfill ACDA’s mission “to inspire excellence in choral music through education.”
What Does Bruner’s Work Mean for Choral Music Education?
Much of Bruner’s work is still applicable today. As choral directors, it is our responsibility to help each student move from the known to the unknown. While we have long-range goals for our students, carefully planned short-term objectives are just as crucial. It is important to present new material in a simplistic manner (e.g., rote-to-note) so that simple foundations can be laid for future advanced learning. Both Orff and Kodály encouraged exposing children to a variety of rote songs to build a foundation for future music learning.
In many ways, the process of learning music mirrors the process of learning language. People listen and absorb a wide variety of music in order to become acculturated to it. Many can tell the difference in hundreds of people’s voices on the phone. Some people may even be able to tell the difference between car engines. As these sounds are experienced, each one is labeled. The same should be true for patterns in music.5
According to Edwin Gordon, empowering students to audiate (think in sound), and to comprehend an awareness of underlying tonality and meter is a complex process.6 The ability to improvise in a language (engage in conversation) comes before developing the ability to read and write. The same is true of music. Based on Bruner’s beliefs, focusing on rote before note provides the foundation for students’ music literacy.
The 2014 National Core Arts Standards operate on a broader definition of music literacy. Literacy does not simply refer to being able to read standard notation but may also be concerned with “the ability to understand a wide variety of music as it occurs within a broad range of contexts.”7 At the same time, all students are capable of reading standard musical notation. Kodály believed music literacy (defined as the ability to “read, write, and think music”) to be the right of every human being.8 The ability to read standard notation is important and authentic to participation in performing ensembles.
An ensemble comprising members who are able to read music will be able to learn works faster and their perspectives will be far broader than students who learn only by rote. Singers may benefit from a sequential progression toward the complex concepts involved in music reading, beginning with the enactive stage.
- Jerome Bruner, Toward a Theory of Instruction (Cambridge, MA: Belkapp Press, 1966), 72.
- Jerome Bruner, The Process of Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960), 13.
- Ibid., 12.
- Richard Hoff man, William Pelto, and John W. White, “Takadimi: A Beat–Oriented System of Rhythm Pedagogy,” Journal of Music Theory Pedagogy 10 (1996): 7-30.
- Edwin E. Gordon, Learning Sequences in Music: A Contemporary Music Learning Theory (Chicago: G.I.A. Publications, 2007), 4.
- Gordon, Learning Sequences, 3.
- Jackie Wiggins, Teaching for Musical Understanding (NY: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 3.
- Lois Choksy, The Kodály Context (Englewood Cliff s, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981), 6.