Staves off

Readers of the BBC Music Magazine, and now the Guardian, may be surprised to learn that it is now possible to achieve an A grade in GCSE music without learning to read a musical score. Those of us who had mastered the permutations of augmented 6th progressions by the age of 16, and now despair of explaining such things to university music undergraduates, will shudder at the news.

Musical notation evolved around 1000 years ago in European monasteries as a way of helping monks remember the growing number of musical liturgical settings, and to expedite the sharing of these plainchants across a wider geographical area. But rather in the same way the grammar and usage of modern spoken language would now be inconceivable without the development of writing, contemporary western musical language cannot be understood independently of the history of the means by which it came to be notated. Without notation, it is very unlikely that even what we today understand as the basics of tonal harmony would exist, because the harmonic system of which they form a part could not have developed.

In some respects, then, the idea that it is possible not only to pass, but to excel, in the mainstream of secondary musical education seems as ridiculous as the idea that one might be able to pass English GCSE without ever learning to read and write....

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