Impairment / Language

Is not being able to read music an impairment?

There is a standard placed upon a literacy in music notation. If you go to school you have to be able to read music. It is the common language for ensembles, teachers, and students. In being able to function with this language, a world of possibility opens up.

Does not knowing how to read notation close off this world? Again, is it an impairment?

What of those traditions that learn by ear?

A friend, immersed in folk and old time while still studying classical guitar, revealed to me how prevalent this sort of ear language is. At old time jam sessions for instance, if they are playing a tune that is unfamiliar to a musician, one will learn the tune on the spot, listening to the ensemble. After a couple rounds through the tune he gets in sync with everyone and will internalize this for future playing.

This is only one example, but it should be stressed that folk and old time traditions have bred exceptional musicians who cannot read a single note. There is, as my friend told me, a kind of oral tradition that brims with subtlety. In some ways it is not an impairment at all.

Such discussion of impairments can be found in a moment in Oliver Sacks’ memoir, On the Move, when he talks to a deaf college student. The exchange reflects back on our inquiry:

“When I visited Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and talked about the ‘hearing impaired’, one of the deaf students signed, ‘Why don’t you look at yourself as sign impaired?’ It was a very interesting turning of the tables, because there were hundreds of students all conversing in sign, and I was the mute one who could understand nothing and communicate nothing, except through an interpreter”.

Instead of looking at sign as an impairment but as its own language with history and culture, its richness can be revealed (see Sacks’ marvelous book Seeing Voices). To call learning by ear as notation impaired is a surface level dismissal. It stunts the exploration of nuance already present.


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