Home Opinion How do we learn folk music? Part II

How do we learn folk music? Part II

Guitar in Woods

In the last article, I tried to avoid answering the question of whether written music is still relevant in folk music by posing two more questions, “What motivates one to learn to play or sing folk music?” and, “How do we learn to play folk music?”

I have a dog in this race and I would be lambasted if I didn’t make that evident. My company, BerLen Music, publishes printed songbooks as well as digital interactive sheet music, a format of sheet music allowing purchasers to hear the music and transpose the music dynamically before printing out a copy. I have a specific and, some would say, perverse interest in creating sheet music within the roots and folk music genres. So what’s the problem?

To my brain, the facts are as follows: 1) – virtually every musician I know, at some point in their musical life, has purchased and utilized one form of sheet music or another for various reasons. 2) – The sheet music content that has been available for purchase has been largely relegated to music published by the major sheet music publishers, Hal Leonard or Alfred Music.

The major publishers typically distribute music from artists aligned with major music publishers. There have been, and are independent publishers producing printed music by independent or niche artists, but not many. 3) – The digital interactive music delivery model has been a hugely successful way of delivering sheet music published by major publishers in the U.S. 4) – To date, there hasn’t been any method of delivering music by niche or independent Canadian artists using the digital interactive delivery model.

So to my mathematical, linear brain there would be excitement in the roots and folk community about the application of this sheet music technology to deliver Canadian folk and roots content. Babies would be named after me. Twins would be named “Stan” and “Jack”. A chair in my honour would be set up at every uke jam and song circle across Canada, along with a strong pair of reading glasses. Tens of dollars would be generated across this great nation of ours, buying laments by Lynn, historical journals by at least two or three Jameses, feisty folksongs by Fred, rants by Rogerses, etc…

But I’m getting ahead of myself and spending tens of dollars I don’t yet have. There are other dogs in this race, to overuse a metaphor that didn’t work the first time. Let’s get back to looking at what new avenues of learning to play folk music can be added to the list that I started last time. To recap, the list I came up with was:

  1. Aural methods.
  2. Cheat sheets (simplified sheet music).
  3. Written notation of a musical arrangement (detailed sheet music).
  4. Video.
  5. Live instruction.

Digital interactive sheet music, the format of music I publish, combines aural methods with using a cheat sheet. An example of how this might be used is that there may be an artist you are familiar with but you don’t have access to a recorded version of a particular song. Using this format, you can learn how to play AND, in the case where fret diagrams are included, learn the tuning and chord fingerings used by the artist.

Another innovation that is deliverable through digital sheet music sites like MusicNotes is a type of animated guitar fret board that shows you graphically what the left and right hands are doing throughout a song or instrumental piece. This method combines aural methods with a form of video. We are at the point where we are just starting to discover the potential regarding new and innovative ways of delivering sheet music and tabbed music content on devices such as laptops, smartphones and tablets.

I think it is also important to mention the massive impact of today’s most popular social media tool on music instruction. Although I made the conscious decision not to try to voice the arguments against the relevancy of sheet music in folk and roots genres in these articles, I imagine that a one-word argument that might be offered is “YouTube”. YouTube has been a game changer for the music industry in a lot of ways, but one of the ways it has affected the folk and roots community is that it offers a huge resource of free videos for learning to play instrumental music. There are, of course a lot of professionally made instructional DVDs and online videos for learning instrumental music. None of this existed in such a huge quantity more than a decade or two ago.

Along with online video, there is huge amount of free content available over the Internet in the form of lyric sheets, chord sheets and guitar tabs. The content tends to be limited to mainstream fare, and the quality of this content varies dramatically from useful to pathetically inaccurate, but it is fair to say that the availability of this content also competes in a small way with sheet music.

I want to add another thought before I end this. One of the discussions I was engaged in regarding the relevancy of sheet music involved artist songbooks. Artist songbooks were really popular at one point, not quite as much in recent years due to the declining market of printed sheet music in general. But the artist songbook has an additional function to providing a way of learning songs. Typically, artist songbooks contain additional material in the way of illustrations or anecdotes about the songs or the artist. The books offer, in a sense, a deeper way of connecting with an artist one admires so some sheet music content can function more as artist merchandise than as a learning tool.

Skirting the direct issue again of trying to present arguments and counter-arguments for the relevancy of sheet music within the roots and folk community, I think an obvious point to make here is that there is a much bigger variety of options for learning music than there were twenty or thirty years ago. And that could certainly change the perception of the relevancy of sheet music. I don’t think that any intelligent argument would say videos are better than using written sources to learn music, or vice versa. They each have their place in learning to play music.

But as long as there is a need to communicate through space and time how to perform a piece of music, there will exist a need to use all methods at our disposal. And one of those methods will be written notation.


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