When did language and musical literacy peak?

THURSDAY, February 20, 2020

When did language and musical literacy peak?

I’m old enough now to be careful of falling into the trap of assuming things used to be “better in my day”. That can be a horrible trap, full of assumptions and wrong conclusions. So let’s talk first about what the older societies had right and wrong; this is really a double topic, because it’s both about reading language and reading music.

Reading performances…

The first written communication dates all the way back to 3500 B.C. or BCE. Only the elite, who were also the rich, learned to read and write. They showed off their literacy skills by holding public performances, displaying their ability.

Books in Rome…

Books first appeared in Rome around 23 BCE, or in the old style B.C. They also began to appear around this time in several nations in Asia and the Middle East. However, books were quite rare because the printing process was so difficult and expensive. As in earlier times, only the elite acquired literacy.

The printing press…

Books remained very expensive and rare until the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. As printed books became more common, literacy rates began to rise, and this was because of the printing press, which gave everyone the chance to read. It started in Europe primarily with the Bible, available to many more people because of printing.

Reading for fun…

Reading books for entertainment, as we conceive of it today, is relatively new. So is reading silently, just for ourselves. We assume that people have always read as we do today, but in the 1700s reading was mostly a social activity, with someone reading aloud. By the 1800s this changed, with people reading for personal pleasure, as we do today. Newspapers and periodicals became common.

When did literacy peak?

Even with the printing of books, at first the people who were literate owned only a few books that they read and re-read. But by the late 1800s, children’s literature and novels became common.

In the 1940s the Census Bureau and the National Endowment for Arts  began tracking the reading habits of the American public. 40 percent of Americans were reading for their own enjoyment. Literacy rates steadily increased until the early 1980s, but between 1982 and 2002 there was a 10 percent drop in literacy rates, and I’d wager that it has fallen a good bit more, at least in the US.

Literacy should be going up, not down…

In fact, world illiteracy has been cut in half between 1970 and today, so what is happening in the US right now is a huge step back. It should not be happening. I’ll leave it to readers to decide for themselves why illiteracy in the US is increasing, but it should not be happening and is a national problem.

How does this relate to reading music?

As is true with reading books, all the technology we have today should be making reading of any kind easier, whether it is reading books or reading music. As a musician and teacher of music I am most concerned with how students learn to read music, and how all this is progressing.

This should be the age of the autodidact…

Never before in the history of mankind have people had so much instant access to information.We are free to learn independently at any time we wish, and their are infinite opportunities to do so.

But our teaching methods are not keeping up with all this progress, and we are not using computers and all our devices nearly as efficiently or creatively as we could or should. Most of the music teachers I know are still using methods and books that are decades out of date, and they are not teaching young students how to integrate modern technology with their learning.

There is an ever widening gap between what exclusive, expensive programs are accomplishing and what the average music student is getting.

If you take a few moments to find musical youth groups on YouTube, you will find spectacular kids making astounding music, and there are more and more of them every year. In my opinion, the best of the best has never been so amazing, and it keeps getting better each year. In addition, just by looking at these groups I see that the participants are more diversified. There are more young kids who used to be considered part of minorities, and the rise in the number of girls in top positions is meteoric. These are good signs.

But what I need is more of these advancements to reach the rest of the kids, those who are deprived of such programs and who are left out of meaningful music-making.

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1 thought on “When did language and musical literacy peak?

  1. Just an off thought. With all the texting and Internet, which has so much to do with the written word, has reading actually dropped? Or is it reading *books* that has diminished? And how many kinds of literacy are there in reality? You make some very good points overall.

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