Don't Be Fooled by the Electric Guitars - The Genius of the Sound Art Method

By Phil Lewis

It doesn't matter if it's Ludacris or Ludwig van Beethoven, Benjamen Britton or Britney Spears, Coldplay or Cole Porter, Fatboy Slim or Slim Whitman, the raw materials of music are the same.

Rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, texture, language, form -- these are the elements from which music has been fashioned since the dawn of humanity. Although different cultures, different periods, different styles, may choose to emphasize one or another of these elements, all types of music are pretty much made of the same "stuff." The composer or performer in any culture must learn to manipulate the raw materials of music to produce the desired sound; whether that's a string quartet, a ritual chant, or a trip-hop jam.

In order to impart mastery of the elements of music to a prospective student, it's necessary first to pique their interest, to show them somehow that music has value and that the raw materials of music are freely available to anyone. This is where the Sound Art method excels. Sound Art gets kids playing right away by using accessible popular music that young people already know and enjoy. The students quickly see that music is not some arcane art, but a really cool activity that they too can engage in and master.

The problem with the way music is traditionally taught is that it starts with an ideal end state, say, a Mozart sonata. The idea is that rules or procedures can then be extracted from that Mozart sonata which, if executed scrupulously, will result in a satisfactory performance of the piece. Unfortunately, that only leaves the educator with a bunch of derived rules. The well-meaning educator then attempts to teach music as a series of rules, without offering the student an opportunity to discover for him- or herself the inherent value of the rules. The end state is lost to view. Enjoyment, expression, cooperation, coordination -- the real values of music -- often play second fiddle to the rules, and sometimes are overlooked entirely.

It reminds me of my high school algebra class. I hated algebra. It held no interest for me and, of course, as a result I did not do well in the subject. Later, when studying audio engineering, I discovered that the key to understanding electronic circuits was... algebra. I was furious! Why hadn't anyone ever told me that algebra was good for something? I would have paid more attention in class.

Traditional music education often works the same way. The student is expected to memorize and internalize a canon of rules that will eventually lead them to the ideal end state. But the problem lies in the fact that the rules become the focus of the curriculum. The Sound Art method works differently: put an instrument in the kids' hands and teach them to play a few chords. The next thing you know, they're playing a White Stripes song! What this does is instill confidence in students that music is something accessible to them. If they are later inclined to learn to play a Mozart sonata, they already know they are capable of making music; and they know it's just a matter of learning to make their fingers move in such a way as to produce those particular sounds. What a revelation for a young person!

Let's be realistic. How many young people today are inspired by Yo-Yo Ma or Wynton Marsalis? Chances are they're never heard of them. Naturally they're inspired by the popular artists of the day, and their inclination is to reproduce the sounds with which they are most familiar. Instead of opposing their natural interest in popular music, Sound Art uses it to get them up and running -- to get them, first of all, interested in making music, and then literally show them that they can do it too. It really is giving them the keys to the kingdom, explicitly demonstrating that they too are a part of the culture and the culture is part of them.

Sometimes folks are put off by the use of popular instruments in Sound Art's programs. But music itself is instrument-agnostic. It can be made on a rough-hewn log or on a sophisticated MIDI workstation, it doesn't matter. The underlying principles of music remain the same. If a musician understands those principles, the instrument is only the means to an end. In Mozart's day the violin was the preeminent instrument. When my parents were young, it was the clarinet. For me it was the electric guitar. Instruments come and go, but music is music.

It's easy to forget that instrumentation is not an expression of intrinsic musical value. I've heard heart-wrenchingly beautiful music played on a single tambourine, and god-awful noise emanating from a Steinway grand. Though in Western culture we tend to privilege instruments from traditional European classical music, it really makes no difference whether a student begins on violin or guitar, piano or synthesizer, snare drum or drumset. We may have a personal preference (most of us do), but the goal of the Sound Art method is to get the student's attention first, and then teach them to manipulate the "stuff" of music using familiar tools. This is the genius of the Sound Art method. So don't be fooled by the electric guitars, these kids are really learning music.