Advanced Essay #2: The Case for Music as a Form of Literacy


In this paper, I aimed to present similarities between music and common forms of literacy. I am proud of the points I was able to make. I need to work on being more concise because I struggled with the word limit even though I had already cut out a lot of content.

Advanced Essay

Going into middle school, I knew the very basics of music. I could sight read simple pieces, play scales, and recognize some intervals. Over the next four years, I studied music theory, learning about different aspects that go into a seemingly simple musical sentence. The elements of rhythm and melody and what falls underneath them; endless note values and time signatures, overwhelming scales, modes, intervals, and harmonies. Combining these pieces creates infinite possibilities in only one bar. Combining bars together then creates unique lines, which can be used to construct a piece. What Sherman Alexie said of paragraphs in The Joy of Reading and Writing can be said of musical lines; “A paragraph was a fence that held words. The words inside a paragraph worked together for a common purpose” (Alexie, 12). If a note with a rhythm and a tone is equal to a word, then a bar is a sentence, a line is a paragraph, and a piece is a story. Music theory is the grammar of musicality.

When one thinks of types of literacy, books, articles, languages, and similar subjects usually come to mind. These sorts of literacy provide examples of the different ways literacy is used. I will be looking at a few different pieces that are used for communicative, personal, or both purposes.

Communication can be argued to be the primary purpose of literacy. Letters, texting, and emails provide simple interactions. Larger pieces of literacy, like papers and books, are meant to be read by other people and are therefore types of communication. In a piece of music, there is a transfer of information, often through a story being told. Such a story or scene is brought to life by emotions and atmosphere that the composer creates. Knowing theory helps a composer use the tools to reach for these emotions more effectively. Communication through music also extends to the way it is performed. Just as a word can have different connotations depending on the way it is said, a single note can be played a multitude of ways that are limited only by the instrument itself. Depending on the way a piece is written, certain liberties are up to the performer, bringing forth unique versions of the same piece, as the performer chooses how they want to interpret it.

In Mother Tongue, Amy Tan speaks on the power of language, that it can “evoke emotion, a visual image, a complex, idea, or a simple truth” (Tan, 1). I would say that The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi does all of these things. The Four Seasons is a well-known work, comprised of four concertos, each representing a different season. When listening, one can actually feel each season. In Spring, Vivaldi begins with bouncy and clear melodies played by a lead violin. Summer is fuller, with more of the orchestra and harpsichord filling in and creating an adventurous feeling, which progresses into Autumn, featuring a slightly brighter and more neutral theme. There is no way to describe the sound of Winter other than crisp, like the feeling of stepping on fresh snow. The way Vivaldi and the performers use music brings forth a quite clear narrative of changing nature through each distinct section.

Besides communication, another common use of literacy is personal. Many people choose to keep journals or diaries to record their thoughts and emotions. Some use creative forms of writing, like poetry, to express their feelings, or get something off of their chest. Listening to music can have the same effect. Some people listen to music to fall asleep or relax. Some use it to get fired up for a workout. Some depend on music that they can relate to. When I was in middle school, I spent a lot of time listening to the alternative band Twenty One Pilots. Their music largely focuses on living with illnesses like anxiety and depression, and I was drawn to them because of this. I remember spending nights shut in my room in the dark, listening exclusively to TOP on repeat. Although it seems crazy and cliche, their music made me feel safe at a time in my life when very little did. I depended on their songs for comfort and something to connect with when I was too timid to talk to anyone about my problems.

Music is a versatile form of literacy that everyone uses in various ways to accompany various aspects of life. When considering concept albums like Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, that are chock full of social commentary, masterpieces like Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, that showcase musical creativity and talent, or historical songs like Hirsh Glik’s Zog Nit Keynmol, (inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto uprising), that document suffering and pain, it is easy to see the many forms music can take and the functions it can have. These functions differ more than they overlap with those of The Four Seasons or the songs of Twenty One Pilots, and thus it becomes apparent that music is one of the most multifaceted and important literacies we know.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman, “Superman and Me: The Joy of Reading and Writing.”

Tan, Amy, “Mother Tongue”