A musical lesson: Making digital literacy second nature

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You may – or may not – be aware that I wrote my PhD thesis about the Pulitizer prize winning opera (based on Arthur Miller’s original) The Crucible.  Earlier this week, I was giving a talk at the Digital Innovation Festival in Victoria about cybersecurity, and I had cause to recall one of the main hypotheses in that dissertation and an unexpected lesson I learnt from the composer when I put my theory to him.  Indeed, I see many similarities between that hypothesis and the challenge of embedding digital literacy into our vernacular.

For those with no musical theory in their background, a quick lesson before I go on with my story.  Melodies (tunes) are made up of a group of ‘intervals’.  In music theory, you can measure each of these intervals.  In western music, certain intervals are known as perfect.  Some intervals, including perfect intervals, are consonant (nice on the ear), while others are dissonant (not so nice on the ear).

Anyway, I analysed every single melodic note in Dr Robert Ward’s opera and measured every single interval.  I noticed a pattern.  It was one that no one else had written about (and, let me say, there were quite a few academic writings about Ward’s The Crucible).  I was excited.  I had found that whenever Ward wanted his characters to express something positive – whether it was his character being honest, happy or similar – he would use a ‘perfect’ interval.  And when Ward wanted to express evil or something bad he used a particular dissonant interval, the augmented 4th, commonly referred to as ‘the Devil’s interval’.  This particular interval puts a particular tension on the western ear as it lies between two perfect intervals being the perfect fourth and fifth.  That is, our ears would prefer that the interval be sung a little bit lower or a little bit higher to relieve the dissonance.  I had reached the conclusion that Dr Ward had deliberately and meticulously planted those intervals into the opera’s melodies!

Dr Ward was very generous with his time.  You see, I found his postal address in ‘Who’s Who’ and started writing letters to him.  Next thing I know, he is suggesting that I could come and visit.  I was fortunate enough to visit Dr Ward, and his archives at Duke University, twice during my research and to take many hours of video footage of my candid discussions with the composer; may he rest in peace.

It was on my second trip that I put my theory to Dr Ward.  I was so excited, but soon felt (wrongly) that I had been shot down in flames, when Dr Ward looked at me oddly and told me that he didn’t really know what I was talking about.  Ward must have sensed my disappointment and went on to explain something that has stayed with me ever since.

Ward claimed that the intervallic structure in the vocal melodies of The Crucible was an expression of the melodic language that he felt best fit a particular situation that he had once learnt, but had since become second nature.  It wasn’t deliberate or meticulous; it was ‘musical literacy’. He likened this to learning spoken language, saying:

Now if you think about the way we learn language, we learn it from hearing our parents speak, and other people speak, and we hear them speak when they’re angry, when they’re loving, when they’re just sweeping things aside or whatever their emotion is at that point. Then we go to school and we learn what’s a verb, what’s a noun, what’s an adverb, what’s an adjective and so forth. And we parse the sentences and so forth and that maybe gives us a sense of speaking a little more correctly – but then we forget all that. That is, I don’t mean forget it in the sense of not knowing how to do it, but we don’t do that any more – we just have learned the usage of the language to express what [we] want to express. (Ward interview, 20 February 2006)

So, when I was speaking at the Digital Innovation Festival I was talking about how we non-digital natives find it difficult to grasp the various concepts of technology and the internet.  We can’t really perceive what a MB or GB is in the same way that we KNOW what a degree in temperature is or a cm in length or a kg in weight.  I said to the audience that I didn’t know music until I learnt it, and now, well, I just know it.  And so if it is possible to be musically literate in the way that Dr Ward describes, that is where we are not deliberate or methodical and don’t have to think about it, it must be possible for us non-digital natives to learn the ‘language’ of technology and be digitally literate too.

Indeed, making technology and the internet second nature will surely help us stop doing #dumbthings on the internet; and the musicologist in me thinks that the only way we can get there is #practise #practise #practise.


T One P Enterprises offers workshops for businesses – big and small – on the ‘Why should I care?’ quotient and the risk of (inadvertently) doing #dumbthings on the internet.  For more information, feel free to message me.

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