How to communicate like a musician

Updated: Oct 10

Disciplinary literacy in Music: the concepts of music

Disciplinary literacy in Music means how to communicate like a musician does. For musicians, musical sound is our primary mode of communication. The study of music is multimodal. It involves:

  • listening to musical sound (which is not directly about literacy)

  • performing music (which is not about literacy at all)

  • reading and drawing and writing musical notation (traditional notation, guitar tab, graphic notation)

  • reading and writing about the history of music, about composers and music in different styles and cultures

  • reading Italian (for art music scores)

  • talking about music

  • writing about music.

However, all of this is only an approximation of music itself.

'Writing about music is like dancing about architecture' Martin Hull

We are only hinting at musical meanings by using these other modes.

To help us be more specific, in music education, we refer to the concepts or elements of music: duration, pitch, texture, structure, dynamics and expressive techniques, tone colour. These are essential for understanding the literacies of Music. Most of the literacy demands of music involve talking about and writing about the concepts of music.

The concepts of music

One of my specialties is writing about the concepts of music. I even did a PhD on it. I regularly present to teachers and students about this at music conferences and professional development sessions, and I have written some books about it, which you may have seen: Literacy Works. Senior Music Aural Concepts and Junior Music Aural Concepts.

Here are some of my thoughts on how to start thinking about the concepts of music. I’ve drawn a diagram to represent the concepts in relation to each other.

As I have tried to show in this diagram, not all of the concepts are equal. They represent physical properties of sound, the performer and performing media that create musical sound, and the effects of the concepts (principles of composition).

Physical properties of sound

Physical properties of sound are shown in the speech bubble: pitch, duration, tone colour and dynamics. Pitch and duration are HUGE areas, and students need a great deal of musical knowledge to write about these. Dynamics has relatively less knowledge encoded in this concept. Tone colour is really difficult to write about because it is so abstract, and we need to use metaphors to describe it (e.g. bright, dark).

Performing media and the performer

Performing media are not listed as a concept, but of course they are essential to musical performance. In the diagram, I have drawn them as the ‘speakers’ of the musical sound in the speech bubble. Students of music need to be able to identify performing media aurally. Even if they don’t know the exact names of instruments, they need to get the instrument families right. Identifying the names of instruments is part of the literacies of music.

Then there are expressive techniques, the ways that the musical intervenes in the sound to shape the music (e.g. vibrato, flutter tonguing etc).

Principles of composition

Students of music have to write about issues such as balance, contrast and tension. These are not concepts of music per se. The performer doesn’t do it, and they’re not qualities of musical sound that can be measured (like pitch and duration can). They are different. Even though syllabus documents don’t specify, I call these principles of composition, to show that they are an overall organising principle or effect of the music as a whole.

I will have lots more to say about these concepts in later posts.

Follow up

Teachers of music can reflect on how they teach the concepts to students. Consider a spiral curriculum, from Year 7 to Year 12. How can we help students speak and write about the concepts throughout the years of schooling, not just in senior years when you might have aural exams. Why not consider a literacy focus for concepts in junior years, to apprentice students into the discipline of music?

See the post on scaffolding writing for more info.

References and readings

Weekes, T. (2007-2021). Literacy Works for Music

To reference this post, please cite:

Weekes, T. (2021, September 9). How to communicate like a musician. [Blog post]. Retrieved from