Kodály and Education: A Musicological Note

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373277

The following remarks, presented at the Fifteenth Annual Meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology in Seattle, Washington, are an outgrowth of the author's work as Project Director of the federally financed Kodály Fellowship Program. In 1968, thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts, an initial group of ten young American musicians went to Hungary, after a summer of intensive linguistic training, to study, observe, and become temporarily part of the Hungarian national effort to improve musical literacy through daily classes of the type mapped out by the late Zoltán Kodály and taught by a host of dedicated disciples. The next year, following another summer session devoted this time to the preparation of suitable American materials, the Kodály fellows moved into three school districts in the United States, where scores of musically gifted children volunteered for daily classes in keeping with the principles of the Hungarian special music primary schools.1 This phase of the experiment, under auspices of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, in turn led to a firm commitment to Kodály-inspired teaching on the part of the New Haven, Connecticut schools.2 The next group of eight Kodály fellows, slated to spend the academic year 1971-72 in Hungary, will in fact feed directly into the budding New Haven model for Kodály-inspired music instruction, not only in the interest of large-scale aesthetic education but also as a non-verbal means of improving conceptual thinking generally, mathematical and verbal faculties in particular.

The Kodály Fellowship Program represents by no means the first or only attempt to adapt to American use pedagogical lessons learned in Hungarian classrooms.3 But, unlike some who have sought to tap Hungarian sources for yet another allegedly fool-proof "method," the Kodály Fellowship Program was predicated from the outset on the notion that wholesale transfers and translations of specifics developed in the context of a strictly centralized East European school system were inevitably doomed to ultimate, if not necessarily short-range failure in the highly differentiated, often excessively permissive educational situation characteristic of this country. Moreover, the early musical attitudes of children brought up by traditionally culture-conscious adults in a socialist society seemed essentially incompatible with those of their American counterparts subjected to the pervasive impact of commercial musical products in a profit-oriented, socio-political environment. In other words, for a variety of intrinsic reasons the project concentrated primarily on Kodály's general musical philosophy and didactic principles as possible points of departure for a genuinely American program of systematic musical instruction.

Hopefully, the pages that follow will convey some relevant thoughts that emerged as the American phase of the project progressed. They are offered here, .for what they are worth, as incentives for action on the part of those among our most gifted young men and women who wonder at times about the actual relevance of musicological research to the many acute problems that beset our troubled world.

The notion of universal musical literacy is as old as the idea of basic education for all. Both the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution were milestones in its history. As modern life developed, however, specific knowledge and understanding of music rarely went far beyond the narrow circles of polite society. The late Zoltán Kodály, himself a conservatory-trained product of that society as it existed in late 19th century Europe, awakened rather early to the realization that musical literacy, potentially a highly effective agent of socialization, operated primarily as an attribute of status and hence, by implication, of discrimination. So conceived it retained but a fraction of its vast potential, as far as he was concerned. But, as a means of leading urbanized man back to his historical roots, as an effective channel of communication between people of every possible cultural level and orientation, above all as a key to a country's hidden cultural strength, it seemed to him, the conscious and systematic pursuit of musical skills amounted to nothing less than a national imperative.

When Kodály and his friend Bartók decided to share both the musical and the material lives of the Hungarian peasants, they did so precisely because they wished to probe the very roots of an artistic vitality that had managed to survive countless invasions, occupations, and other assorted national disasters. They soon discovered not only that broad segments of Hungary's non-literate population were totally and actively immersed in their traditional music, but also that the remarkable flexibility and expressive wealth of this music was due, at least in part, to the very absence of a priori limitations of the kind imposed upon literate musical cultures by the inherent rigidity of notational conventions. As a result, Kodály based his subsequent didactic work toward the establishment of an organically conceived national program of musical education on two non-negotiable principles: (1) only singing furnishes an acceptable common denominator for all children irrespective of socio-economic background, and (2) singing and hearing must precede notation, lest music reading and writing be reduced to the level of largely meaningless cerebral exercises.

Kodály's determination never to impinge upon these two closely related principles implies, for one, that the current tendency in educationist circles to associate his name with that of Carl Orff rests on an unfortunate misunderstanding. For Orff, catering to the sophisticated musical culture of his native Germany, has always promoted instrumental skills, not to speak of the fact that his rhythmic "system" gives priority to metrical patterns, whereas Kodály thought of meter essentially as a subcategory of rhythm limited in both historical and ethnic scope. Moreover, totally inspired as they are, by the vocal folk music of the Hungarian countryside, many of Kodály's didactic compositions have unique language-determined characteristics that render them fundamentally unsuitable for translation and for adaptation. As Berlioz put it upon his return from Hungary well over a century ago, Hungarian is a very beautiful language, provided one knows how to speak it.

Kodály's conviction that children will learn how to read and write music with lasting success only when allowed to make direct connections with aurally familiar materials went counter to some cherished assumptions of the genteel tradition. Though certainly influenced by his intimate contacts with orally transmitted musical cultures, this particular doctrine was no doubt socially motivated by Kodály's profound distaste for any elitist form of education that permitted specially favored individuals to reach unusually high degrees of creative and recreative sophistication while excluding, by its very nature the vast majority of the people.

Whatever the case, in purely musical terms his study of oral tradition not only revealed the vast artistic possibilities of a limited repertory of musical formulae continuously modified, rearranged, and fused in a variety of ways, it also suggested that the repeated use of such pre-existing patterns might well be what makes improvisation possible, indeed typical of a great deal of folk music. He may or may not have subscribed to the psychoanthropological view which holds that every child goes through a condensed version of the historical evolution of his species; his approach to musical education certainly suggests that he tended to identify the creative potential of children with that of preliterate rather than literate man. At any rate, the official Hungarian curriculum inspired by him more or less follows conceptual changes in Western music from the improvisational and pseudo-improvisational patterns of the largely pre-literate Middle Ages to the highly sophisticated cerebral manipulations of the Schoenberg school. Thus, second graders are asked to develop their rhythmic and melodic vocabulary first by replying motivically to a musical "question," then by creating their own motivic combinations and re-combinations without guidance of any sort. And while these children, like their adult counterparts in so-called primitive societies, will make the most of a familiar idiom, they develop faculties of speech with amazing promptness and spontaneity.

Kodály, a contemporary of Koffka, Köhler, and other pioneers in the field of Gestalt psychology, was concerned not so much with scales, modes, or other artificial patterns of pitch selection, as with motivic pitch groupings capable of repetition, transposition, inversion, and rotation. Even though his overriding concern with pentatonic melodies was undoubtedly a direct outgrowth of his ethnomusicological research, one wonders whether it was not Kodály, the composer, who cherished the inherent motivic structure of pentatonicism. After all, leaving aside the fact that the major scale consists of two identical disjunct tetrachords, heptatonic scales, as employed in Western music, are on the whole motivically neutral, whereas pentatonic patterns are by definition motivically determined. Associated with oral traditions lacking in theoretical frames of reference, they neglect scalar considerations in the interest of maximal utilization of minimal pitch materials. Thus, the pattern D, F, G, A, C, consists of a basic motif (minor third plus major second) and its retrograde inversion, pivoting on G. And judicious manipulation of this motivic substance can produce any number of different yet intimately related tunes.

Taking his cues from the naturally descending tendency of Hungarian folksongs as well as children's games overheard at home and elsewhere, Kodály recognized the descending minor third sol-mi as a virtually universal motivic nucleus easily expanded through addition of upper and/or lower neighboring tones (la, re). Moreover, he correctly observed that children are capable of perceiving implicit relationships at an early educational stage and, without necessarily being able to make the appropriate cerebral judgments, manage to assimilate the crucial point that something big can grow out of something small, depending on how one deals with its constituent elements. For all we know, the mental processes involved are akin to those activated by play with interchangeable building units. Like the building block unit, the musical motif can be turned upside down for purposes other than those it served in its original form and can be pointed sidewise, as it were. Hence, the motivic approach promotes a relatively effortless realization that unity and diversity far from being incompatible are actually inseparable aspects of any organically conceived structure. Kodály, deeply concerned with social values, could not but make the most of this general lesson to be derived from the conceptual study of music.

In the American context, this fascination with pure melodic-rhythmic forces assumes very special significance. Indoctrinated with the "familiar" style, American music educators take the primacy of functional harmony virtually for granted. Their "accompanying" instrument is usually the pianoforte, the most harmonically oriented of all Western instruments. And more often than not the piano does not serve to accompany but, more accurately, to guide. At any rate, American children are exposed from an early age to triads and their simplest combinations, as well as the tempered tuning of the modern keyboard. Kodály, to be sure, emphasized the vocal element for a great variety of reasons. One of these was no doubt the lack of instruments, especially pianos, in rural Hungarian schools. An equalitarian at heart, he naturally looked for ways and means of promoting music in all the schools in a manner that would minimize material disadvantages. But in the end he was first and foremost a musician, not a sociologist, let alone a politician, indeed more of a humanist than an equalitarian, who realized that harmony in the Western functional sense does not come "naturally" to human beings but is a contrivance of civilization. This is not to say that he personally disdained harmony. On the contrary, unlike Bartók's, his own work as a composer falls plainly into the final stages of functional harmony. But he was not unaware of the tenuously temporary nature of the various last-minute efforts to salvage a tradition that had dominated two full centuries of European art music. Clearly, Debussy's modal and whole-tone experiments represented no less an attempt to re-establish the primacy of melodic continuity than Schoenberg's early "a-tonality." In either case an historically conscious composer was trying to avoid the melodic-rhythmic stagnation produced by the over-extension of functional harmony. This is clearly not the place to enter into an analysis of early twentieth century European music at the cross roads. But it is worth recalling in the present context that those who were to determine the principal currents of twentieth century music in nearly every instance reiterated melodic-rhythmic elements at the expense of the harmonic component.

The ultimate value of a Kodály-inspired program, then, lies in its relevance to both twentieth century music, as practiced in sophisticated Western circles, and a wide range of the world's cultures. In other words, whereas the teaching of music in American schools deals restrictively with an exceedingly limited repertory, the Kodály approach centers on fundamental musical issues manifested in many musics in a variety of ways depending on specific socio-historical conditions. If Kodály decided to draw primarily upon the musical heritage of his native country, he did so not merely for ethnocentric reasons but also because that particular heritage was apt to demonstrate a number of such issues concretely and at a high aesthetic level. By the same token, he never understood why non-Hungarians would want to take over lock, stock, and barrel, either his materials or a general methodology evolved in response to a particular national need. Conscious perhaps more than anyone else, except for Bartók, of the unique fusion of linguistic and musical elements in the folk songs of Hungary, he could hardly condone their indiscriminate use in translations that often served to distort the musical effect without enhancing textual comprehension.

Any attempt to match in the American classroom, even remotely, what is being accomplished daily in Hungarian schools will have to be based on indigenous American materials judiciously chosen, as Kodály insisted, in accordance with specific didactic aims. A rather striking example may serve to illustrate this crucial point. One of the teachers engaged in an experiment in Kodály-inspired teaching at an inner-city school in New Haven, Connecticut found it exceedingly difficult at first to activate the black children's seemingly limitless musical potential. But her problems were solved, at least to a point, once she tried singsong type melodies employing the lower pentatone sol, la, do re, mi, instead of do, re, mi, sol, la, which characterizes so many tunes of Anglo-Saxon origin. "Needless to say," she wrote subsequently, "my inability to research the vast field of black music in depth probably forced me to ignore many other musical characteristics which would have made the music and its understanding more meaningful to the students."

When all is said and done, therefore, the fortunes of the Kodály approach on the American educational scene will depend to a large extent upon the willingness of musicologists not only to do much needed field work in urban areas but also to analyze and subsequently prepare materials specifically for the educational advancement of children hailing from those same areas. In order to give young blacks, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, or, for that matter, American Indians a truly meaningful musical education the schools will have to apply didactic insights gained from the study of their indigenous musical backgrounds and, more generally, cultural environments. What greater challenge could budding musicologists in search of immediate "relevance" conceive of than the creation of a new type of "applied" musicology designed to maximize the vast as yet untapped educational potential of the stylistic resources embedded in the totality, rather than a mere segment, of America's many-splendored musical resources.

1For a general discussion see Gábor Friss, "The Music Primary School," in Musical Education in Hungary, ed. by Sándor Frigyes (London 1966). Details of the curriculum have been published by the Hungarian Ministry of Education in a pamphlet entitled Curriculum of Singing and Music Tuition with Instructions for Primary Schools with a Special Music Program (Budapest 1966).

2This phase is discussed in Alexander L. Ringer, An Experimental Program in the Development of Musical Literacy Among Musically Gifted Children in the Upper Elementary Grades, U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Research Report, Project No. 9-0352 (ERIC Document Reproduction Service, Bethesda, Maryland).

3The most widely used classroom series is Mary Helen Richards' The Threshold of Music. The recently established Kodály Musical Training Institute Inc. in Wellesley, Mass., under the direction of Denise Bacon, expresses aims similar to those of the Kodály Fellowship Program.

Read 2845 times

Last modified on Tuesday, 13/11/2018

Go to top