Marti's Blog

in praise of handwriting

The first day of class fall semester, a student showed up 40 minutes late, sat down, and promptly opened up his computer. Because he was 40 minutes late, he missed the one unbreakable rule for my classroom: No Electronic Devices of any kind. The class was a music history class focusing on concert music written after WWII; a class that relies on the students' concentrated listening and class discussion. I asked him to close his computer, explaining to him that I don't allow computers to be open in the classroom. He argued with me, telling me that he could only take notes on the computer. I told him he either needed to take notes by hand, or not even take notes at all, but rather listen intently and comment appropriately on the music being discussed. He left and dropped the class.

The reason for my one unbreakable rule is clear to those who already agree with me, but makes no sense to those who don't. Let me try to explain: I believe that the simple act of writing things down, using pen and paper (pencil works too) creates indelible connections in the brain. I am not a psychologist, nor am I knowledgeable of any science regarding the brain. This is simply what I have experienced for myself as a notetaker, and what I have seen be effective in my students.

In fact, there has been some compelling research done on this topic. A recent piece in the Boston Globe Ideas section talks about this: And, an article in Psychology Today talks about "desirable difficulties":

The other aspect is that I believe, through observation over the years, that staring at a screen can shut down creative thought processes. And, there is the obvious problem of whether students are actually taking notes or are looking at Facebook (I have seen many of my colleagues' students looking at Facebook while they have their computers open, ostensibly taking notes). I want to discourage distraction in my classes; there's plenty to be distracted by without having an open computer.

Please don't misunderstand. I am not anti-computer, or anti-technology. I love Facebook as much (probably more) as the next person. I rely on computers to organize my classroom materials, to send my music to interested parties, to watch Berlin Philharmonic performances, etc. etc. I just believe that learning happens more deeply and permanently when computers are closed and phones are off.

Anyone who knows me knows that I also believe that computers can be a detriment to the creative compositional process. I have seen, time and time again, students become stymied and stunted creatively when they rely on the inflexibility of the computer. Finale and Sibelius (the program, not the composer) can be useful notation programs, but as compositional tools, they can encourage defaults (conscious and not). When I ask students to compose by hand they tell me "how will I be able to hear my music?" My response to that is to explain to them that no composer in history before 1990 had a computer to spit out a barely adequate soundfile, giving them a poor aural representation of what the piece sounds like. Rather, composers have always, since the dawn of written notation, strived to hear their music in their heads and make that struggle, that "desirably difficult" path towards writing down what they hear in their minds. This is where creativity is born- in the imagining of the sound, in the quest to discover the best and clearest and most communicative notation. The vital next piece, especially for a student, is to then hear the piece performed. Assess what did and didn't work, and move on to the next piece. One must imagine one's music.

My hero, Toru Takemitsu, learned this lesson when he apprenticed for the film composer, Fumio Hayasaka. In the words of Takemitsu's wife, Asaka Takemitsu: "Young composers have few opportunities to have their music performed, especially if they write an orchestral work. But film scores get turned into sound almost immediately. He wasn't the one who was composing the actual music, but by helping to write out the score and parts, he was able to see that, 'If the notes are layered this way' then, 'Aha, it will sound like this when it is performed.' This from one of the greatest orchestral composers of all time. There is no shortcut towards this end; one must study scores and experiment with sound and instrumental color. And use the computer for notation only (unless of course you still notate by hand!).