Open Eye: Will maths make this a Wizard new way to learn music?

'Learn to read and write music in three hours' said the publicity for the Creativity in Education Community's London Forum in March. We asked Ben Stephenson, who can play the guitar but can't read music, to try it.
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It has often been said that maths and music go together. I assume that this fact which we like to bandy about in pubs is the result of reputable scientific study and so it has always perplexed me that I'm good at one and not at the other.

The two disciplines combine in Wizard Code (an alternative system to traditional musical notation), creating a language that, at present, only one man, Colin Wells, can speak. Colin believes that he can teach this new language in just three hours, taking you from tone-deaf to advanced musician in the time it takes most of us to cook a decent Sunday roast.

Currently, the Wizard Code system applies only to guitars, and as a proficient guitarist who has never bothered to learn to read music, I was interested to see whether Colin would succeed where so many music teachers had failed.

A classically-trained pianist, Colin spent years teaching music to apathetic inner-city kids. He realised early on that current methods of teaching music favour those who have that rare combination of time, money and support. He set out to devise a 'classless' tool by which anyone can learn to play.

First, he disposed of technical jargon by re-naming chords with mathematical categories so that in place of the traditional E-flat, etc, there are numbers from one to twelve.

The mental crossbreed of a capo and a slide does away with the need for fingering and chord shapes. The finishing touches, such as the definitions for duration, vibrato, crescendo and the like became a bit more convoluted.

While provisions had been made - shapes drawn around the numbers/notes signify how they are to be played - Colin wants Wizard Code in many of these instances to accommodate the musicians' innate creativity and expression.

In other words, it doesn't cope well with complication. Despite these teething problems, all this goes into a system Colin describes as "miraculous" - which is when we are reminded that he's pitching a product for pounds 14.99, as well as parting the waves for the musically inept.

Colin elected to teach the group Wizard Code in one-and-a-half hours - which I thought was a bit rash - and I was less than surprised to see one or two confused expressions around the room as he led us through lists of what looked like his bank accounts. Fortunately for Colin (who was also looking a bit pressed for time by this point), Wizard Code seems to work - despite the maths. I'm confident that, though he didn't, Colin could have given any person in the room a guitar and had them play a passable tune without even knowing the basic tenets of music - which is rather disconcerting.

You don't have to be Rachmaninov to spot the dumbing-down that this technique signifies. But Colin's (perfectly valid) argument is that his invention redefines music learning as something universally accessible.

Accessibility ensures that, for the most part, those who couldn't be bothered to pick up a guitar in the first instance become reluctant ever to set it down again.

It remains to be seen whether Wizard Code will create a new generation of ex-apathetic inner-city kids wading through hoards of screaming fans who have been waiting for hours at the airport just for a glimpse. Although, if it happened for Boyzone...

Colin suggests that Wizard Code disposes of the idea that music takes commitment: it reflects the Now Generation. It takes the pain out of the gain and enables you to be perfect without the practice. Granted, it only gets you through the basics and you don't look very rock-and-roll with stickers from 1 to 12 running up the neck of your Fender, but it does seem to be completely foolproof, sadly.

Colin also believes that "the maths in the music" of Wizard Code makes it easy to complete the transition to traditional notation in that it simplifies the formulas, shapes and logic that conventional music teaches us is so complicated. This is what - while undoubtedly making it simpler - has given the Code its rather sterile and unromantic approach to music, and one which, personally, I would be more, rather than less adverse to learning.

Much as many drivers are utterly in the dark about what goes on under their bonnets, we could all learn to play passable guitar in a couple of hours without really understanding the musical principles (and, in my case, the mathematical ones too), behind it all. In many ways, I certainly hope so.

Colin, donning his psycho-analyst's hat for a moment, says that my mathematical shortfall stems from a deep-rooted lack of self-confidence in this area - and assures me that the two things, music and maths, are really the same thing. In that case, if Colin wants to devise a code that is going to teach me maths using just my guitar I'd be only too grateful, though I'd rather be Elvis Presley than Albert Einstein any day.

The Creativity in Education Community is run from the OU School of Education; it includes teachers, academics, trainers, parents, home educators, and researchers dedicated to removing the barriers to creativity in learning. It does not advocate any particular theory of education but aims to stimulate discussion. Presentation of any theory or methodology in no way implies endorsement by the OU.

The Community runs a monthly London-based forum on different topics, open to anyone interested. Contact Mike Leibling on 0171 328 3746,or at enquiries@learnme.com for details of forthcoming events.

For more information about Wizard Code contact Colin Wells on 0171 401 7403.

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