Throw Away the Keys

Every good boy does fine? Not according to this Denver music teacher's new system of music notation.

"It was my one chance to show them this really does communicate to them," Lepinski says, adding that almost all the teachers said they'd be willing to sit down with Meloz again for a full introduction. He's planning to offer classes over the summer to beginners and seminars for music educators through the University of Colorado-Denver.

Lepinski conducted a six-month, $40,000 feasibility study for the Department of Education last school year. His subsequent contract was one of nine Small Business Innovation Research contracts the department handed out in 1995. Ten other federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, participate in the thirteen-year-old program, which is designed to cut small companies in on a greater chunk of federal research dollars.

George Arasamowicz, chairman of the music department at UCD, says that contracts such as the one Lepinski received "are not really super common," but he doesn't venture a guess about whether it's a waste of money: "Should there be funding for anything that's new knowledge, that's speculative? Should there be money for the space program?"

Jim Conder, program director for classical radio station KVOD, attended a session with Lepinski a few weeks ago and is now a believer. He says Meloz will "open up the piano as a viable instrument for youngsters. That in and of itself could be worth a quarter-million dollars if it can help a potential Herbie Hancock." Still, Conder says that if he had a quarter of a million, "I wouldn't invest all of it in this."

Lepinski has already gone after another quarter-million-dollar SBIR contract, this time to teach Meloz to developmentally disabled students. Though his first request was rejected (one proposal reviewer wrote, "Nothing new here. Taking a new 'product'Eand just trying out a new teaching methodology"), Lepinski just submitted it again. "How many developmentally disabled kids can learn standard notation?" he says. "Not a one."

Special-ed teachers at Standley Lake High School say it's rare for developmentally disabled children to read music. But the six such kids that Jean Hightower teaches at Standley, she says, are all making progress on Meloz. "In his system, what you're reading is just like the keyboard, so you don't have to look at it and convert it mentally," Hightower says.

The current musical-notation system--which evolved from a system created by European monks several centuries ago--is made up of a five-line staff that places the twelve notes (or pitches) into "keys," which are organized around seven-note scales. So if you play in the key signature of C, for example, the seven notes that make up the C scale are given more importance than the five notes that are left over.

Meloz does away with key signatures--and their complicated use of sharps and flats--in favor of a twelve-note system that gives separate names to all the notes. Here, all twelve notes are of equal importance. Meloz also uses a staff of seven lines that corresponds with the keys on a piano. Spaces represent white keys and lines represent black keys. Some of the lines are darker than others so that musicians have an easier point of reference.

The letters Z, U, R, I, O were borrowed from the name of Guido A'rezzo, the monk who's generally given credit, Lepinski says, for the current system.

Lepinski developed Meloz in 1985 as a "mental exercise to square the circle." He tucked it back into his mind until 1992, when he became convinced there was a better way to teach people to read music. He says Meloz addresses the major problems with the system: the difficulty of reading music in complex, changing keys; the fact that notes change positions in different octaves (in one octave the note G is on a line; in the octave above, it's on a space); and the difficulty some composers--such as Debussy--have had composing music.

"Conventional notation is at its best when you're dealing with conventional scales, the key signature is not six or seven flats and the chromatic changes are not extensive," Lepinski says. "It's at its worst when you try to step out of bounds or when you're trying to teach people."

His proof is that the majority of professional musicians (most of them pop musicians) don't read music. Paul McCartney, to name one, "is just the tip of the iceberg," Lepinski says.

But many think the current method is just fine. Meloz is "not something we have any use for," says Hal Tamblyn, chairman of the music department at Metropolitan State College. Tamblyn, who got a look at Meloz a few years ago, adds, "Nor do we think it has the benefit that Jerry feels it has." Tamblyn says removing key signatures oversimplifies the music.

Several elementary-school music teachers--whose students would presumably benefit the most from Meloz--say they can manage with the system just fine. "In my experience, if you're just talking about learning what a note is and what basic music theory is, I can teach that," says Bill Stevens, the integrated-arts teacher at Fairview Elementary School. "You can give it to them in small enough doses that they can handle it pretty well."

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