Overcoming Confusion When Teaching Music Reading


Teaching children to read music can be challenging, particularly if formal instruction in it is not started until the children are 9 or 10 years old. Elsewhere, I have written about the importance of teaching “sound before sight” when teaching students to read music. Like language, musical patterns must be learned aurally and orally before they can be successfully read. Aural/oral learning prepares the student to associate the written symbols with the sounds they represent. But even if instruction has proceeded according to this method, there are still at least two difficulties I have noticed students encounter. One emanates from the fact that our musical notation consolidates pitch and duration into a single symbol. Because of this, notes that look the same rhythmically can be different in pitch, and notes that look the same tonally can be different in rhythm. Students sometimes think that sameness in one aspect indicates sameness in both. The reader must know the difference between rhythm and tonal information in a notated musical note and read both types of information at once.

Giving separate instruction for reading note heads, where tonal information is found, and stems/connectors, where rhythm information is found, and then combining them is helpful. I use the same melody for both. First, I show students note heads only for a familiar melody. We sing the pitches with uniform durations throughout. I explain that the notation so far tells us what pitches to sing but not what rhythm to use. To know what pitch to sing, always look at the note head. Next, we chant the rhythm, which is notated with stems and connectors only. I explain that stems and connectors tell us the rhythm, but not the pitches. Third, I have the complete melody notated. I explain that in this third part, the stems with their connectors have been dragged onto the note heads. They are the same pitches we sang, and the same rhythm we chanted, but now combined into complete notes. We then sing the melody, both pitches and rhythm, just as it appears in the notation. After going through this process, students’ understanding of how music notation works greatly improves.


The other difficulty is that, unlike letters of language, notes of music are written both between the lines, and on the lines. Notes on the line is particularly problematic, because it requires the reader to view notes on a staff in a three dimensional view. When a child is told to write words on the line, they write between the lines. The letters are placed in the line two dimensionally. But in music, when a child is told to write a note on the line, s/he must write the note three dimensionally on top of the line, though it looks like the line goes through the note two-dimensionally. But we don’t describe the note as “with the line going through it,” we describe the placement as “on the line.” Writing a word on a line is the same as writing a note in a space. When we think about it, it should not be surprising that learning to read and write music can at first be so confusing.

Describing notes on the line as notes with the line going through it helps. Using magnetic note heads on a magnetic board that has a musical staff painted on it helps students conceptualize the three-dimensional aspect of “on the line.” I would not use both strategies, because they are different conceptualizations. I have most frequently had success describing a note on the line as being a note with the line going through it. Regardless of which technique you use, making it clear that there are notes in spaces and notes with lines going through them is impotent. A common misconception, even among older students, is that adjacent notes in a scale are notated on consecutive spaces or consecutive lines. Under this misunderstanding, f, a, c, e on the treble clef would be consecutive notes in a scale, as would e, g, b, d and f, which of course they are not. I’m convinced that this confusion arises from the way note names are often taught. The lines and spaces are taught separately, and the relationship between lines and spaces is often overlooked. This error is especially common when the teacher has used the sight before sound technique. Without an aural conception of the notated pitches, the interval that exists between notes from line to line or space to space easily goes unnoticed; however, when sound is taught first, the interval between f and a, for example, can be heard, and then easily understood on the staff.

Our music notational system, derived from European invention and designed for composing Western art music, is difficult enough to learn without adding in unnecessary confusion. By keeping the common errors I have discussed in mind when teaching music literacy, your students will avoid some hardship, and become good readers.


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