During my classes the last two days, students have asked me several questions about musical notation. I thought I might share these questions and the answers I gave to them. I think it is helpful to know what is going on in the minds of students while we are teaching them. Sometimes, lines of thinking, and associations that we don’t think of as we teach become apparent when we consider not just what a student is asking, but also why. So here are some of the questions I’ve been asked.
- Why does low do have a line drawn through it, but the do in the staff doesn’t? (1st grade)
Because that note is below the lowest line, so we have to give it something to hold onto. The do up here is nice and comfy between those two lines. It doesn’t need anything to hang onto.
I was pleased that the student noticed the ledger line on do. Many times, when students are writing notes, they confuse do with re, because all they remember is that both notes are below the first line of the treble staff. By asking this question, it showed me that this child can tell the difference between do and re.
- Why do all of the note names end in o, i, e or a?
They all end in a vowel. We can sing on vowels, but we can’t sing as well or at all on other letters. How would you sing a note on a “t” or a “p?” You can’t. What about an “s?” It would just sound like a big long hiss, which isn’t nice singing at all.
What I didn’t say was also important. I didn’t explain that all of the syllables were taken from the words that coincide with each scale degree in the first verse of the Latin hymn Ut quant laxix. Though historically correct, this information would have had no relevance to the student who asked the question. My answer, on the other hand, could be applied immediately to the next time he sang.
- Why didn’t we just sing the notes in order? (they were reading from a scale that I pointed to different notes on.)
Because songs don’t just go like the scale. Look and listen to “I Have a Car.” (I sing and point to the notes as I sing them on the scale.) Fa, la, la, la, ti, fa, la, la. See how they jump around? By having you jump around like that, I’m giving you practice for reading songs.
This question was important, because it gave me an opportunity to explain what I expected the students to do with the information and skill I was teaching them with solfege. Just being able to sing a scale is good, but unless you find a scale in the song you are singing, its immediate usefulness is limited. Being able to sing any diatonic note or interval because the scale has already been learned is of much greater practical value. Knowing this gives a purpose for learning the scale.
- Why does the staff have five lines?
The staff was first used for vocal music. It used to have four lines, but was expanded to five to accommodate larger vocal ranges. Five lines was sufficient to notate all of the notes people could sing, and more than five lines would make reading music too difficult.
- Why is there a hash tag on fa?
In Twitter, that’s called a hash tag, but in music it is called a sharp. It tells us to adjust how we sing that note, so that it sounds like this (sings fa sharp) instead of this (sings fa). I then sang a familiar song twice; first correctly, with the sharp on the leading tone intact, and then with the leading tone lowered a half step by removing the sharp. I then asked them if it sounded right without the sharp. Of course, they said it didn’t, so I put the sharp back in. When you see a sharp, or a flat, you have to adjust the note. Then I said, that we’ll learn more about that some other time.
- Why don’t high do and low do, or high re and low re have different names?
There aren’t enough names for all of the possible notes. My name is Robert. Is there anyone else in the world named Robert? (Yes.) Are those other people named Robert another me? (No.) They are different people, but with the same name. It’s like that with notes. There are lots of “dos” but they’re all different notes, some high, some low. If every note, or every person had their own name, a name no one else or no other note had, there would be too many names to remember. Like the staff with more than five lines, notes with more than seven names becomes too complicated, and so the number of names has been limited to seven.
I encourage you to consider the questions your students ask you, especially why they are asking that particular question. It often clues you in to how they are thinking about what you’re teaching. Once you know that, you can avoid confusion in the future by clearing up misunderstandings that are just beginning to form, and that surface from a question.