How Much Music Reading Instruction is Enough?

2011Symposium_1_2Recently, I observed that music reading has received minimal attention in the new NCCAS music standards. To be sure, music reading is not necessary for every musical experience. From a global perspective, our Western music notation is not used at all in many places, especially where music culture is preserved within an oral tradition. In the United States, in spite of an extensive symphonic tradition and many fine symphony orchestras and music conservatories, many people enjoy music daily, including classical music, without knowing how to read it. I have argued elsewhere that music reading should be taught, and that it is an important link to great music repertoire and traditions. Still, its importance to the musical culture in which my students exist is not what it once was. The question I want to discuss today is, how prominent should music reading instruction and practice be in music classes? Before I go on, I should define what I mean by music reading. It is looking at music in traditional music notation, hearing it in the imagination, and the playing or singing what has already been internally heard. Gordon calls this audiation. I am not considering merely naming notes or applying a fingering on an instrument as reading music. Naming notes is a skill that facilitates notational audiation, but it is not in and of itself music reading.

To be honest, I could spend every class all year teaching nothing else but i-get-itmusic reading, and guide my students to high levels of proficiency. But that would exclude too much of what else there is to teach them, and it would stretch my students’ patience to the breaking point. No matter how important music reading is, there are other and more fun things to do with music than read notes. On the other hand, without at least some music reading in every class, and all my classes meet once or twice per week for 45 minutes, no meaningful progress can realistically be expected. Contact with reading traditional music notation must be frequent and consistent. Nothing is gained by an occasional diversion into music reading. What’s more, students will not enjoy reading music until they at least begin to get good at it. This requires repetition. An efficient way of teaching and practicing music reading while also teaching other things is needed. Here are a few ideas. I hope you will provide others in the comment section.

  • Have a student sing a few measures of a song that is on their mind, and you transcribe it on the board, and then have the class read the transcription. This is a short warm-up activity, and connects popular music to music notation.
  • Start each class with Gordon tonal patterns from notation. Have them written on the board, and have the class and individuals sing them.
  • Using a 5 x 5 grid of motifs, have students sequence four of them into a melody and then sing the melody they have made. This is a good warm-up activity for a lesson on composition, melodic contour, intervals, style, or, depending on the motifs, can even be a “guess that motif” game.
  • Have each student transcribe a phrase of music you sing or play for them. The phrase should be in the style of the music you will be using for the rest of the lesson. The transcription can then be used as an example, and further studied.
  • Play “name that tune” from music notation.
  • Have students play or sing endings to classical music themes. This is a good way to teach style, as some endings will sound stylistically appropriate than others.

All of these can be done in the first 5-10 minutes of a general music class. Besides giving students regular and consistent contact with music reading, they also help establish the classroom routine of doing reading work as soon as they enter your room. As students become more and more proficient at reading music, they will enjoy the broader world of music that opens before them.

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