The Core Arts Standards for Music specify standard and/or iconic notation for planning and making musical works, but do not mention using notation of any kind for responding to music. This may be an attempt to keep responding to music accessible to students who have limited music reading skills, but avoids an opportunity to build music literacy and to take advantage of visual representations of musical works as an aid to remembering themes and sections of musical works to which students listen. Using iconic notation can be an effective aid in bringing students to an understanding of form, helping them remember short sections, and can even cue students for singing themes and motives.
Yesterday, as part of a series of lessons on dynamics I am teaching to third grade classes, I had the children listen to the overture to The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. Part way through the lesson, after they had reviewed pertinent vocabulary and showed changes of dynamics with movement, I began making a listening map of the first minute of the work on the board. It was nothing fancy, just small wiggly lines following the melodic contour for soft passages, and big wiggly lines following the melodic contour for loud passages or chords. As the size of the wiggly lines changed, the children could see where the dynamics changed. Because many of the dynamic changes in this music are sudden, and because there is just one crescendo, the children could recognize where key events occurred by looking at my drawing. They were able to roughly sing the opening minute of the overture by following the lines on the board, without listening to the recording while they did so. Then, again by following the drawing, they were able to anticipate each dynamic change through a combination of remembering where they were and seeing them coming up by looking ahead on the drawing.
All of this teaches students several important things about music. First, that music can be visually represented on paper (or a white board). The music they listen to has “shape” just as drawn lines do. Second, they can use visual representations of music to remind them of how the music goes, and these visual reminders can be used to aid in performing music. These are both characteristics of standard music notation as well as of listening maps, so it is good for young students to get used to using notation for performing and responding to music. Third, certain kinds of visual representation are more helpful for doing these things than others.
At first, many of the children wanted to draw pictures of what the music sounded like. They were eager to tell me the music sounded like an animal, or a person doing something, or what have you. I had to steer them away from that kind of representation to thinking about what the music was actually doing. This suggests to me that music notation, be it iconic or standard, does not necessarily represent music the way children naturally do; that is, music notation does not represent what the music sounds like in the sense of comparing it to real-world or fictionalized world experiences, but instead represents what the music sounds like within a context dedicated only to sounds and the motions and emotions they elicit in human listeners/responders. That is the bridge music educators are building, connecting a child’s context of play, stories, and story characters all encapsulated in an emotional realm of their own, with sounds that tap into that emotionial realm, but apart from stories and characters and instead from the perspective of movment and motion brought about by pitch, rhythm, beat, and timbre. Both contexts can and should co-exist, but the musical context must be developed in children so that they can fully experience music, with all of the richness that is in music and that is beyond the non-musical realm.