Today, I have two things on my mind. One is that while every child is entitled to a music education, no one is entitled to success; that has to be earned. I am a strong believer in the principle that the less one has to work for something, the less it will be valued. The other is that children in kindergarten can begin to learn how to read music, and children younger than five years need not be taught how to read music. Anyone for whom either or both of those statements is controversial, please read on.
I know colleagues who do not attempt to teach music reading until second or third grade. They insist that children younger cannot effectively be taught to read music. I haven’t observed any of these teachers, but my guess is that a more accurate statement would be that the teaching method being used is not effective in teaching those younger children how to read music. We must realize that music reading will always follow singing, just as reading language always follows speaking. Children are more fluent speakers of their native language than they are readers of it for at least the first seven or so years of their lives. Music is no different. Children are more fluent singers and chanters than readers of music for the first eight or nine years of their lives, and that only if they have received proper musical training. For this reason, it is important to have easier songs to read, and more difficult songs to sing by ear. That way, children are constantly being familiarized with musical patterns that can then eventually find their way into what the children can read using standard musical notation.
This approach is observable in music classrooms where the teacher is using the Kodaly method. Children typically are taught many songs by rote that include two to all five notes of the pentatonic scale, but start learning music reading with only two notes, usually so and mi. The children sing songs with other notes before they read other notes. Eventually those notes are added in the order in which the student is likely to have become familiar with them. Hence, after so and mi, la is introduced before fa in a culture where pentatonic songs are prevalent, though fa may be introduced earlier in cultures where it is more frequently encountered. Although a two line staff is sometimes employed at first, I have found this to be unnecessary. I use the full five line staff immediately, so that the children can get used to finding a limited number of pitches on the staff they will eventually need to read from. Kindergarteners can quickly and easily see the difference between mi on the bottom line, and so on the next line up, and do on the ledger line below the staff. Because I teach using fixed do, remembering do as the note with the ledger line through it does not have to be altered later on. Re hangs from the bottom line, and fa sits comfortably in his house between the bottom two lines.
Once the children have learned so and mi, I constantly refer back to those notes written on the staff when they are heard in songs they sing. “Wait, wait, what was that? Did you hear so-mi just then?” I’ll sing “so-mi” and then the passage that contains them. After a few classes, I’ll ask the children to raise their hand each time they hear a so-mi. I think it’s very important to continually connect what they are singing, hearing, and reading, and so I do this regularly. I also teach the kindergarten children Curwin hand signs, because I have found that it helps them remember the notation and sound of the intervals. Somehow, the hand signs seem to solidify the connection between sight and sound. It is not uncommon for the same children when they start first grade, to show me hand signs before sight singing a pattern. Once they have done the hand signs, they remember what to sing.
I strongly believe that this is a solid way to teach young children how to read music. No pre-reading gimmicks are needed such as singing by number or color coding and matching. Children are fully capable of matching what they hear to what they see; they have been doing this from very early on, learning what to call things by matching what they look like with what they hear people calling the object. It has been observed that our Western culture is teetering on becoming a post-literate one, if in fact we have not become one already. Much is at stake if that were to fully occur. So much of our cultural identity is tied to things that are written down in words, pictures, and music. Teaching music reading—real music reading, with a musical staff and all the notes and symbols traditionally associated with it—is not small matter, but instead is the music teacher’s contribution to preserving and advancing through students’ creative use of standard music notation the culturally essential art, so vital to humanity, of music.