Five Lines and Four Spaces–Which Way Does It Go?

2011Symposium_1_2Maybe it’s because the letter names of the notes go alphabetically from low to high, or maybe it’s because music tends to start low and build higher, but it does seem rather strange that the lines and spaces of the musical staff are most often taught from the bottom to the top of the staff. Every good boy does fine; bottom line upwards to the top. F-a-c-e, bottom space upwards to the top. It’s the same with the bass clef. Students often don’t realize we’re teaching from the bottom of the staff upwards, and they get the note names all backwards. If they do get it straight from the beginning, it takes a long time before they can make the jump from reciting those mnemonics to reading pitches at sight; too long, in fact.

One of the reasons it takes so long is because when we read music–really read music– we don’t always scan from the bottom of the staff upward and calculate which line from 1-5 or which space from 1-4 the note head is on. If we did, it would take too long for us to play from notation anything but the slowest of repertoire. Instead, we use the top, bottom and middle lines as guides from which to place all the others, much like we use the groupings of black keys to find C and F and then find other notes in relation to these two, or how we remember the ^1, ^4 and ^5 and then hear the other pitches in relation to them. The top and bottom lines and spaces of the musical staff are easy to spot instantly, as is the middle line. That makes five out of the nine notes that go on the five-line staff instantly recognizable without any conscious calculation. The other four notes are almost as easy to spot; two on lines and two spaces positioned around the middle line, and two lines positioned adjacent to the top and bottom lines.

Just as students can remember that C on the piano is before the group of two black keys, they can remember that Maryon the treble staff the top line is F, the bottom line is E and the middle line is B. They don’t have to recite every good boy does fine every time they need to know what one of those notes is; they can easily recognize what note it is by its position on the top, middle or bottom line. Similarly they can remember that F is on the bottom space and E is on the top space. The other notes fill in in between, just as G, A, and B fill in between F and C on the piano keyboard.

This approach also has the advantage of eliminating the need to learn the notes in one direction, either from top to bottom or bottom to top. The notes are learned organized as our brains naturally perceive them, and not according to a confusing, contrived, unnatural organizational system. Also, referring to a note on the top line and hearing that it is highest in pitch, and referring to a note on the bottom line, and hearing that it is lowest in pitch reinforces the concept of high and low in a way in which the visual and aural input agree. The note on the top line is the top pitch. It just makes more sense that way.

There are perhaps more repercussions of this for instrumental teachers than for vocal teacher. Singers can, within a comfortable range, sing one pitch as easily as another; there are no technical matters concerning fingerings to consider. For the beginning instrumentalists, the situation is different. They cannot learn the notes on the bottom, middle and top lines first because that is an unreasonable range and presents unnecessary hardship with fingerings and embouchure. But these observations can still be applied to instrumental methods. Instead of introducing pitches that are adjacent in a scale, notes should be introduced that are on adjacent lines or adjacent spaces. The pitch E on the first line of the treble staff could be the first note, and G on the second line could be the second note. The student then learns to distinguish between the bottom line and the next line up. The pitch F is taught next, which is in the bottom space, followed by A, which is in the next space up. The student here is taught to distinguish between the bottom space and the next space up. The student can then play the many three-note melodies that writers of instrumental method books certainly employ; songs like “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “Hot Cross Buns” played in F major. Nothing is lost by using this method, and reading is made easier by making it a matter of location on the staff instead of location in a mnemonic device.

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