Why Writing in Musical Note Names is a Bad Idea

2011 Symposium2

Band and orchestra teachers do it, students do it. It’s arguably the quickest shortcut to playing music from standard music notation there is: writing in the letter names of the notes under each note. I’ve seen it over and over again. Students with the best of intentions and wanting to enjoy early and quick success, diligently go home and write in the names of tall the notes in their assigned pieces, and then proceed to read the written in letters, matching them with the fingerings they have learned in class. At first, this works well. As long as all the measures are either a whole note or a whole rest, rhythm isn’t an issue. When they get to familiar tunes like “Hot Cross Buns,” they can play the rhythm by ear, and still get the fingerings from the written in note names. But as the music becomes rhythmically more complex, and the tunes start to be unfamiliar ones, the shortcut lands students in the middle of no where. They suddenly are struggling to keep up because they skipped over the essential readiness concepts for reading music.

To really understand what went wrong for all those students, many of whom, by the way, end up dropping out of your programs, we must understand why notes have names in the first place. Notes are really no different than anything else we encounter in life. We think, and communicate, and understand our world through language. Much of what we understand about anything depends on knowing what things are and what they do. Imagine being surrounded by our environment and not knowing what anything is or why anything is there. To avoid this disaster, we have names for things, and once we have the name, then we can attach learning about the named thing that makes it understandable and useful.

The same is true of musical notes. While they do simply look different from one another recite-11g4vxxby virtue of being relatively higher or lower, and by being filled in circles or empty circles, connected at the ends of the stems or not connected, just seeing there are different kinds of notes doesn’t help us at all when it comes to understanding and using those symbols; for meaningfully interacting with each note. Musical notes cannot be any more than works of visual art unless we understand what they represent, and what they represent are sounds. What sounds? Well, there are truck horns, car engines, and the rustle of leaves blown by the wind, but none of these are notes. The sounds written musical notes represent are specific pitches and durations, and in order for us to know which pitches and which durations, we must have a way of recognizing each one. That is what a name does. It gives a thing distinctiveness. It tells us that a thing is one thing and not any number of other things. I am a man, not a woman, python, table, or watermelon. So-called “middle C” is a distinct pitch, unlike another. By recognizing a symbol on a page as middle c, I know exactly what to play or sing, even though there are dozens of other pitches I could play or sing instead.

Another thing about names that is crucial is that they are useless unless we have already seen, or heard, or touched, or felt or tasted that for which we are now learning a name. If I am dining with you and I say, “please pass the babaco” you will be unable to comply unless you have already seen one, and can recognize it there on the table. It does you no good to hear the name “babaco” mentioned. If you’ve never seen one, the word means nothing. Likewise, if you don’t know what middle c sounds like, asking you to play or sing one will do you no good.

“Ah” you say, but all I have to do is ask you to play a low first and third valve on a trumpet, and you will neither need to know what middle c is or what it sounds like. Well, I’m sure you could make a sound on the trumpet by depressing the first and third valves and playing with a low buzz, but how will you know if you’ve actually produced middle c? Are you sure you didn’t play too low and play an f below? How do you know? You will only know if you have heard a middle c and a f below, and know which is which by being familiar with what each sounds like. Knowing the sound of each, you can then accurately name each, and call them into service when needed. Anything else is guesswork, and guesswork is exactly what many music students are left to do who have only learned to read written in note names. In fact, guesswork is all students can do who have only learned to match the notes to fingerings. Students who only read written in note names and/or only play by ear have not learned to read music. The very best of them will survive and stay with your program and maybe even be among your top musicians, but they will not learn to read unless those missing steps, associating the sound of a pattern of notes to that pattern notated so that they can audiate the sound from looking at the notation, and then reproduce what they audiated in the form of played or sung music.

If you find that your students cannot remember what notes to play unless they write in the note names, then that is an indication that they have not had enough time learning to audiate. Those instrumental methods books and those vocal sight-reading books must be audiated, not taught by rote. Teach the lines through imitation first, then teach them again with the notation in front of them, then teach them by having the students sing them individually from the notation. With instrumental students, there is then the added step of playing them on their instruments. When they do so, they will know what the music sounds like before they play, something they cannot know if they are only reading note names and have not developed audiation skills. Do not permit them to write in letter names. Singers don’t need letter names at all. They can sight sing using the more easily sung solfege syllables. Instrumental students may sing letter names, or even better, also use solfege instead of letter names. Just cross out the letter names in the method book and replace them with fixed do syllables. Do not use the chromatic syllables, teach the students to make adjustments to pitch where sharps or flats occur while singing the unaltered syllable of the natural note. Shortcuts often end up being the long way around, and this is certainly the case with writing in note names on written music parts and scores.

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