Chances are, if you are a musician, you were taught somewhere along the way, the names of the lines and spaces on the musical staff. Chances are also good that the teacher used some kind of mnemonic device, like “every good bird does fly” for the lines of the treble staff, and “face” for the spaces. The reasoning is that once a child knows the names of the lines and spaces, they will then know the names of the notes, and will be able to read music. Teaching the names of the lines and spaces would be all well and good if these benefits actually followed, but the truth is they rarely do.
Children are confused by the names of the lines and spaces. Were it not so, we music teachers would not have to go to such lengths, and repeat our cute little sayings so often. Then, once a child has finally mastered “every good back does flex” or whatever, they are at a loss as to what to do with that knowledge once they are singing or playing an instrument. They can’t recite the phrase before performing every note, so they still don’t have a usable way to read music in the practical sense. They also don’t know what an f on the top line is without reciting the whole thing, so the whole system is cumbersome, unmusical, and in the end of little practical value.
The essence of reading music is recognizing location on the staff, and associating a note with a specific sound that has pitch and duration. Teaching little ditties does nothing to teach that. Kodaly teachers will tell you that you should never say tonal syllables; you should only sing them. That is because the tonal syllable is a label for a sound, which is heard and not a symbol, which is seen. The written symbol is associated with the syllable and its sound after the syllable and sound is learned together. Fixed do syllables can be written, because they are labels for a symbol, but the sound is again attached to the syllable.
After syllable and sound are successfully associated, it is helpful to begin playing on instruments. For all you band teachers, notice what has preceded putting an instrument into the students’ hands. If they can’t sing in tune, and associate the note name with the sound they will struggle to read music in your band class. For my general music students, I give them glockenspiels. The names of the notes are already stamped on the bars, and I write the fixed do solfege syllables on the bars with a Sharpie as well. Using echo songs or call and response songs sung in fixed do solfege, I have the students first sing and then play their responses. Because they already can sing the song with solfege, playing it on the barred instruments is a natural next step that presents little if any difficulty. I usually have to explain the difference between high and low do, but beyond that it goes smoothly.
From singing and playing, we go to reading notation. They read only the notes they have sung and played, and they learn the notes by location. I put la on the staff on the board and tell that la is written between these two lines (showing them on a staff.) Do is written between these two lines (showing them on a staff.) The call and response song they have sung and played has a response using only do and la, so now they can do the (familiar) song again, this time reading their response off the notes written on the board. I continue to work other notes in the same way. I’ll use what Feierabend calls a “do-re-mi” song, teaching it to them with fixed do syllables (making it a fa-sol-la song). I’ll prepare them by doing tonal patterns using fixed do that use fa, sol and la, with the patterns written on the board. “Which pattern did I just sing?” “Sing that pattern again while you look at the notes.” Then when they sing the song, the patterns are familiar.
When they have done that song for two or three consecutive classes, I will begin teaching decoding. I sing the same patterns as before, but this time I sing on a neutral syllable and the students repeat the pattern using fixed do syllables. This is critical to training the ear as well as the eye. This will come slower, so I may not use notation at all the first time or two I do this. When the students can decode, I will then put the patterns back on the board. I’ll sing a pattern on a neutral syllable and have them read the pattern with fixed do solfege. By this stage, they are reading music, truly reading music, not just naming notes. Also, notice that they are reading music without ever having to learn the names of the lines and spaces, and without the usual confusion that slows progress when they are required to learn the names of the lines and spaces.
You may have also noticed that I have not addressed duration. I find that teaching pitch and rhythm separately is more effective. I also find that for most of my students, reading rhythm comes easier than pitch, so it is a better sequence to add rhythm, which is easier to pitch, something at which they have already become proficient. Once again, my students have chanted rhythm patterns, learned rhythm syllables, and associated the syllables with the meter and durations they identify. Having written or read a tune notated in note heads only, they now listen for how many sounds they hear on each pulse. If they hear one sound on one pulse, they know it is a quarter note and if they hear two sounds on one pulse they know it is two eighth notes. I tell them that the rhythm syllable is the sound of the rhythm and the note type (quarter, eighth, etc.) is the name of the symbol, similar to the relationship between solfege and sound. We simply add stems to the note heads and then either connect two for pairs of eighth notes, or leave them alone for quarter notes. I stick with just these rhythms at first, in addition to quarter rests. I wait to teach notation of half and whole notes, because they involve changing the appearance of the note head. I want them to be as secure as possible with reading pitches before I do that, so I wait. If introduced too early, students become confused as to how, for example, a half note F and a quarter note F can be the same pitch even though they look different. One way of looking at this issue is to teach them that notes are made shorter by adding things (stems, flags) and are made longer by removing things (flags, stems, shading of note heads). The exception is the dot which is added after a note to make it 50% longer.
I have found that abandoning teaching the names of the lines and spaces of the musical staff has improved my students’ learning when it comes to reading and writing music. I know that to many of you, especially Kodaly specialists, using fixed do will seem like sacrilege. I believe that movable do is useful for training the ear to audiate tonalities, and I personally benefited greatly from becoming proficient at it as a result of Kodaly certification training. Even so, I have come to believe that eventually movable do becomes an impediment to music reading and more advanced singing and ear training. I have written on the use of fixed do elsewhere in this blog, and I hope you will read those posts on the subject if you are interested. In any case, the principles I have discussed here hold true regardless of which solfege system you use. Letter names can be used in place of fixed do syllables for those using movable do.