Stick notation is a method for teaching music reading that involves presenting written notes with the note heads removed. The method is most often associated with the Kodaly method, but is used by non-Kodaly teachers as well. In this article I will consider reasons for using stick notation, and also some drawbacks.
Stick notation is most properly considered a pre-literacy strategy. Although I learned about stick notation in my pre-service undergraduate studies, I was from the start dubious of using it. Because note stems and beams without their heads did not look like the music I wanted my students to be able to read, I saw stick notation as an unnecessary extra step. Later, after becoming versed in Learning Music Theory, I recognized that associating French rhythm syllables (or the familiar adaptation of them) with notation was putting the learning sequence for developing music reading skills out of order. Indeed, stick notation was made necessary by neglecting or slighting rote and verbal association instruction; that is, by not developing in students the ability to hear rhythms and meters internally and to decode those rhythms into rhythm syllables, stick notation was necessary. My suspicions grew as I noticed that students who had learned rhythm with stick notation from a Kodaly teacher were largely unable to transfer learning of reading rhythms to their band lessons, and had to be taught the association between the rhythms seen in their band music and the “ta ti-ti” chants they had done in general m music. Something was wrong with how they were being taught rhythm.
The problem was notated symbols were being given names but were not being associated with the sounds they represented. Children saw a vertical line and remembered to call it “ta,” but they did not have the ability to recognize a sound as a “ta” when they heard it, and so they could not produce the rhythm “ta” beyond giving it a name. The “ta” they had learned was not given a context of a meter and a pulse. To successfully use “ta,” or any rhythm syllable for that matter, students must have an understanding of meter. Because those students had not been properly trained aurally to hear meter, or as Gordon would say, to audiate meter, the rhythm syllables had no musical meaning to them. Absent that aural training, teachers faced with this problem are then compelled to explain meter from a music theory stand point, further exacerbating the problem rather than solving it by going back and teaching meter as part of the aural context of rhythm patterns.
Part of the stick notation strategy is providing a way of reading music without using a music staff. Writing rhythms without a staff is a good way of associating previously learned rhythms with the notation of them. I often write rhythms this way on my white board or on flashcards. When I do this, though, I include the notepads, even though they have no functionality without a staff. I include them because I want the children to become used to seeing the whole note, stem, beam and head. By doing this, I am accomplishing the simplification of not using a staff, while preparing a smoother transition to notes on a staff. Now here’s the interesting part. I have tried using stick notation on the board, and when I did, my students protested. They asked me what it was, and when I told them, they said that is not what notes are supposed to look like. I had to add the heads for them to be satisfied and willing to go on with the lesson. Even more important, I wrote those rhythms on the board only after I had taught the same rhythms by rote on a neutral syllable first, then the next lesson with rhythm syllables. The rhythms they were reading on the board were familiar rhythms. They were not chanting or hearing them for the first time, but they were reading them for the first time. Once they are proficient at that, I can then write unfamiliar rhythms for them to read which they can now audiate before they chant them, which means they are then chanting them with understanding, not just from rote.
The most effective use for stick notation I have found is as a remediation strategy for older students. These are students who for whatever reason have reached middle school and still do not understand how to read music. They know the note names, now the note values, but do not understand the distinction and difference between the duration component of musical notation, namely beams, dots after notes, and filled in or empty note heads, and the pitch component, namely placement on the staff. These students typically think that two quarter notes on two different pitches are identical, or they do not know why one note has a filled in notepad, though they know it is called a quarter note, and another has a notepad that is not filled in, though they know it is called a half note. I haven’t run across this in several years, but it used to be a frequent problem, owing no doubt to my not following the pedagogic advice I have given above. Still, stick notation was the answer. By selecting a melody and notating it three times, these students quickly understood how musical notation works. I used Finale to notate a melody in stick notation. Then on the same page I notated the same melody with just notepads (no stems or beams). Thirdly I notated the same melody again in full musical notation. By following the sequence, students could see that the durations were in stems or in filled in or not filled in notepads, and pitch was in where the notepads were placed vertically on the staff. Then they could see those two components combined in the final, full traditional notation.
Teachers who want to notate pitch with stick notation write solfege syllables under the stems. While this accomplishes the goal of giving students a way of singing a melody from notation without knowing how to read notes on a musical staff, it again sets the student up for needing to transfer solfege syllables they are reading to notepads they are reading, without preparing them to audiate the notepads on a staff prior to reading them. As a readiness strategy, using a two line staff is preferable to no staff with solfege. At least with the two line staff, students are learning the concepts of specific pitches notated in specific places on or between lines. A simple so mi melody read from a two-line staff is more beneficial that reading the same melody from stick notation with written solfege syllables.
In the end, the most important thing to remember is to teach “sound before sight.” Notation is a visual representation of specific sounds. Children learn to read language by learning the sounds of letters, and then developing the ability to string those letter sounds together into words, and then to read those letter strings as words. The process for teaching music reading is essentially the same. If stick notation is used, it should be, as any notation should, used only for reading what has already been learned aurally.