Pros and Cons of Stick Notation

Version 2Stick 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 The-problem-was-notatedhad 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.

What Do We Want Children To Be Able To Do In Order To Sing Well?

Version 2Good teaching is largely about stating clear objectives, and then instructing students in how to achieve those objectives. When it comes to singing, often times music educators frame the task in terms of singing on pitch, using a head voice, and maintaining a steady beat. Clearly these items are important to good singing, but as objectives, they do not get at the heart of the matter, which is what do singers do to stay on pitch, stay on beat, and maintain a head voice? If we attempt to get at pitch by matching pitches to a reference source such as a piano or our own voices, we are not teaching accurate singing, we are teaching pitch matching, which requires a reference tone and avoids producing accurate pitches independently. Likewise, if we attempt to get at steady beat by following a conductor, drum, or other reference, we are again teaching beat matching , which requires a reference beat, and avoiding teaching accurate singing. To truly teach students to sing accurately, we must develop what Kodaly specialists call “inner hearing” and what Gordon called “audiation.” Both concepts, though not identical, include hearing aspects of music in the imagination that cannot physically be heard.

The process of developing audiation/inner hearing (which from here on I will simply refer to as audiation) begins with rote learning, progresses through verbally associating tones and rhythms to verbal labels, and associating the connected tones or rhythms with notation. This means that steady beat can be performed for the students to echo at the rote learning stage, but not with the students, and patterns of tones can be performed for the students to echo at the rote learning stage, but not with the students. When students are echoing in groups, they must reproduce what you have performed without using you as a reference, but they still use each other as a reference. Because of this, it is important for students to also echo you individually once they have learned patterns from rote.

If we take a closer look at this learning process, we must examine how students will know if they have echoed the teacher’s models accurately. This comes down to the abilities to make tonal sense of what has just been heard, and to make same/different discriminations. In the first instance, the child must be able to perceive harmonic functions of tones, especially tonic and dominant, must be able to cognitively organize groups of tones into familiar patterns such as chords, familiar motifs or phrases, and so forth, and must be able to make same/different discriminations between what the child has heard the teacher do, and what the child has done in an attempt to echo. The child must ask him or herself, “is what I just did the same as what the teacher did or was it different? If it was different, how and where was it different? What was my error? How can I make it the same next time?” When I am teaching phrases or patterns to the group at the rote learning stage, I will repeat the phrase or pattern several times if noticeable inaccuracies occur. The student know that I have determined that their echo is different from my source and so they listen critically and try to correct their error. Even in a group, they are usually able to detect the difference and improve their accuracy without my telling them what the error was. This ability to self-correct is evidence that learning is taking place. If I were to tell them every error and “fix” them by rote repetition, that depth of learning would not occur.

The same is true of steady beat. “Was the tempo the same throughout, or did you get faster or slower?” Changing tempo can often be corrected simply by having the students tap the pulse on their knees as they sing. It must be said that simply having students tap a steady beat in the absence of music from which the beat can be extrapolated is of extremely limited value. Rhythm is a complex concept. It is a blending of tempo, duration, and meter. Steady beat is extremely difficult to maintain when meter is not


The metrical hierarchy demonstrated

being considered. Patterns of durations, which is what comprises rhythms, are only made meaningful when they are grouped into patterns of strong and weak beats from which we perceive meter. Meter gives us frames of reference that make apparent levels of rhythmic structure and clarify what the beat unit of each level is. Music progresses along beats that can be measures or single note durations. Without these sign posts resulting from the combination of levels, a listener or performer can become lost in an ongoing sequence of indistinguishable beats. It’s as if every person we met had an identical appearance, like twins. We would quickly loose the ability to tell one person from another. So it is with beats. One beat is set apart from others by where it falls within the metrical pattern.

What, then are the implications for teaching singing? Pitch matching must be replaced by pitch echoing within a tonal context, and playing with a provided beat must be replaced by playing with one’s own audiated beat and that beat within a metrical structure. For pitches, it is helpful to establish a tonality before asking the student to sing. This can involve singing or playing for the student a I-V-I progression, either sung in arpeggiated form, or played as chords on a keyboard. After the tonality is established in this way, the student will have a tonal context in which to place the tones he or she sings. For example, if the child is to sing the folksong “Rocky Mountain,” then he or she will begin knowing that the first note is the tonic note, and that the first phrase is entirely comprised of the tonic triad. This fits easily into the I-V-I preparation, and facilitates singing all of the tones in tune, avoiding matching pitches with an external reference, and making it unnecessary to attempt to sing intervallic ally from one tone to the next. Being able to keep the tonality firmly in mind while singing guides the singer in staying on pitch, and also makes more apparent deviations, because they are not gradual distortions of intervals, but dissonances to the tonal environment active in the singer’s mind. Strategies such as interrupting singing to have the student jump to the tonic note, or to identify occurrences of the tonic note while singing help.

For steady beat, the procedure is much the same. First, establish a meter by chanting a rhythm pattern that includes ictus value notes, and next-level beat divisions; that is, that contains, for example, quarter notes and pairs of eighth notes. This rhythm would establish the meter as duple, because the ictus is divided into two sounds. After establishing this, the student will then continue to divide each beat into two parts. Maintaining that meter will facilitate maintaining the steady beat. So when it comes down to it, teaching students to sing accurately is more a matter of teaching inner hearing/audiation, than it is about teaching imitation or matching. It is about building musicianship to the point where the student organizes musical sounds into patterns and structures that demand and facilitate accurate performance to maintain.


When Performance Requests and Developmental Appropriateness Collide

Version 2A music teacher recently asked for suggestions on how to teach The Star Spangled Banner to her kindergarten and first grade classes. She didn’t say why she wanted to do this. Perhaps she was asked to have her youngest children sing it for a program, or perhaps she just felt it could never be too soon to teach their country’s national anthem. To be honest, I had never considered teaching The Star Spangled Banner to children so young; it encompasses a range of an octave plus a perfect fifth, and is a challenge for adults to sing well, let alone 5 or 6 year old children. It even has a secondary dominant that introduces #^4 to the melody in the very first phrase. It’s enough to make any Kodaly teacher cringe! If dissuading this teacher from pursuing her plan of teaching the song to those children was not an option, I would support other ways of handling the song that avoided having to attempt its formidable challenges. For example, the children could chant the words in rhythm. They could be told the story with vocabulary they can understand, and then set to expressing the story through movement while listening to the music. Or, it could simply be used as a song tale, sung by the teacher for the class to listen to. The seeds of learning the song would be planted for a future year when their voices and audiation skills were suitably developed to negotiate the range and pitch set.

While it is true that the Star Spangled Banner is unquestionably on the list of songs every American school student should know, it is not necessary to teach such a difficult song to such young children. They can study the singing of it when they are in upper elementary or middle school grades. The question of how to teach a song must always be considered along with the related question of when to teach a song. In fact, this principle equally applies to any number of other concepts. Surely, if you follow the Kodaly pitch sequence, you would not teach the tritone to a first grader, but would not hesitate to do so with a high school junior or senior (especially if they were cast as Tony in West Side Story).

Because one of the purposes of music is to celebrate occasions and holidays, and because most schools, especially elementary schools, have music classes for children, when the need arises for singing for an event or occasion, music teachers are from time to time asked to prepare children for singing engagements which may not be developmentally appropriate or which may come at an inopportune time within the year’s curriculum sequence. When this occurs, whenever possible it is a good idea to create a context in which the request can be fulfilled in a developmentally appropriate way, or in altering the request to something more educationally sound. For example, getting back to the Star Spangled Banner, if I were required to have a first grade perform it, I might have them chant the words in rhythm while I played the music instrumentally in the background. I might also display children’s crayon drawings of a fort under rocket siege as part of my presentation. If pressed, I would explain the impossibility of children that young singing The Star Spangled Banner successfully, or of getting anything positive out of attempting to learn to do so. We surely wouldn’t ask a child that age to recite Shakespeare or Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake; it is just as unreasonable to ask a child to sing The Star Spangled Banner. The argument must be made.

The point now must be made that there is nothing wrong with using music with children that is too difficult for them to sing, as long as they are not asked to sing it. Many songs should be presented to children to hear, respond to, and audiate that they will not sing perhaps for another year or two. It is good pedagogy to familiarize children with songs of varying tonalities and meters, and containing many rhythm and tonal patterns so that these become familiar, even before teaching them as material to be sung. Words to a song chanted in rhythm, as noted above, is an excellent readiness activity to precede singing-kidssinging the song to a class. The children can then recognize the rhythm patterns as they listen to the entire song sung by their teacher. Rhythm patterns learned this way can also be clapped or played on drums, and even used as ostinato accompaniments for repeated performances by the teacher. All of this is building musicianship with advanced repertoire without asking the children to do something, like sing intervals of an octave or greater, before they are ready to do so.  In fact, children should regularly be introduced to new concepts this way before they are asked to perform them.

A related principle is that tonal and rhythm patterns that children have become familiar with through musical experiences outside of school can be used to good advantage in the music class. My older students never tire of sharing with me their favorite rap beats that they have learned simply by listening to rap songs by their favorite artists. This is a great foundation from which improvised drum circle performance can be built. Students naturally organize themselves into leader-follower relationships, and teach each other patterns to expand what started as a solo drummer. Contrast this to a music teacher who tries to teach rap drum beats by passing out notated rhythms and requiring that students learn the patterns from notation. Teaching rhythm notation from rap beats is likely too big a jump in music reading proficiency. Students will always be, and should always be more advanced in their aural learning than in their notational learning.

These students also enjoy singing songs they have learned through listening. This joy of music making can be a starting point from which other songs can be introduced. For example, teaching the guitar chords or keyboard chords to another song by their favorite singer sets up the ability for a friend or two to collaborate with the singer and make a joyful solo into a fun group music-making experience.

Keeping instruction developmentally appropriate, relevant, and within the context of well planned and sequenced instruction is of paramount importance. While administrators or civic leaders may be well versed in what poems and proclamations students can read publicly, it is likely they are not knowledgeable in what children of a given age can be expected to do musically. We must be true to our wisdom, realistic in our expectations, and consistent with our curriculum as we navigate requests for our students to perform. Getting students out into our communities to sing and play music is a great way to promote our music programs and to enrich the experiences we provide within our schools, but we must manage these opportunities with wisdom.

What Are Music Teachers Really Trying To Accomplish?

Ask a Language Arts teacher what they are trying to achieve with their students, and that teacher will probably mention growth in literacy. He or she wants students to read and write effectively, with understanding and comprehension. Students are likely being asked questions like, “what is the author trying to say?” “How does the author feel about this topic, and what evidence do you find to support your answer?” These are good questions. Students who can answer them are bound to be engaged in critical thinking, and are likely to be showing growth very soon.

The Core Arts Standards were written with this kind of instruction in mind. They use the same approach to education and the same language as the original common core standards for language arts and for math. Because of this, it is good to understand how music students are, or ought to be, answering the same questions, and how music teachers ought to be after the same kinds of growth in literacy, only with music, not language. What does the language arts teacher accept as evidence of literacy? What does a child need to be able to do to demonstrate literacy? He or she needs to be able to look at words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, sections and entire essays or other works, and to not only recognize strings of letters as words, and strings of words as phrases, and strings of phrases as sentences, not only be able to speak with correct pronunciation all of those, but also to understand the meaning of each as it is revealed by context–the relationships between words, phrases and sentences that create meaning that is absent in the individual words and phrases out of context. Just begin able to read aloud or spell words does not indicate literacy. There must be understanding and comprehension.

Yet when it comes to music, music teachers all too often accept much less as literacy. A child who can look at a note on a musical staff and respond by pressing the correct key on a piano or other instrument is given credit for being able to read music. But that not on a staff is more than just a keystroke, and even when the note has been sounded, it by itself has no meaning, any more than a single letter has meaning apart from the word of which it is a part. When a child sees a word, if they can read, they associate the word with a person, action, object or concept. That is what a literate person does. When a child sees a musical note, if they can read, they associate the note with a sound that has a definite pitch and a definite duration. A sequence of several of these notes, that is to say several of these defined sounds, forms a musical idea. Musical ideas are combined into themes, and themes are combined into theme groups, sections, movements, and entire works. A musically literate person not only can audiate or know through inner hearing the individual pitches from notation, but also can understand how those notes are arranged into groups, and metrical patterns, perceiving them as the ideas, phrases, themes and so on that they are, with all of the relationships between notes that make them so. This goes far beyond matching a note with an instrument key.

How does this literacy come about? One thing that is for certain is that it does not come about through rote learning alone. Rote learning is an important first step, but when musical training does not go beyond rote learning, the associations between what is heard and what is seen in notation is never made, precluding development of true musical literacy. Perhaps the clearest explanation of how musical literacy is developed are the steps Feierabend gives in his Conversational Solfege. Essentially, these steps consist of rote learning songs with the voice on neutral syllables, then these same songs with tonal and rhythm syllables, “decoding” songs by hearing them sung by the teacher on neutral syllables and then repeating them with tonal or rhythm syllables, and then being able to do the same thing with unfamiliar songs. The final step is to create original musical ideas (composing and improvising) using labels (syllables).  The same procedure is used for reading and writing. Notice the transition from songs learned from rote, then applying labels to the notes of those songs so that the sounds are associated with the labels (syllables), and then using the labels (syllables) to assimilate new learning.

When notes are associated with instrument keys instead of syllables, the child has no way of knowing what the music sounds like apart from the instrument. A child in this situation cannot compose or improvise in a creative sense, because they have no materials to work with. To compensate for this, teachers who have failed to teach literacy often rely on music theory to teach improvisation. They will tell the students how to improvise over chord changes, and the student will “improvise” by playing from one chord tone to the next while counting beats or measures in order to know when to transition to the next chord. This is a highly unmusical way to create music, if indeed it is creating at all. Although a child trained in this manner can play on an instrument, the activity has avoided literacy training, and often built a dependence on the teacher to fill in the gaps in the child’s training. This in turn leads to the disturbing discovery that the child cannot play much of anything when the teacher is no longer there, resulting in a large attrition rate for school musicians after graduating.

Traditional music teaching methods developed by Orff, Kodaly and Dalcroze highly value true music literacy, and have been proven to be effective in developing musical literacy. Orff and Dalcroze also give priority to exploration and improvisation with movement and instrumental music. The use of barred instruments in particular is a well known aspect of Orff’s approach. The playing of those instruments is tied to movement and rhythmic activity on body percussion, and with improvisation over ostinati. Other methods that make use of technology as a means to quickly get students playing an instrument, especially a keyboard, can leave the child underprepared in these important aspects of a comprehensive music education.

Piano Instruction Cannot Be at the Center of General Music Education

Version 2Recently I have read the proposition that music education centered on singing as a means for teaching music literacy is ineffective and obsolete. The author maintained that the methodologies of Kodaly and Orff were products of a time when nothing better was possible, and that now with the availability of technology, keyboard centered music education should replace singing as the primary means by which music reading. It should be noted that the author who advanced these views is the author and purveyor of a computer based system of teaching music reading to keyboard students. Nevertheless, I feel this offers the opportunity to critically consider the place the voice does and ought to assume in music education.

First, there is agreement among music educators that the best practice is to utilize the best of several methods of teaching music. Kodaly, Orff, and Dalcroze all emphasized different aspect of musicianship in developing their pedagogy, and so each offers valuable approaches to different aspects of developing musicianship and music literacy. Kodaly was dedicated to singing, Orff to rhythmic speech and movement, and Dalcroze to movement. The website for the Organization of American Kodaly Educators lists key points of the Kodaly method. Among them are:

  • We should first learn to love music as human sound and as an experience that enriches life.
  • The voice is the most natural instrument and one which every person possesses.
  • Learning through singing should precede instrumental training.
  • It is in the child’s best interest to understand the basics of reading music before beginning the difficult task of learning the technique of an instrument.
  • The development of all skill areas begins very early with simple tasks required of all the students. As knowledge grows, skills are developed further in a sequential manner.
  • In addition to music reading and writing which are begun at an early stage, the following skill areas are also developed: part-singing, part-hearing, improvisation, intonation, listening, memory, phrasing and understanding of form.
  • Presentation of materials, concepts, and development of skills can be done in a meaningful way only if the curriculum is well sequenced.

It is well established that music education can and should start at a very young age. Formal musical training should start around age 3 years. At that point in a child’s development, he or she has already begun informally using the voice to create sounds and approximate pitch, so it is pedagogically sound to take advantage of that development which has already begun by beginning to formally train the child’s pitch and rhythm perception and reproduction. Adding an instrument at this stage is unnatural and an intrusion into the natural progression of musical development. Using instruments at any stage, particularly keyboard instruments, must be done judiciously because playing a keyboard instrument from notated music makes it possible to bypass inner hearing and audiation, which in turn inhibits musical development. This is not to say that instruments are always an inferior task to singing, but it is to say that a child should be able to audiate from notation (hear in his or her imagination) the music he or she is about to play before being taught to play it.

It follows that using a keyboard, or any instrument, to teach music reading is bad practice. When reading music is reduced to matching a notated symbol with a key or combination of keys on the piano, it is no longer music reading that is being taught, but rather music decoding. A student should be taught to sing accurately from notation, and only then be allowed to apply music reading skill to the playing of a musical instrument. Some will object that not all children are able to sing accurately. There is research that supports this view, with findings that inaccurate singing is recite-1vf7btcmore likely to be a deficit in physically controlling the singing apparatus than in perception; however, early training using the Kodaly approach can overcome many of those deficits. In extreme cases, it can be valuable to use Suzuki violin training. In this case, the child is able to match pitch on the instrument as if it were his or her voice. Because the violin requires the player to make adjustments in pitch as a singer does, the impediment presented with keyboard instruments of a pitch being fixed to a key with no exertion by the player is removed.

Pitch accuracy is also in play for part singing and part hearing. While it is true that keyboard instruction can involve part hearing, the benefits are entirely perceptual; that is, students can learn to hear two simultaneous melodies and the resulting intervals and sonorities, and to play them from memory, but they cannot learn to adjust intonation or be as intimate with the enormities produced from an external instrument as they can with those produced by their own voice, and resonated in their own body. This is what the phrase, “music as human sound” refers to. There is no other way to make musical sounds that is as intimate as with the human voice.

Where improvisation is concerned, there is a tendency at times to use musical instruments as a convenient way to explore. A child is given a musical instrument and perhaps restricted to notes of the pentatonic scale, and told to play what ever they want. With the pentatonic scale, chord changes can be added and the child is insulated from producing much if any dissonance. While this method produces pleasing results instantly, it does little to teach students how to select the best fitting musical idea from several he or she may imagine and generate. If the pentatonic improvisation is done with the voice using a neutral syllable or solfege, the child must imagine a sound prior to producing it so that even the most novice effort requires some intent, whereas it is possible to randomly play notes from the pentatonic scale on a keyboard with no intention of playing anything in particular; however, once the student has learned to imagine and produce well intonated pitches from the pentatonic scale, they can then improvise on a keyboard with authority and specific intent.

All of this requires that all that a child is expected to do with his or her voice be within the constraints of their physical and intellectual development. This is where proper sequencing is so important. For example, having five year olds sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for a holiday concert is developmentally inappropriate. Children at that age will not learn to sing in tune or to be good audiators by singing melodies fraught with difficult intervals such as perfect fourths and even tritones. Songs in a variety of modes with a limited range and simple interval content are much better suited for young children. Gradually more difficult intervals and wider ranges can be added as children mature physically. At these early stages, what children play on instruments should not exceed what they can sing. Eventually, of course, the instrumental music will surpass the vocal music in complexity, but by then, music literacy and musicianship will be well established, making the instrumental music appropriate.

Performance opportunities need not and should not be limited to traditional ensembles such as band, choir and orchestra. Students should be given the opportunity to use their musical skills on a variety of musical styles, including those that are most popular with them. No matter how skilled the arranger, concert band is not the place to teach popular music performance, or to satisfy students’ desire to play their favorite songs. That said, no instrument should supplant voice centered music education, for it is only there that music literacy and musicianship can effectively be taught.

Switching from One Rhythm Syllable System to Another: Helping Students Work Through The Transition

2011Symposium_1_2One of the challenges some music teachers face is sharing students with other music teachers. While it is great that a child might be in band, chorus, and or general music or other music offerings, if a child learns the same concept two or even three different ways, confusion can result. A music teacher must be aware of how his or her colleagues are teaching a concept, and either agree to teach using the same method, or reconcile the two or three methods so they become reinforcing and complementary instead of competing.

A case in point is how rhythm is taught. Throughout my career, I have noticed that the band teacher doesn’t always use the same rhythm syllables that I do. Many instrumental teachers use a system of counting the beat number followed by “and” for eighth notes and “e and a” for sixteenth notes. As a general music teacher, I used Kodaly syllables, where quarter notes were “ta,” eighth notes were “ti-ti” and sixteenth notes were “ter-ri ter-ri.” Later, I switched to using Gordon syllables. In either case, I found that students were not able to make the connection on their own between the band teacher’s number system, and either Kodaly or Gordon syllables. In the process of showing them how the rhythm syllables were a different way of learning the same thing, I realized that the three rhythm systems are very different. Possessing an understanding of these differences is important for music teachers because it impacts both bridging different systems for students, and switching from one system to the other. For example, in order to successfully switch from using Kodaly rhythm syllables to Gordon rhythm syllables, one must understand the functional differences between them. Today, I will walk us through how to successfully make the switch from Kodaly to Gordon. Keep in mind that while I prefer the Gordon approach, many outstanding music teachers employ Kodaly syllables with excellent results. My intent is not to argue in favor of one or the other, but only to demonstrate how to make the switch.


Zoltan Kodaly

The first difference is that Kodaly rhythm syllables are based on note values, and the relative lengths of notes. When the note value is equal to one beat, “ta” is used, and when there are two notes each equal to one half beat, ti-ti is used. In one case the sound that occurs on the beat is called “ta” and in the other case the sound that occurs on the beat is called “ti.” This difference is due to the fact that although both sounds occur on the beat, the duration of the sounds are different, and are therefore called by different names. As you might expect, this system works well for teaching note values, but allows students to overlook the placement of each beat as their attention is on the relative note values. Because of this, students switching form Kodaly syllables to Gordon syllables often will be unsure of the beat, or how rhythms relate to a beat. For this reason it is imperative that students always patsch or tap with the heels of their feet the pulse while they are chanting rhythms. Through the use of patsch and/or tapping heels, students can be taught that all Kodaly syllables that are chanted on a beat can be collected into a group of syllables. This group can be called the “du” group. Begin calling a ta, or ter a du, and you have begun the transition. For example, “ti-ti” becomes “du-ti,” “ta” becomes “du, ” and “ter-ri ter-ri” becomes “du-ri du-ri.” Make this shift aurally first, having students repeat patterns you chant for them, and without using music notation. Then, have them chant a notated rhythm the old way, and then the new way, eventually replacing the new with the old, until they have made the transition. Now, everytime a note occurs on the beat, it will always be called “du” no matter what the duration of that note is. Next, replace the second “ti” in a pair with “de” so that du-ti becomes du-de and du-ri ter-ri becomes du-ri de-ri. Use the same procedure of starting aurally and then connecting with notation. The final transition is the easiest, changing “ri” to “ta.” Triple meter patterns must be addressed also. The transition to “du” is exactly the same. The other Gordon syllables are slightly different. Du da di are three eighth notes, and du-ta-de-ta-di-ta are six sixteenth notes. Again, though, the transition method is the same, changing one sound at a time and changing first aurally and then rotationally. Do not rush into notation. Give the students all the time they need to make the switch aurally first.

Naturally, it is better to start children on one system and consistently use that system throughout their music education. There is no need to create the confusion that starting on one system and then switching over to another can create; however, if switching is necessary because separate music teachers some children have prefer different systems, teaching them how both systems work can be like learning a second language. Once fluency is achieved, they are able to understand both systems better, and can benefit from the strengths of each.

Syncopation, Meter, and Beat: You Really Can’t Separate Them

2011Symposium_1_2Syncopation is an interesting subject for music teachers in many countries around the world. On the one hand, right from childhood, people hear syncopated rhythms in folk and popular music styles everyday. The sound of syncopation, and the frequently used rhythm patterns that constitute syncopated rhythms are familiar, and most can quickly learn to correctly sing a song that uses syncopation. A person doesn’t have to know they are singing syncopation in order to correctly sing syncopation. People audiate these rhythm patterns once they have been learned by listening. The trick comes when people are taught that what they are listening to or singing, or playing is syncopation. Once the word is introduced, and it is used to label those particular kinds of rhythm patterns, an explanation of just what syncopation is must be given.

Most music educators will agree that syncopation is present when a note that normally is metrically weak is, through accent or elongation, made metrically strong. This seems simple enough until one considers that in order for this definition to make any sense, a person needs to have an understanding of beat and meter, including the hierarchy of strong and weak beats within beats, measures, pairs of measures, phrases, and so on. As is often the case, I find that eurhythmics offers the best approach to making this rhythmic structure clear to students. Children from a very early age move to the beat of music, particularly if they have received formal music training. Children who “keep the beat with their feet” can walk to the beat of music that is played for them, whether live or recorded. Once children are doing that, theirthinking music attention can then be drawn to what they hear between their steps. Children who are hearing eighth notes and walking to quarter notes are hearing one note between their steps. They might clap eighth notes while walking to quarter notes, and become more aware of that note in between the beats. So far, everything is still pretty comfortable because all of the strong notes, the first eighth note in each pair, is on the beat, and so there is a familiar pattern of strong-weak that feels natural with the steps of walking. Strong notes always coincide with a step. But now take the rhythm of eighth, quarter, eighth, quarter, quarter rest. The strongest note, the quarter note, is now between steps, and the second step feels like a rhythmic resolution of a rhythmic dissonance that is the quarter note. The eighth note that follows, being weaker than the quarter note, feels like an anacrusis to the third step, and the fourth step strongly marks the end of the phrase, leaving the child prepared to begin the next. That strong note between steps is syncopation. Whenever a strong note between beats is heard, that is syncopation.

Other instances of syncopation can be less easily heard. For example, in common time the rhythm quarter, half, quarter is considered syncopated, but if one is using the quarter note as the tactus, the syncopated half note occurs on the second beat, not between beats. How, then can this be syncopation? The answer is that as long as the listener is tracking quarter notes as the tactus, this rhythm will not be perceived as syncopated; however, if the listener uses the half note as the tactus, then this same rhythm is felt as syncopated. Similarly, in our previous example, if eighth notes were the tactus, then the eighth, quarter, eighth note pattern would not be heard as syncopated. A note must be in a metrically weak position, that is between beats, and be given metrical strength by such methods as elongation or accent, in order to qualify as syncopation. If a rhythm is to be perceived as syncopated, the right tactus must be set up ahead of time. From this we see that syncopation is dependent not only on rhythm, but also on the beat and specifically on what note value the listener perceives as the tactus.This is why trying to teach syncopation with mnemonic syllables is always likely to fail. Mnemonic syllables relate note values to each other, but not to a tactus. Syncopa, popular with Kodaly teachers, establishes that there is a longer note value between two shorter ones, but it does not make clear what the underlying beat is. A child could just as easily count the middle note as one beat or two. Mnemonic syllables must be placed within a metrical context and an established beat to be effective. By definition, syncopation, meter, and beat cannot be separated if students are to acquire a true understanding of syncopation.

Is There Madness in the Method?

2011Symposium_1_2Music teachers are often concerned with method. If you go to most music education conferences, you’ll find sessions on the Kodaly Method, the Dalcroze Method, Gordon Music Learning Theory, the Orff Method, Feierabend’s Conversational Solfege, the Suzuki Method, to name a few. Music teaching methods are like Protestant denominations: there are many of them, they all have a common core, but are different in some ways. These differences lead music educators into discussions about how to best go about their business. Traditional or Suzuki? Ta ti-ti or du du-de? Which is better; solfege, numbers, letter names, or fixed do? The truth is, none of these methods is as good as using the best from all of them. While any of them is better than using no method at all, tying oneself to one limits the scope and sequence of what we teach. The key to knowing how to make wise methodological choices is to have a firm grasp on what the essential, non-negotiables are, and then find the best way to build of them.

There are some common threads that run through many of these methods. One is the idea that music is akin to language and should be learned in a similar way. Suzuki referred to learning music as one learns the “mother tongue,” through listening and imitating first, then when fluency is gained adding reading. Learning from listening and imitating is also central to Gordon’s music learning theory, and Feierabend’s conversational solfege, and both of these fit nicely with Kodaly, who also believed music education should start early, and be centered around growing musicianship first through the singing voice. “Sound before sight” is a phrase often used to describe this approach to music teaching; it is one of the essentials of music education methodology.

A second essential is that music is learned through movement. The method of Dalcroze features movement as a key methodelement in building musicianship. With this approach, musical expression through movement is featured. Children develop musical skills through kinesthetic experiences, moving in response to rhythm and structure they hear in music. The movement is often spontaneous and can include moving to the beat as well as moving more freely. Orff also emphasized movement. In his method, it is an integral part of a musical experience, and is also often used to prepare children to play mallet instruments. Students are given the opportunity to explore and create and then to “intellectualize” what they have done afterwards. Orff explained, “Elemental music is never just music. It’s bound up with movement, dance and speech, and so it is a form of music in which one must participate, in which one is involved not as a listener but as a co-performer.” Orff’s view of music education blurs the line between performer and audience, which is in keeping with the way much of the world experiences music.

These two essentials, developing pitch and rhythm aurally as a child’s native language is learned, and understanding and experiencing music both as a performer and a listener kinesthetically through the body, leads to building musicianship and music literacy, which is the bottom line of music education. How we as music teachers bring our students to the point of mastering musicianship and music literacy is far less important than that our students succeed at both. Methods wars are fought every day over fixed do or moveable do, Kodaly or Orff, Gordon or tradition. All have their rightful place in the repertoire of methods from which a good music teacher will draw. We must emphasize what all of these methods have in common, for it is in the commonalities that we find what is most important.

What Are The Best Pitch Combinations For Teaching Our Youngest Children Singing?

2011Symposium_1_2The popularity and success of the Kodaly approach to teaching music in schools has resulted in a widespread practice of using songs and chants comprised of a minor third when beginning formal music education with young children. There is much to recommend this practice, including the ease with which a small interval can be sung, and the frequency with which one can observe children spontaneously singing minor thirds while at play. Beyond these two notes, so and mi in tonal sofa, how to proceed should be dictated by the characteristics of the musical culture to which the children belong. Because Kodaly was a musicologist and collector of folksongs, he knew that Hungarian folk music culture contained many pentatonic songs. For him, proceeding on to la next made sense, followed by do, and then re, completing the pentatonic scale. With no leading tone or subdominant, there is no consideration of tonal harmony. Instead, canons are introduced early on, to which the pentatonic scale is well suited, because the dissonant leading tone and subdominant tone of a major or minor scale are absent. All of this well represented the Hungarian Folk Song literature and so made perfect sense for use with Hungarian children. But what of teaching children whose folk song literature is predominantly major-minor, and not pentatonic? This is the case with American folk songs, and it demands an altered approach.



For major based folksong literature, harmonic considerations prevail over melodic ones. After teaching so-mi, the next logical tone is not la, but do. La is a relatively weak tone in the major tonality, whereas do, the tonic, is essential. It is also necessary to establish the relationship between so, mi, and do as the tonic harmony. Notice that harmonic function and not melodic consideration is the deciding factor. Establishing tonality with a tonic is more important in major-based literature than building off of melodic intervals. Do may not be melodically easier to sing than la, but it is easier harmonically to audiate as part of the tonic chord. There are plenty of American folk songs for teaching the tonic chord. Examples are Johnny on the Woodpile, Lucy Rabbit, Did You Feed My Cow?, Pitter Patter, Frog in the Meadow, Frog in the Meadow, Peep Squirrel, Grandma Grunts,Circle Round The Zero, Wake Up You Lazy Bones, All ‘Round the Brickyard, and I Have Lost The Closet Key.

By the same reasoning, there is no need to introduce la until the subdominant harmony is taught. With the tonic chord in place, next we introduce re, which makes the dominant harmony possible with re-so. American folk songs for teaching this include Do, Do Pity My Case, Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush, Bling, Blang, Risseldy Rosseldy and Old Bald Eagle. In a Hungarian approach, this would be unthinkable, because it introduces the interval of a perfect fourth, which is rare in Hungarian folk music. However, as part of a dominant harmony, it is a familiar chord function to American children, and can quickly be learned. After re, fa is added, making the dominant seventh chord possible. Songs like Cobbler, Cobbler, Little Bird, Go Through My Window, and A Tisket A Tasket are good for teaching the dominant seventh harmony. Patterns and songs using tonic-dominant chord changes are the focus, until both harmonies are securely learned. Then la is introduced, and in combination with fa and then do, forms the subdominant chord. Many American folk songs contain subdominant harmonies, so this combination of notes is more natural to American children than to those in Hungary. Examples include Aiken Drum, Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, and Crabe dans Calalou. Take note that Kodaly song guides will list more songs as containing the fa element, but many of those use fa as the seventh in the dominant harmony, not as the root of the subdominant harmony. That is one more difference between the melody based Kodaly approach and the tonality approach. Basing teaching sequences and song selection on audiating tonality is more natural for children whose folksong culture is major-minor based. Although I have not discussed minor chords or songs, the same principles apply.


As regular readers of this blog know, I am a staunch supporter of using fixed do with my students. At this stage, before notation is introduced, I do use moveable do. It is an effective tool in teaching tonal functions of notes. I begin to use fixed do when I introduce notation, and begin in C major so there is a smooth transition.

Update on my Switch to Fixed Do


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Last month, I wrote about using fixed do solfege in my music classes (Another Try At Fixed Do). At that time, I reported early success with fifth and second grade students sight singing using the fixed do system. Since then, I have continued to be pleased with the results, and do not at this point miss or intend to go back to, moveable do. As I have used fixed do, I have realized that there really isn’t as much difference with moveable do as I first thought, and the advantages of fixed do are compelling.

Fixed do differentiates between different keys. This is something composers have always done. Some keys are brighter, some darker, or even duller. Composers tend to favor some keys and avoid others, includicng C major. The fixed do system retains those distinctions, making it possible to learn the subtle tuning differences between notes of the same scale degree in different keys. For example, re mi is sung differently in D major than in C major. Because the syllables are the same, the ear must make the adjustment. In moveable do, the syllables would dictate the differences, being do re in D and re mi in C, and less discrimination is left to the ear. Fixed do teaches that the same pitches in different contexts are supposed to sound different.

I have also found fixed do more effective in improving pitch. While I cannot claim that using fixed do results in acquisition of absolute pitch, I continue to find improvement in my sense of where pitches are. I have also observed my students’ improved overall sense of pitch while singing, and a heightened awareness of when we have drifted flat. My hunch is that through verbal association, consistently calling a given pitch by the same name allows our brains to link the name with the pitch so that it can be recalled.

Previous to using fixed do, I had not found much success having my first and second grade students sing two-part music. C-Major-ScaleEven singing tonal ostinati with a melody was more than most of these students could do. After spending a month practicing fixed do, last week nearly every student was able to sing an ostinato part or a melody part in two-part singing. About one quarter of them, and most of them first graders, were able to successfully sing in three parts, with two ostinatos and a melody. They did this all with fixed do syllables. It appears that after a short time, the childrens’ ears adjust to where the tonic is, and the tonal benefits associated with moveable do are also present with fixed do without tonal function needing to be taught.

Gordon Music Learning Theory espouses singing tonal patterns using moveable do to children in order to teach them a musical vocabulary that is then built upon to develop musicianship. Feierabend’s conversational sofege, and the several Kodaly training institutions in the United States also train teachers to use moveable do and to avoid notation in the early stages of acquiring music literacy. Fixed-do teachers also begin training without notation, but tend to bring music reading in sooner. For example, the Yamaha Piano School takes an approach similar to Gordon and Feierabend, but with fixed do. According to their web site, in the Yamaha program, “teachers sing melodic patterns and chords that children imitate. Solfege sessions at the teacher’s piano account for approximately 15 to 20 minutes of a 60 minute class. . .By the end of two years in JMC, students have built a substantial vocabulary of solfege, having sung 50 melodies and numerous chord progressions using the I, IV and V7 chords in the keys of C major, G major, F major, D minor and A minor. Aside from developing musicianship, these solfege experiences prepare children to play in these five keys. In fact, children experience singing in a key for approximately one semester prior to playing in that key.” Without the restrictions of notation, students are able to negotiate keys they would not be able to read. In addition, if they have used fixed do, when they are ready to read, the notation will be familiar to them by syllable name, no matter what key they are playing in, making the transition to notation smoother. Delaying reading until a moveable do system can be transferred to reading in multiple keys impedes literacy progress.

Having said all of that, it must be mentioned that research has not proved either moveable do or fixed do as more or less effective in ear training. Advocates and users of both systems claim advantages, and success of either system is difficult to evaluate because individual teachers’ proficiency in using and teaching each system is inconsistent. From my experience using both, I have found that fixed do is more effective for me and for my students.