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.

Iconic Notation and Music Literacy

Version 2Honestly, for years I considered iconic notation a cheap substitute for “real” music notation. I thought it was something music teachers used as a last resort when they had thrown in the towel at successfully teaching their students to read and write in standard music notation. Because of this view of iconic notation, I avoided it, thinking that I was somehow taking the higher ground. Of course, this was faulty thinking on my part. Iconic notation has been employed by respected composers for decades when standard notation was inadequate for representing what they wanted performers of their music to do, and far from being a poor substitute, iconic notation is an excellent way of teaching the concept of notation in general; that is, the written representation of a specific sound and specific direction for producing that sound. Music is written down, in whatever form, so that it can be shared with other musicians who can use it to perform a musical work, thereby sharing it aurally with an audience. It does not have to be done through written notation, but notation is a sufficiently important media to warrant its teaching in music education. The key is getting music passed from creator to performer. For a musically literate person, learning music from notation is an efficient method.

As with any written system, the key is to first have a sound in mind, then to associate that sound with a particular written symbol. When many different sounds are involved as they are in music, it helps to have a verbal name for each sound which then is attached to the written symbol along with the actual sound. In iconic notation, I might want to write down a symbol that will tell the performer to oscillate between two tones, so I make the sound of my voice going back and forth between two pitches that are approximately a minor third apart. I call this sound a squiggle. My students then perform a squiggle, so they all know what it sounds like, and they all know what it is called. Once that is in place, I draw a squiggle on the board, and tell them that is what a squiggle looks like. Whenever they see that symbol, they are to sing a squiggle. I can control the rhythm of the squiggle by making the drawn squiggle tighter or more drawn out for faster or slower, respectively, and I can control the distance between the tones by the height of the squiggle. All of this is somewhat subjective, because I cannot indicate precisely what tones to produce, or how quickly to move between them, but I am leaving iconic directions on what and how to produce my sound; how to perform my music.  If I were to publish this work, I would not be able to teach about my squiggle to a class, so I would do what many composers have done–I would include written directions in the first pages of the score. This is necessary because, unlike standard music notation, iconic notation is not necessarily universal. In other words, my written squiggle might not mean the same thing to as many musicians as say an E-flat on a treble clef would.

Now back the the music classroom. Once I have taught my class about the squiggle and allowed them to practice performing a short musical work made out of squiggles of various speeds and sizes, I will have them create their own sounds and symbols, and teach them to each other. This can be done first in a whole-class setting, where one student at a time creates a sound and symbol and teaches it to the class, and then later in small groups, where the students create sounds and symbols, compose a work using them, and then performs the work for the class from their iconic notation. A variant of that is for each group to teach the class how to use their iconic notation, or to write clear directions, and then have another groups perform the work from the iconic notation. In this case, the composing groups can see how clear their directions are, and how closely others will capture their intent by reading their iconic score. This opens the possibility for valuable dialog between composers and performers, and makes the composers aware of their responsibility to make every effort to realize other composers’ intent when they perform other music.

Here is an example of a music composing project using iconic notation. In it, pitch is indicated by the vertical placement of the symbols, while duration is indicated by the size of the symbol–larger shapes are longer, while smaller shapes are shorter. There are also instances where beaming is borrowed from standard notation to group tones together that are to be performed in especially fast succession. Rests are notated with double vertical squiggles. Though it is unclear without speaking to the composers, the faces drawn on the larger symbols introduces the possibility of notating a desired emotion to individual tones, where some tones would be “happy notes” while others would be “sad notes.” Happy and sad might then be worked out by the performer by manipulating the tone to be darker or brighter depending on the desired emotion.

Here is an ingenious musical work that is written in iconic notation. Different instrument timbres are represented by different shapes, and durations are represented by relative distances between symbols. The timing of each sound onset is controlled by the dial which rotates through the performance. Dynamics are indicated by the size and color of the symbols. While this method lends itself to the computerized presentation shown here, it could also be used by live performers, where a “conductor” moved the dial and the performers played “notes” when the dial passed over the symbol associated with their instrument.

It is worth mentioning that this particular work is much better suited for iconic notation than standard music notation. Imagine trying to notate and then read the rhythm of all those dotes.

There is no doubt that iconic notation is useful in introducing music notation to young or novice music students, and it is sure to be of value in early music education. Its use should not be abandoned with older students. Iconic notation can release students to compose creatively without being restricted by what they can notate using standard music notation. In some cases, composing in iconic notation will be a gateway to discussing how to notate the same work using standard music notation. In other instances, as in the example above, it will be best to leave the work in iconic notation. Either way, iconic notation is a valuable tool in teaching our students music literacy.

Three Ingredients for Good Classroom Management

Version 2For whatever reason, I have noticed over the years that art and music teachers seem to get more than their fair share of misbehavior in their classes. I suppose the children regard these classes as a time to let down and blow off steam after sitting immobile in a classroom writing, reading and generally keeping their youthful energy in check. Still, there are ways to achieve smoothly running classes for music teachers, regardless of the ages being taught. While my classes are by now means perfectly behaved all the time, I would like to share some of the things I’ve found work well to keep kids engaged and on-task. This is the result we want; for our students to be invested in what they are doing, so their attention doesn’t turn in other directions.

There are three things I try to do every day that I have found are most important in having a well managed classroom. These are, good relationships with my students, making my expectations for them clear and stating them often, and starting with enduring understandings, not song titles, and using music that is relevant to the students to teach those enduring understandings. I will discuss each of these presently.

For years I have heard from other teachers, many of them at the time more experienced than I, that you begin strict, and don’t ever smile until December. It’s easier to let up from strictness, than to begin lenient and then become more strict. There may have been a time when this worked, but not anymore. That kind of sternness just puts kids off, leaves them with the impression that you don’t like them or that you’d prefer they were not in your class, and fuels resentment that easily turns into negative behavior. While there must always be a distinction between the student learner and the sage/experienced teacher, that distinction can easily be maintained when the teacher-student relationship is friendly and caring. Students just respond better to a teacher who has shown that he/she genuinely cares for them and is on their side. Greeting each child at the classroom door with a smile and by name will get any class off to a better start. Smiling, and noticeably showing that you are enjoying teaching them will keep things positive, fun and managed well. A principal I once worked for put it like this: you must be intellectually superior but socially equal. He did not mean a teacher should hang out with students as if he or she were a peer; he meant that the relationship between student and teacher has two dimensions–a scholarly one with which the teacher brings knowledge and experience to bear, and a social one with which the teacher demonstrates sincere commitment  and concern for each student. To demonstrate this, a music teacher might go to a basketball game in which his/her students are playing, or attend a fund raiser students are sponsoring.

The second item is stating my expectations clearly and often. Both are necessary. I used to state expectations at the beginning of each class, and then set about teaching and putting students to work. What I found was my expectations stated up front did not carry all students through to the end. For students who finished their work but with difficulty, I had given them no expectation of what to do next. For the student art-of-teachingwho had finished their work and excelled, I had given them no next step. For the student who had worked but not finished their work, I had given them no intermediate point from which they could resume next time. My expectations were simply that everyone would follow directions, and stay on-task working on their project, or practicing their vocal or instrumental part. At the end of class, when I drew closure, it was stated in terms of a completed class, regardless of where each child was when it was time to stop. “Today we learned…”

But now, my closure drawing is different. “For those of you that learned an entire instrumental part today, well done. Next time, combine with someone else who has finished a different part from you, and combine with them to start practicing in an ensemble. To those of you who started getting a part, but can’t play the whole thing yet, continue to work on it. We can simplify the part if you need to, and I will work with you next time. There were also a few of you who didn’t make an effort to accomplish much of anything. You need to get going. Not making a good effort is not acceptable. You chose the song you are working on, you need to prepare it for presentation.” Do you see the difference? There isn’t much wiggle room anymore. All are accounted for, and new expectations are set even before they leave for their next class.

The other day, I had a sixth grade class state one thing they were going to try to do well during music class that day. It was very insightful for me, because some students stated tangible things, like listen better, sing better, or sing more in tune, while other students said very general things, like get a better grade or do better. I told them that while there is nothing wrong with wanting to get a better grade, in order to succeed at that, they must know what they are going to do that is going to result in getting a better grade. This was the moment of truth for me. If they couldn’t tell me what would get them a good grade in my class, then the blame would be on me for not making expectations clear. I was relieved to hear them say, when pressed, that they were going to focus on the speaker, and sing more (focus on the speaker is something I stress; whether it is I or a student who is asking or answering a question, one person speaks at a time and all eyes and ears go to that person. The bottom line here is, when kids have something specific to accomplish they are much more engaged than when the expectation is not well understood.

The third item is starting with enduring understandings, not songs. What I mean by this is that music class can easily just be singing songs. While singing songs is fun, and many a fine concert can and has been prepared just by singing or playing repertoire in rehearsals, students also need to be engaged in learning activities that require them to use critical thinking skills, create musical works and interpret their own works and those of others, learn about music and how all the musical elements are used by creators to convey an expressive intent, and how music relates and connects to the other arts, the other disciplines, the student’s culture and his/her personal life. These are articulated in enduring understandings, not in the repertoire. The repertoire is used as material with which the student works in the process of acquiring deep understandings of music and the arts and of becoming musically and artistically literate. This kind of deep learning is the only kind that will produce students who are equipped to fully enjoy and benefit from music and the arts for their lifetime, regardless of the profession they work in. Students sense the shallowness of just singing or playing songs, and will often not continue musical study if that is all they have received in music classes. On the other hand, they are drawn in to deeper learning as they realize the many dimensions of thinking and doing that are utilized when enduring understandings are pursued.

Giving priority and attention to these three items, good relationships with students, making  expectations  clear and stating them often, and starting with enduring understandings, not song titles, will improve the classroom management of any music teacher. Attending to these things won’t solve all your problems, but it will certainly solve many of them.

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.

Music Literacy is More Than Reading Music

2011 Symposium2

I saw this post recently on Facebook. “What do you teach?”
“Music.” “Oh, okay. So, do you read music?” “You teach English, right?” “Yes.” 
“Can you read English?” My first reaction, as a Music teacher, was probably similar to the author of this post. I was irked, maybe even offended. Of course I read music. It seems so obvious that I would, doesn’t it? Well, not so fast. I have come across many high school students or even graduates who played in band for years, and yet don’t read music. They learned everything by rote for years, and got so accomplished at it that they were able, in some cases, to rise to first chair in their school bands, even though, mind you, they couldn’t read music. 

Then there are cultural differences to consider. There are master music teachers in many parts of the world who are respected musicians and music teachers who don’t read music because theirs is an aural tradition, so written music is not used to pass along music as it is in American culture. But wait, is even that entirely true? Paul McCartney doesn’t read music, and look at what he has achieved. Would anyone seriously consider him of being musically illiterate? And what about the hundreds of young people who learn guitar or bass  riffs by ear, or from a friend who shows them how to play those riffs without ever using written music? There is a whole musical culture populated with our music students that exists outside our classrooms that is characterized by different ways of teaching and learning, and in many cases including a different repertoire of music as well.

None of this is all bad, in fact most of it is quite good. We want our students to be musically engaged outside our classrooms, and we want to enjoy the rich musical diversity that exists in the world, and when we listen to someone like Paul McCartney, we really don’t care if he reads music or not. None of this is to say that we should not teach our students to read and write music–of course we should. But it is to say that standard music notation is not always necessary or even the best means for teaching particular genres of music. There’s a good reason why the music of West Africa is not taught with standard music notation, aside from the conventions of an oral tradition. That music is rhythmically complex, often much more so than anything we experience in notated musical traditions such as European art music.  I suggest that West African music developed the exciting, engaging, addictive, irresistible complexity because it was not constrained by the necessity of writing it down. In truth, our Western standard music notation, invented for art music, can barely if at all handle such complexity.

So yes, we should be teaching our children to read and write music with our notational system of a five-lined staff, a clef, notes, sharps, flats, and all the rest. There are excellent techniques for doing so, chief among them Conversational Solfege by John Feierabend. But recite-esam1teven here, it begins with what we here, not with what we see. What does it sound like, how do I perform it, and then what does it look like. Writing it down is the last step in process, and it is lieu of teaching it aurally. If a music teacher places a page of music in front of a student and then teaches that music by rote, the student is not reading music. They are only the victim of the wishful thinking of a teacher who thinks that somehow the child will pick up how to read on the fly just because the music is on the stand in front of them. Teaching music reading must be much more targeted, focused and specific than that. Feierabend gives a way of going about that business.

That said, even if someone can read and write music perfectly, are they then musically literate? If someone cannot read or write music, are they musically illiterate? The answer in both cases is not entirely. The national core arts standards makes it very clear that musical literacy, like linguistic literacy, includes much more than reading and writing. “Artistic literacy requires that [individuals] engage in artistic creation processes directly through the use of appropriate materials (such as … musical instruments and scores, …and the actual human body) and in appropriate spaces (concert halls, stages…. For authentic practice to occur in arts classrooms, teachers and students must participate fully and jointly in activities where they can exercise the creative practices of imagine, investigate, construct, and reflect as unique beings committed to giving meaning to their experiences.” Some of that activity does emanate from the recorded work of composers in the form of scores and instrument parts, but some of it emanates from what is heard, imagined, created, and improvised, all of which can be performed. Furthermore, competencies in these other musical skills (imagining, creating, improvising, performing from what is heard) are appropriately taught and developed before written music is brought in. Music literacy encompasses all of this, not just reading and writing.

Once a student can read and write music, then an entire world of creative possibilities opens up for them. An individual who can read music can examine it as a text, just as surely as that individual can examine a piece of non-fiction. Written music can and should be analyzed, evaluated, and interpreted. The author’s (composer’s) intent should be discussed to learn what the composer expressed through his or her musical work. Determinations of how the musical elements were used to make that expression, and how they will be used by students in performing a work to communicate that expression are at the very soul of being a musician. When music is studied this way, it is elevated beyond the sonic experience of beats and rhythms that make us feel good. Music is elevated beyond being purely utilitarian to being expressive and therefore art. It changes the significance of what students are doing from merely following instructions in order to produce a particular performance, to creative activity that is artistic, not mechanistic. Only an understanding of music literacy that includes all of this can present music to students, administrators, and communities as something that matters in everyone’s life.

Music Literacy is More Than Reading and Writing Music

2011 Symposium2

Literacy is a word that is easily associated with reading and writing. It is a form of the words literature and literary. But not all literature is written down. Many cultures preserve their literature through oral traditions. In these cultures, a literate person is one who knows the literature from memory and can recall it, recite it and teach it to others so that they will be able to do the same. When considering the orally preserved and performed literatures, there is more to the content than the literal words spoken. For example, there is how the material is spoken; how it is conveyed expressively, dramatically, with what voice and timbre the words are spoken, and the pace at which the words are delivered. All of these elements influence the meaning of what is being said, and must therefore be considered part of the literacy of the speaker. After all, isn’t literacy at least in part the ability to apprehend the meaning of what has been preserved, be it spoken or written?

We are now at the doorstep of music literacy. While it is without a doubt true that a person that can read and write music using standard music notation is, as far as these competencies are concerned, musically literate, one cannot consider such a person to be literate if he or she cannot express or comprehend the expressive nature and intent of music being performed or heard. A common example of this is the beginning instrumental music student who can name pitches and rhythmic values, and can match the pitches to a key or fingering, and the rhythmic value to a phonetic equivalent, but when playing the music has no idea if he or she is actually producing the notes written, and who knows nothing of playing them in an expressive and what we would call “musical” way.  In this case, the student possesses only the most rudimentary and incomplete set of literacy skills.

So what does a person need to be able to do to demonstrate comprehensive Self-Imagemusical literacy? To do this, a person need to be able to sight sing with accurate pitch, rhythm, tempo and with appropriate expression, transfer what he or she has sight sung onto an instrument if they play one, and be able to sing or sing and play with accuracy and expression music they have memorized either from standard music notation or from  hearing another musician perform it for them, usually repeatedly and often as part of formal music instruction. Reproducing another’s performance cannot be a perfect duplication; instead, it must retain the accuracy of pitches, rhythms, tempos, etc., while demonstrating an interpretation that blends the expressive intents of the composer, the musician from which he or she is learning, and his or her own interpretive contributions. The ability to infuse the performance with original interpretive ideas while reproducing those of the model performance is an indicator of mature or maturing music literacy.

No discussion of music literacy would be complete without a creating and preserving component. Just as a person who can not write original stories, non-fiction or poems cannot be considered fully literate, neither can a person be so considered who cannot compose and preserve original work. I use the word preserve instead of write because written preservation is not, as we have seen, a prerequisite to literacy, but being able to preserve material either in writing or orally is required. A musically literate person can generate musical ideas, and organize those ideas into cohesive musical phrases, themes, sections, movements, pieces and so forth. This requires that the literate person be able to imagine sounds and sound combinations and sequences in an action Gordon has called “audiation,” and then reproduce them through performance or notation. A musically literate person can work with musical sounds in the imagination, just as a linguistically literate person can work with words in the mind. With a grasp of grammar, these ideas can be manipulated, mentally represented, and edited in a process of creating artistic work. The result of this activity can then be performed by the composer or by others through transmission that is made possible by the musically literate creator either writing down his or her work, or teaching it to another through performance. All of this is necessary for a person to be considered musically literate.

Artistic Literacy and Why It Matters


The authors of the national arts standards defined artistic literacy as “the knowledge and understanding required to participate authentically in the arts.” It is first and foremost important to realize that when it comes to music, knowing about music, and reading and writing about music is not enough to qualify a person as musically literate. Musically literate people have attained a fluency in knowledge, skill, and ability that allows them to participate in making music. Those who proclaim themselves to be non-singers, or untalented are not, inspire of their self-assessment, incapable of becoming musically literate. Developing artistic literacy in students are at the core of what the national arts standards are all about. It is evident from reading them that the authors have meticulously laid out a plan for developing musically literate people by addressing every aspect of making music.

According to the authors of the standards, to accomplish this, “teachers and students must participate fully and jointly in activities where they can exercise the creative practices of imagine, investigate, construct, and reflect as unique beings committed to giving meaning to their experiences.” Students imagine a mental imageMusic-Feelings-300x197 or concept, investigate and study through exploration or examination, construct a product by combining or arranging a series of elements, and reflects and thinks deeply about his or her own work. In music, this can take the form of imagining musical ideas, analyzing a musical work, composing a musical work, and assessing or evaluating one’s own work or the work of another. These in turn align with the creative processes of creating, performing (an imagined mental image), connecting with the works of others, and reflecting.

From this perspective, the arts are seen as a means for people to “generate experiences, construct knowledge, and express their ideas, feelings, and beliefs.” When students have created and performed musical works, they are in a position to study and experience their own and others’ creative work more fully. Elliott described a person who has performed music as being capable of bringing a whole set of sensibilities and awarenesses to the experiencing of music performed by others. Such a person is informed by their own creative experience, and able to relate to not only the music being performed, but the experience of the performer. Relating in this way brings aspects of the music and the performance to consciousness that would go unnoticed by one listening to the music but who has never performed similarly.

Dance-and-MovementBecause artists create, respond and present works across all the arts disciplines, artistic literacy also fosters connecting one art to another. A musically  literate person understands rhythm, tempo, contrasts, color, form, and expressive intent. An artistically literate person can perceive these elements in dance, visual art and theater as well as in music. The anchor standards reflect the overarching nature of the fundamental concepts of all arts disciplines. Creativity is developed and encouraged by asking students open-ended questions. The multiplicity of possible answers allows students to exercise creativity in finding and selecting an answer which is demonstrated in activity within a creative process.

Yet there are difference between the arts too. This is delineated in the performance standards. One who is making music does not paint or sculpt to make music, and one who is making visual art does not play notes, or create a melody to make a painting or sculpture. From this we see that there is artistic literacy, which is a kind of literacy that enables participating in making all kinds of artistic works, and then there is music, art, dance, and theater literacy, each enabling participation in making music, visual art, dance, or drama.

Teachers in each of the arts include both types of literacy in their teaching. For the music teacher, artistic literacy is taught from the anchor standards as connections are made to the other arts. For example, rhythm in visual art, dance, and acting is taught to enhance understanding of it in music; likewise with other musical elements. Music literacy is also necessary, so that students know, for example, how musicians use rhythm as opposed to artists, dancers and sculptors. Whether there is overlap or contrast, understanding and literacy is strengthened.

The Versatility of Tic-Tac-Toe

2011Symposium_1_2When I was a kid, I like playing tic-tac-toe. It’s an easy game to play and almost every child knows how to play. With a little creativity, it can become a useful and versatile teaching tool in the music classroom. I like to use it periodically as a fun way to give my students practice at music reading, and to assess their progress. Today I will share some of the variations on this classic game that I use.

Unscramble Tic-Tac-Toe combines sequencing with reading. I have a white board with music staves painted on. Off to one side, I write a melody that is familiar to the class, with the measures in the wrong order, and numbered. In the center of the board, I have drawn a Tic-Tac-Toe board so that each square has part of a musical staff going through it. The class is divided into two teams. One student at a time must choose the measure that begins or comes next in the melody, identifying the measure by number. If he or she answers correctly, the student chooses where to place an “X” or an “O” on the game board. Depending on the age of the class, I may also have the student copy the measure onto the game board in the square the child has chosen. If the student answers incorrectly, it becomes the other team’s turn. Play continues until one team earns three squares in a row, just like traditional Tic-Tac-Toe.

For Singing Tic-Tac-Toe, the game board is already filled in with tonal patterns. Before play begins, I have the class sing each pattern, so that they are sure to be familiar with them. The class is divided into two teams, and one child takes a turn for their team. For each turn, the child chooses a square on the board, and then must correctly sing the tonal pattern in that box. If he or she sings it correctly, then an “X” or an “O” is placed in that box. Play continues until one team earns three squares in a row, just like traditional Tic-Tac-Toe.  This version of Tic-Tac-Toe can also be done with rhythm patterns, in which case students chant the pattern when it is their turn, or with melody fragments, in which case the student must sing both the pitches and rhythms correctly to win the square.

Name That Tune Tic-Tac-Toe has students trying to identify the song from which a fragment is written in eachtic_tac_toe square. For example, mi mi fa so might be in one box, and the student who identifies the tune as “Ode to Joy” would win that box. Each fragment must be reasonably identified with a familiar melody. With older students, once the player whose turn it is has chosen a square, a player on the other team writes a fragment in that box for the student whose turn it is to identify.

Pitches and rhythms are not the only things we want our students to be able to read in music, so Tic-Tac-Toe can be used to teach and assess other musical symbols and signs, including repeats, dynamics, tempos and articulation. For this variation, a list of musical terms and symbols is made off to the side. These can be a dynamic, tempo,  or articulation markings, or any symbol that directs a performer to sing or play in a particular way. The student whose turn it is selects a box. Either you or a student from the other team performs any bit of music with one of the markings from the list. If students are performing, I have the terms written down on index cards, so I can hand one to the student to perform without letting the rest of the class know what it is. For example, if staccato was chosen, you or the student on the other team would sing or play something with staccato. If “forte” was the term, something would be sung or played loudly. The student trying to win the square must correctly match the performance with the term listed on the board. If he or she succeeds, an “X” or an “O” is placed in the square selected. In this game, not only are students learning and being assessed on musical terms and vocabulary, but, when students do the performing, they are also practicing performing the various terms. The terms can then be more meaningfully referred to in “real” performance situations, with the affect of being done more expressively.

I’m sure there are countless other ways to use Tic-Tac-Toe in the music classroom. My hope is that this brief survey of ones I like to use will be useful, and will spur your own creativity on to create your own games.

Getting Directions

2011Symposium_1_2When I used to go on family vacations, my Dad always had a map handy. He had it all folded so that the portion of the map he needed was visible while the rest of the map was folded underneath. Then, he’s hold the map so that the direction he was driving was facing the front of the car. That way he could easily see which way to turn. It was his way of translating a two-dimensional map into actions taken in three dimensions. With pianos, we have a similar problem. Music that goes up goes to the right on the keyboard, and music that goes down goes to the left. With the left hand, finger numbers that go up play notes that go down, while in the right hand, finger numbers that go up play notes that go up. Some have suggested that creating computer software that rotates the keyboard ninety degrees so that notes that go up go up, not to the right, is the answer, but eventually every pianist has to play a real piano, and no one I know can play one from the side. I would like to propose a more practical approach; one that likens reading music to reading a number line. On a number line, numbers that go up go to the right, just like notes on a piano. And on a number line, numbers that go down go the left, again just like on a piano. If numbers are used for note names instead of letter names or solfege, then playing notes on a piano can be just like travelling up and down a number line. As the numbers get bigger or “go up,” the notes sound higher in pitch or go up, and as the numbers get smaller or “go down,” the notes sound lower in pitch or go down. The values of the pitch numbers can be associated with relative highness and lowness in pitch, and our keyboard/number line moves in the familiar left and right direction.

This also more accurately represents the science of what is really going on. As pitch gets “higher,” the frequency of the sound increases. For example, the frequencies of the eight pitches in a one-octave C major scale are C(^1)=261.63, D(^2)=293.66, E(^3)=329.63, F(^4)=349.23, G(^5)=392.00, A(^6)=440.00, B(^7)=493.88, C(^8)=523.25. When we say a pitch is going up, what is really being described is a pitch that has a higher frequency than the preceding pitch, and is representing by point on a number line to the right. When saying the music went up, we make an abstraction of what we hear going in an upwards direction in space, but this is not in fact what is physically occurring. This abstraction is represented in our standard musical notation by placing the note that went “up” higher on the page (or closer to the top of the page) than the preceding note.

Of course we don’t teach young children about frequencies, but we do teach them how to count, and a number line is a tool piano practicefor doing so that many of them are familiar with from their classrooms. Seeing the piano keyboard as a number line is an easy transfer for them. A number line can be made and set beyond the black keys leaning up against the back of the keyboard and referred to during practice and teaching sessions. The number line can be moved so that it aligned with any tonic, and is used as tonal syllables, with the tonic always aligned with “1.” When pitches are sung, the student still uses fixed do, but when they are played, he or she thinks of them as numbers on the number line. If the teacher prefers to retain letter names for notes, a “letter line” can be used instead, and the student can be taught to think of letters going up and down as number do. By establishing up and down as a function of numerical values attached to pitches, the left to right reading of a line of music can be disengaged from pitch direction, avoiding the contradiction of up/down versus left/right.