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.

Improvising With Tonal Patterns

2011Symposium_1_2Music is constructed with patterns of pitches and rhythms. As we have seen over the last two weeks, we begin to learn these patterns aurally from birth and even before. Aural learning continues into the school age years, and is necessary before music reading and writing can be taught effectively. Not only are the raw pitches and rhythms learned, but also the meters and tonalities resulting from those patterns. As  a person learns patterns, tonalities, and meters, he or she can begin using them in improvisation. Improvisation can only be done with patterns, meters and tonalities that have been learned.; we do not improvise from nothing, but from ideas that are essentially original orderings and variations on things we have already heard and are familiar with.

At its beginning stages, original musical thought may be slight alterations to a pattern the student has just heard. When I sing a pattern to a student, and ask that student to sing back to me something different from what I just sang, my youngest students sometimes have trouble thinking of something to sing. I then guide them with suggestions. I may point out that in what I just sang the pitches went down, so he or she could try singing something that goes up. Or I might suggest that the child sing what I did, but add or remove one or more notes. Another idea is to sing the rhythm of the child’s name. All of these strategies coax the child to begin generating musical ideas from musical thoughts. All of it is aurally based, without even a reference to notation.

When notation is brought in, it is only of patterns that the children have already learned aurally. Early on, I will write several tonal patterns on the board, sing one of them, have the class or an individual repeat the same pattern, and then tell me which pattern of those on the board we just sang. This strengthens the connection between what is heard and what is seen. Again, strategies may be needed to shore up this learning. For example, one of the patterns might be “do, mi.” After correctly singing and identifying that pattern, I might move on to “do, mi, so.” I have already made sure that only these two patterns begin with “do,mi,” so I can say to the unsure student, ” what are the first two pitches in the pattern I just sang?” I the sing “do, mi, so” again, and wait for the student’s answer. After finding them to be “do, mi” I then say, “pattern 1 was ‘do, mi,’ can you find another pattern that begins with the same pitches?” Using this question as a guide, the student can then find the pattern that is “do, mi, so.” All of this gives students practice in locating notes on the staff, and thinking in 101terms of patterns or combinations of pitches, instead of individual pitches.

After building proficiency at singing and reading patterns, students can move on to improvising with these same patterns. Students can repeat patterns, sequence several patterns, and alter one or more notes in a pattern to create improvised music. Until rhythm is added, there is no meter, but students are already hearing a tonality form the patterns they are improvising, because the patterns I have taught them for this activity are all in a single tonality. Do, mi can become do, mi, mi; so, fa, re can become so, fa, re, so; so, mi, do can become so, do, and so forth. I can use the same approach with rhythms, beginning with rhythm patterns aurally, then going into notation, and leading into improvisation. After using rhythm patterns in this way, I then reinsert pitches, and have students play with both tonal and rhythm patterns at the same time; that is, they can now change pitch, rhythm, or both as they improvise.

Although improvisation is not usually thought of as including notation, I find that including notation in these improvisation activities helps students strengthen their audiation and reading skills. By seeing what they are improvising off of in the small segments of tonal and rhythm patterns, they are connecting what they see to the changes they are making to it. It is also a kind of readiness exercise for improvising off of a lead sheet, where musicians have entire melodies notated. Learning to read in patterns first transfers to reading whole melodies, preparing students to see patterns in notated melodies, and isolate them as materials for fruitful improvisation. It also takes some of the mystery out of improvisation for inexperienced improvisers, because it feels less like they are making music out of thin air, and more of what it really is: making music out of patterns they already know.

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.

What Is An Effective Approach to Teaching Sight Reading?

2011Symposium_1_2One of the perennial challenges for music teachers seems to be teaching sight-reading, particularly to older children who have not developed music reading skills at a young age. Music teachers often believe that students will get better at sight reading by practicing sight reading. This is true if students already know how to read music, and are trying to improve on what they already can do. But students who cannot read music, or are poor music readers will only practice poor reading and poor reading habits if they are sent off to practice. Music teachers must always equip students to practice before asking them to do so. With this in mind, I have some things students should be able to do before they simply go off and practice sight reading.

First, musical notes represent sounds, not fingerings. If you are teaching a musical instrument, require your students to sing what they are about to play before they play it. Even if they have to sing at a slowed tempo, auditing the pitches before playing them will be a tremendous help. I once tried an experiment with two beginner fifth grade trumpet classes. For one class, I taught them solfege and required them to correctly sing with solfege syllables every line of music before they played it. With the other class, I did  not teach them solfege or require them to sing, but just had them play the music. Both classes used the same method book, and had the same instructional times. The result was that the class that sang was four pages ahead of the class that did not sing by the December concert. Since then, I have found that singing consistently advances students faster in their instrumental music studies. Singers need to separate themselves from pianos. It is my opinion that singers rely far too much on a piano to learn their music. As a result, much of their repertoire is learned by rote, with little audiation taking place. Reading music must involve hearing tones in the imagination where none are physically present. Practicing sight reading must include producing physical sound from the written note, with no help from another sound source. Tuning can be checked with an electronic tuner to avoid inadvertently going flat or sharp.

Second, Western tonal music is composed within the context of tonic-dominant harmonic image05relationships, and of isometric patterns. The natural stresses that are applied by harmonic functions, metrical placement, note duration, and consonance and dissonance are all integral parts of the musical experience. When musicians read music, they must do so in conformance with the written rhythms, meters, beats, and patterns of tension and release that grow out of the rhythmic and harmonic contexts. It is not enough to sing the correct pitches and rhythms, though even this is too often not accomplished, but they must be inflected and interpreted in such a way that the hierarchical structure of Western tonal music is perceptible. The singer or instrumentalist must stress the appogiatura or suspension, must build tension approaching a cadence and release it on the resolution, must realize the subtle but crucial difference between the downbeat of a weak measure and the downbeat of a strong measure, must understand that there are many levels of beats present in music, from the division of the ictus, to the beat of the onset of each four-measure phrase. These are all elements of good music reading, and making them part of what is practiced when sight reading is practiced makes the experience more musical and less pedantic. Sight reading must be about more than pitches and rhythms, because music is much richer than that.

Third, anything that is written represents something that exists in the physical world. The world apple represents a particular variety of fruit. The word is not the fruit, but refers to the fruit, and is the name given to the thing that exists in the physical world that we know to be an apple. A note on a musical staff is not a color, picture, number, or even a solfege syllable, for those are just names for the representation, not the thing itself. The thing itself is the sound–that is what the written note represents. Regardless of what strategy or method is used to teach music reading, ultimately, the written note must be associated with the heard sound, and the student must be able to make the sound so that it is audible in response to seeing the written representation of it. This, I feel, is the step that is frequently overlooked. There is either no sound taught prior to revealing the note, in which case the student cannot know what the note represents, or the sound and written representation are taught simultaneously, which leaves the confused learner to wonder whether the sound represents the written note, or the note represents the sound. We must teach the sound, then the representations. That means sight reading is taught first by teaching the sounds contained in what is to be read, and then associating the sounds which are already familiar, to the notation of them, which is new. That is how sight reading ought to be taught.

Teaching Antecedent and Consequent Phrase Structure in Music

2011Symposium_1_2One of the musical structures we must teach our students is that of phrasing, or what Lerdahl & Jackendoff refer to as grouping. Basic to musical phrases is the concept of antecedent and consequent phrases. Antecedent phrases are complete phrases that end on a pitch of relative instability or tension, resulting in the listener expecting continuation, even after the performer takes a brief pause or breath. Consequent phrases are also complete phrases, but they end on a pitch of relative stability or relaxation, resulting in the listener recognizing the conclusion of the musical thought. Themes, sections, movements and works end on consequent phrases. Very often, consequent phrases end on the tonic, and antecedent phrases end on the dominant. Because antecedent or consequent phrases are defined primarily by the harmonic function of the last note, they are most effectively taught by holding rhythm constant while giving students creative license with pitch. The only stipulation is that the consequent phrase must end on the tonic. It is also possible that students can use elaborative notes in the consequent phrase. Take the melody “Mary Had A Little Lamb” as an example.


Structurally, the first line is a reduction of the second. The quarter notes on beats 3 and 4 of the second measure of the second line reduce to one half note in the first line, and the quarter note on beat 3 of the third measure in the second line is an upper neighbor tone that is omitted in the reduction, in which a half note on D occurs. The last measure of the first line could be reduced further to a whole note on G, the dominant. In its reduced form, the second line is identical to the first except for the last note; the antecedent ends on the dominant and the consequent ends on the tonic. Students can be given the first line, with the further reduced last measure, and then asked to write a consequent phrase ending on the tonic pitch. They would be at liberty to write any diatonic pitches, but to maintain the rhythm of the first line exactly. One possible solution is given below.


Prior learning will include voice leading, analysis of stylistic elements, and skill at audiating so that students do not write down random notes, or notes that are stylistically incompatible with the antecedent phrase provided. Doing this activity with antecedent phrases of different styles and genres provides the opportunity for students to learn about and compare each style or genre represented. Assessment would include ending on the tonic, maintaining the same rhythm  preserving the same style, using diatonic pitches, and observing good voice leading. If student work is handwritten, assessment could also include accurate forming of note heads, stems, measures, clef, and time signature, and the correct number of beats in each measure. Students who do the work on music notation software should nevertheless be asked to demonstrate understanding of notation conventions such as correct length and direction of note stems, and of the metrical arrangement of notes within measures. Technology should never allow students to bypass the learning of concepts.

A great deal of learning can result form this one activity. Phrase structure, style, genre, and notation are all closely related issues in music. This activity fosters an efficient use of time because all of these can be addressed at once in a practical, relevant way; students need to know about and apply their knowledge of style, genre and music notation in order to gain a deep understanding of the target concept, that of antecedent and consequent phrases.



Two Realms of Childhood

2011Symposium_1_2The Core Arts Standards for Music specify standard and/or iconic notation for planning and making musical works, but do not mention using notation of any kind for responding to music. This may be an attempt to keep responding to music accessible to students who have limited music reading skills, but avoids an opportunity to build music literacy and to take advantage of visual representations of musical works as an aid to remembering themes and sections of musical works to which students listen. Using iconic notation can be an effective aid in bringing students to an understanding of form, helping them remember short sections, and can even cue students for singing themes and motives.

Yesterday, as part of a series of lessons on dynamics I am teaching to third grade classes, I had the children listen to the overture to The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart. Part way through the lesson, after they had reviewed pertinent vocabulary and showed changes of dynamics with movement, I began making a listening map of the first minute of the work on the board. It was nothing fancy, just small wiggly lines following the melodic contour for soft passages, and big wiggly lines following the melodic contour for loud passages or chords. As the size of the wiggly lines changed, the children could see where the dynamics changed. Because many of the dynamic changes in this music are sudden, and because there is just one crescendo, the children could recognize where key events occurred by looking at my drawing. They were able to roughly sing the opening minute of the overture by following the lines on the board, without listening to the recording while they did so. Then, again by following the drawing, they were able to anticipate each dynamic change through a combination of remembering where they were and seeing them coming up by looking ahead on the drawing.


All of this teaches students several important things about music. First, that music can be visually represented on paper (or a white board). The music they listen to has “shape” just as drawn lines do. Second, they can use visual representations of music to remind them of how the music goes, and these visual reminders can be used to aid in performing music. These are both characteristics of standard music notation as well as of listening maps, so it is good for young students to get used to using notation for performing and responding to music. Third, certain kinds of visual representation are more helpful for doing these things than others.

At first, many of the children wanted to draw pictures of what the music sounded like. They were eager to tell me the music sounded like an animal, or a person doing something, or what have you. I had to steer them away from that kind of representation to thinking about what the music was actually doing. This suggests to me that music notation, be it iconic or standard, does not necessarily represent music the way children naturally do; that is, music notation does not represent what the music sounds like in the sense of comparing it to real-world or fictionalized world experiences, but instead represents what the music sounds like within a context dedicated only to sounds and the motions and emotions they elicit in human listeners/responders. That is the bridge music educators are building, connecting a child’s context of play, stories, and story characters all encapsulated in an emotional realm of their own, with sounds that tap into that emotionial realm, but apart from stories and characters and instead from the perspective of movment and motion brought about by pitch, rhythm, beat, and timbre. Both contexts can and should co-exist, but the musical context must be developed in children so that they can fully experience music, with all of the richness that is in music and that is beyond the non-musical realm.

What is a Convenient Shorthand for Music Notation Within Word Processing Software?

2011Symposium_1_2When writing lesson plans, I frequently have wished that I had a way of writing melodies quickly and easily on my computer within my word processing software. After attempting to use available symbols on the computer keyboard to contrive stick notation, and then line up solfege syllables I found all of this too time consuming and inconvenient. Some time later, I finally thought of a system that, with practice reading it, would serve my purpose well. I may not be the first to use this system for notating music within word processing software, but I don’t recall being informed of it from any other source.


For many years, I have used Finale music notation software. In the speedy C-Major-Scaleentry mode, entering notes without a midi instrument, numbers are used for note values, and pitches are indicated with the click of the mouse on the desired line or space of the musical staff. In my music notation for word processing, I adapted the numbers, combining them with solfege syllables. Dotted notes have a period following the number, and rests are a dash followed by a number. Time signatures are indicated with a fraction, and key signatures are indicated with linearly placed bs or #s. Tied notes have a number for the second note of the tie, and the tied notes are connected by an underscore.  I will demonstrate the system with the well-known horn solo from the movement “andante cantabile” from Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony.

Figure 1

Andante cantabile from symphony no. 5 by Tchaikovsky

bbb 12/8 mi4 re4 do4| mi5. re6. ti4 do4 re4| fa5. mi6. mi4 fa4 so4| la5. la5 la4 la5._5 la4| la5. so5.—5 –4 mi4 re4 do4| etc.

the three bs indicate three flats in the key signature. 12/8 is the time signature. The first note is mi4. Mi in fixed do solfege is E, and because of the key signature, it is E-flat. Solfege syllables continue in the same way. Measure lines are given with a vertical line

( | ). In the fourth measure, there are two A-flats that are tied; a dotted quarter note tied to a quarter note. These tied notes look like this: la5._5 with la5. being the dotted quarter note A-flat, the underscore being the tie, 5 being the tied quarter note. I am able to type all of those notes quickly, and with practice, can read the solfege for pitches and the number for rhythms, just as I read note heads for pitches and stems and connectors for pitches and rhythms respectively in standard music notation. Using this system also has the advantage of keeping me from seeing standard music notation, just as my students are unable to view it, as I sing to them in solfege, and then have them repeat what I sang. It reminds me of the position I place them in, and it also gives me extra practice using solfege in a purely aural/oral way. If you are working on your fixed do solfege, as I have been this year, writing out and then singing melodies using this system is good practice. For those times when I need to remind myself of a melody I will be teaching, this short-hand system works quite well.


How Much Music Reading Instruction is Enough?

2011Symposium_1_2Recently, I observed that music reading has received minimal attention in the new NCCAS music standards. To be sure, music reading is not necessary for every musical experience. From a global perspective, our Western music notation is not used at all in many places, especially where music culture is preserved within an oral tradition. In the United States, in spite of an extensive symphonic tradition and many fine symphony orchestras and music conservatories, many people enjoy music daily, including classical music, without knowing how to read it. I have argued elsewhere that music reading should be taught, and that it is an important link to great music repertoire and traditions. Still, its importance to the musical culture in which my students exist is not what it once was. The question I want to discuss today is, how prominent should music reading instruction and practice be in music classes? Before I go on, I should define what I mean by music reading. It is looking at music in traditional music notation, hearing it in the imagination, and the playing or singing what has already been internally heard. Gordon calls this audiation. I am not considering merely naming notes or applying a fingering on an instrument as reading music. Naming notes is a skill that facilitates notational audiation, but it is not in and of itself music reading.

To be honest, I could spend every class all year teaching nothing else but i-get-itmusic reading, and guide my students to high levels of proficiency. But that would exclude too much of what else there is to teach them, and it would stretch my students’ patience to the breaking point. No matter how important music reading is, there are other and more fun things to do with music than read notes. On the other hand, without at least some music reading in every class, and all my classes meet once or twice per week for 45 minutes, no meaningful progress can realistically be expected. Contact with reading traditional music notation must be frequent and consistent. Nothing is gained by an occasional diversion into music reading. What’s more, students will not enjoy reading music until they at least begin to get good at it. This requires repetition. An efficient way of teaching and practicing music reading while also teaching other things is needed. Here are a few ideas. I hope you will provide others in the comment section.

  • Have a student sing a few measures of a song that is on their mind, and you transcribe it on the board, and then have the class read the transcription. This is a short warm-up activity, and connects popular music to music notation.
  • Start each class with Gordon tonal patterns from notation. Have them written on the board, and have the class and individuals sing them.
  • Using a 5 x 5 grid of motifs, have students sequence four of them into a melody and then sing the melody they have made. This is a good warm-up activity for a lesson on composition, melodic contour, intervals, style, or, depending on the motifs, can even be a “guess that motif” game.
  • Have each student transcribe a phrase of music you sing or play for them. The phrase should be in the style of the music you will be using for the rest of the lesson. The transcription can then be used as an example, and further studied.
  • Play “name that tune” from music notation.
  • Have students play or sing endings to classical music themes. This is a good way to teach style, as some endings will sound stylistically appropriate than others.

All of these can be done in the first 5-10 minutes of a general music class. Besides giving students regular and consistent contact with music reading, they also help establish the classroom routine of doing reading work as soon as they enter your room. As students become more and more proficient at reading music, they will enjoy the broader world of music that opens before them.

Which Way Is Up?

2011Symposium_1_2The concept of up and down is central to musical understanding and experience. In an earlier post entitled, “Musical Ups and Downs—Why is Contour Important?” I discussed several reasons why this is so. But during formal musical training in early childhood, how up and down is represented is not always readily apparent. Early training in the concept generally includes tracing shapes in the air with the finger, and making sliding sounds that correspond to the direction the finger is travelling. This combining of movement and vocalizing connects sound with the familiar concept of vertical up and down. For example, “my head is up and my feet are down.”

Later, the teacher must transfer this conceptualization of up and down to a more abstract one, drawing up and down lines two-dimensionally on a horizontal surface, such as the floor or paper laid on a desktop. I am speaking of teaching a class of children who are 3 years old.  For this, pieces of yarn can be placed in front of each child on the floor, and the child can make curvy lines with it and then sing sliding sounds along the line of the yarn. To succeed MusicEarat this, a new understanding is necessary. “Away from me is up, and toward me is down.” Some children will have difficulty with this at first. Imitation is necessary to make the switch to this way of representing contour. “Make your finger go away from you, and make your voice go up, like this.” “Make your finger go toward you, and make your voice go down, like this.” I also use dots. Instead of lines, the children stab at the floor with their finger and make staccato sounds each time their finger touches the floor. These staccato sounds can move up and down too.

Later in the lesson, when the children are singing a song, I return to having them “draw” the song they are singing on the floor with their finger. After singing a phrase, I ask them, “does the song go up or down here? Show me how it goes up (or down) with your finger.” I choose a phrase that only goes up or down at first. Then I have them sing the phrase on a neutral syllable while they trace the contour on the floor. After their voices more accurately follow the contour, I return to having them sing the words, but continue to draw the contour with their finger on the floor.

These activities move the children toward more accurate singing. The contours that go up also help move them out of their speaking voices and into their singing voices. Once what their voices are doing doesn’t feel like talking anymore, they are able to handle it for what it is, which is singing. Out of this awareness that singing is different from speaking, comes the realization that they need to handle their voice differently, and be aware of pitch and pitch direction in a way that they speaking does not require. I don’t tell them all this, they just shift their thinking in this way naturally. What I have to do is just get them out of their speaking comfort zone. Training them in this early on sets them up for musical growth during these critical early childhood years, and for high musical achievement later in life.

With Music, The Learning Is In The Doing

2011Symposium_1_2Today, one of my eighth grade classes was composing percussion ensemble pieces. They had begun their works last week, and were continuing composing today. As I circulated through the class, looking at student work and pointing out notational issues that needed to be corrected, I was reminded of how many students make the same errors, even though the material has been taught several times, and was taught often in earlier grades. Perhaps some of these errors are familiar to you from your students: eighth notes with the heads not filled in, an incorrect number of beats in each measure, and beats not lined up vertically in the score. Each student heard my correction, and eventually corrected the notation on their scores, but I sensed that they really didn’t grasp why beats had to be lined up, and why there needed to be a certain number of beats in each measure. I found that lack of application was leaving my students’ learning incomplete.

The activity was planned so that while the students worked on their compositions, even if I hadn’t looked at their notation yet, they could get up with two friends (the pieces were for three instruments) and try out their composition at a “try out corner” where a full compliment of instruments was set up. Students who had not corrected their notation and who went to the try out corner had to deal with their incorrect notation in performance. These students, unlike the ones who only corrected their notation from their seats, quickly understood the repercussions of not having the same number of beats in all staves of a single measure. They couldn’t continue in their performance, because the part with not enough beats always got ahead of the others. They realized why all of those measures had to have the same number of beats: so that all the parts would fit together and come out right on each beat that followed. The application of “how to” was needed to complete the learning sequence. Those that hadn’t played were just following directions, but they weren’t able to understand why following those instructions was necessary.

Students can learn about, or learn how to do many things in music, but until they actually do the thing, learning can be tooi-get-it abstract to be truly understood. If, as David Elliott claims, music is something people do, then it must be in the doing of it that students come to truly understand music. While it is possible to compose percussion parts mostly from mathematical processes—placing the right number of beats in each measure—there are other considerations that may not become apparent until musical processes are applied. Doubled rhythms create strength and bring out a part, complementary rhythms create a transparent texture that allows multiple parts to be heard, and a mixture of metrical and phenomenal accents creates metric tension that cannot be seen on the page.

That the learning is in the doing is probably evident to most when it comes to playing an instrument. Few if any would attempt to learn to play an instrument just by reading or learning from a teacher how to play. Most if not all would recognize that they must actually play the instrument to learn to play it. Music listening is also learned by doing. Some aspects of music are intuitively understood from listening once a musical idiom has become familiar. Hearing patterns of tension and relaxation in music and detecting meter are probably accomplished intuitively with culturally familiar music. For other aspects of music, such as motivic development and theme and variations, students learn about and learn how to first, and then practice listening to gain proficiency in hearing these devices. No one learns how to trace a theme through a set of variations just by learning about the form. The person must actually listen to variations to understand them.

Notice that for each of these ways of making music, multiple competencies must be employed to gain understanding. The composer must also perform, the performer and the listener must also analyze and interpret. When students or teachers try to isolate these things, learning is bound to be incomplete and confused. The applied teacher must not just teach performance, but analysis and interpretation too. The music appreciation teacher must not just teach listening, but analysis, interpretation, music history and music theory too. The composition teacher must not just teach compositions, but interpretation, analysis, performance, and theory too. In each case, the teacher must not just teach about or how to, but also provide the student with opportunities to do. In music, the learning is in the doing.