Teaching Kids To Read Music

By Dr. Jane M. Kuehne, Auburn University

Beginning teachers often struggle with the daily routine of teaching. In some cases, they may apply for a job, interview and begin teaching students in a little as a two-week span. As much as their music and music education professors try to prepare them, ultimately, the tasks required for successful teaching fall on the teacher and it is up to each individual to take up the exciting challenges of teaching.

One thought that can give new teachers (or any teachers) pause is the idea that they are responsible for teaching kids everything they need to know in order to successfully read music. If this causes anxiety, it can be exacerbated when high school teachers tell middle school teachers, and middle school teachers tell elementary teachers, ―You need to do a better job getting kids up to par on their music reading skills. All at once, it seems that the responsibility for teaching kids to read music has rolled down the hill to sit at the feet of a music teacher teaching kindergarten students.

Where do you begin? One person might say, "Start with solfège. Kids must know solfège!" Another might disagree and say, "No, they have to know the numbers for each note in the scale." A third might argue, "You must begin with the staff. Kids must know all of the letter names on the grand staff." Got all of that? Okay, get to work. Seriously, any or all of these suggestions would be fine, except that these do not say where to begin, only what the end result should be. So, in the words Michael Feinstein, "Where Do You Start?" (1987). Where else but the MENC National Standards?

There are nine MENC National Standards (1994) and each focuses on an important way of knowing in music. Using these to guide lesson planning and teaching can help new (and not-so-new) teachers focus on teaching music comprehensively, rather than focusing singular elements. When students achieve in each of the nine, they gain a background of musical information that is necessary for learning to read music. Let us look at the nine standards and think about music reading.

Standard 1: Singing Alone and With Others a Varied Repertoire

When children learn to sing large amounts of melodies within many different harmonic structures, they are also learning to hear those melodies. Often teachers expect that music reading will come naturally and begin with staff notation. Without the foundation of hearing and then singing those melodies, students are missing an essential part of music reading. If they have never heard it before, how can they be expected to read it from a page? When does singing begin? It most likely begins on day one in Kindergarten. So by the time a student reaches a middle school vocal or instrumental program, he or she should have a wealth of singing knowledge from which to draw information necessary for singing or playing patterns in music. He or she has a better chance at learning to anticipate because of the aural background received over many years of singing and has fewer steps in the process of learning to read musical notation.

Standard 2: Performing on Instruments, Alone and With Others
Similar to number one, students may have a difficult time entering a secondary-level music program and learning to read if they have not played instruments. This does not mean that all of the elementary teachers must now also teach beginning band. No, this means teachers should have all children play many different melodies with different harmonic structures using both pitched and unpitched instruments. As with the first standard, hearing and interpreting melodies and harmonies is a foundation. If a sound or sequence of sounds is unfamiliar, then students will have difficulty reproducing it on an instrument (or voice). Since part of successful music performance is anticipating, having the aural training is necessary to anticipate subsequent pitches, for example in a scalar or arpeggiated passage. Without the wealth of knowledge playing many different melodies and harmonies on instruments brings, students begin in a secondary music program ill-prepared and teachers at that level must fill in the missing gaps of information needed to begin to read notation.

Standard 3: Improvising Melodies, Variations, and Accompaniments
If students can learn to hear music in a way that allows them to freely improvise melodies and variations using many different accompaniments or harmonic structures, this is definitely a key to beginning to read music. Inner hearing and at least some understanding of a musical structure, even it if it first graders improvising on a pentatonic scale, can lead to music reading. If students can improvise with their voices or on instruments, melodies that sound good with the I, IV, and V chords, then they have a better chance at quickly understanding what similar melodies look like on a staff. In addition, these skills become part of the child‘s background in music and contribute to his or her ability to anticipate what should come next.

Standard 4: Composing and Arranging Music Within Specified Guidelines
One must remember that composing music does not necessarily mean a child is notating music (writing it out or putting it into notation software). When a child is putting his or her own musical ideas in an order that makes sense, he or she is composing. It stands to reason if musical ideas a present, they may also be part of the necessary aural background a student must have to begin reading music. When students think about how music is constructed, and then construct their own music, they gain personal understanding of necessary musical concepts, like melodic and harmonic structure and form. All of these contribute to the music reading process.

Standard 5: Reading and Notating Music
This one seems fairly obvious, but what is it really saying? Reading and notating music requires many skills. Complete a task analysis to determine the first necessary concept is in the reading part of this standard. Could it be steady beat? That is a concept that begins in Pre-Kindergarten or Kindergarten and remains an important part of all musicians‘ professions, from novice to expert. This is where teachers begin helping students turn their aural understanding of music into symbolic representation, turning sounds into notation. All of the information they have gained through the previous four and the next four standards is used to help students connect symbolic in-formation (staff notation) to aural and performance information.

Standard 6: Listening to, Analyzing, and Describing Music
Listening to and analyzing music is an excellent way to expose students to melodies and harmonies they need to internalize for successful music reading. It is this internalization that can help a student see notation for a I chord in C Major, understand that it is a Major triad, and hear it internally just by thinking about it. If students have never heard musical cadences, or thought about the purpose of a cadence, they will have a difficult time anticipating and singing or playing the correct pitches when a cadence comes. If they have heard suspensions in different recordings, then those whose parts generally perform the suspensions (often altos and tenors in choral music) can see it visually and make sense of it aurally because they know what a suspension sounds like. Understanding that music has a structural form can inform both a listener and performer. Knowing that ABA means the first part returns and will be close to the same, if not exactly the same, is important. Music readers who understand form, even on the most basic level, know to expect the same information when the A section comes around again.

Standard 7: Evaluating Music and Music Performances
This standard integrates well with the other nine standards. Evaluating music and music performances is necessary for students to learn to make their own judgments about music. As a musician‘s aural background grows through listening and learning to evaluate (either self or others) they will be able to make their own decisions about what they perceive as high (or low) quality music and/or performance. Evaluating a performance is necessary, especially on the first go round. If music educators teach serious evaluation, instead of moving on with "Okay, that was fine," students will gain evaluative skills and make improvements based on self and other‘s evaluations. This is a skill that is necessary for reading music. Most often what is played or sung is notated (of course there is an exception for folk music). Seriously evaluating a performance can lead students to hear discrepancies between the score and the sound that can improve their own reading and performance.

Standard 8: Understanding Relationships Between Music, the Other Arts and Disciplines Outside the Arts

Meeting standard eight requires students to think about music in a new way, for example comparing a musical style with a similar style in art (like Impressionism) for a fuller understanding overall. When students explore music as a part of the world as a whole, rather than a singular element, they gain perspective. So how does this re-late to music reading? Using Impressionism as an example again, if teachers use this alternate way of showing style visually as well as aurally, students would then have a visual idea of Impressionism that can be transferred to performance practice. Another example is as small as using mathematical fractions to teach time signatures, something that music educators often do, since there are mathematical elements in music, from rhythm structure to acoustics.

Standard 9: Understanding Music in Relation to History and Culture
Since music is not a stagnant or unchanging medium, students must be aware of its place in their own and other cultures and they must understand how a piece of music fits in the musical history, even those works that are considered popular in nature. How does this relate to music reading? Understanding history can lend a better understanding of how and why certain music was created. Thinking historically, students could have a clearer understanding of new piece, just by calling to mind that Mozart created it. Understanding Mozart‘s time and place, reading an unfamiliar work by him for the first time can also incorporate style and technique required for appropriate interpretation. Another example is understanding where a popular musical composition fits culturally and in musical development. This can lend information for reading and interpretation. When students understand how to use history, they know that a song by the Beatles would not be performed the same as an excerpt from one of Mozart‘s masses.

Concluding Thoughts
When the community of music educators joined to create the National Standards for the Arts (1994), those pioneers set forth a way to teach music comprehensively that would incorporate all of the many areas in music that exist. Music reading is one part, but it, like all of the standards is dependent upon each one of the other standards. Teachers using the national standards as a guide most likely teach comprehensively and have students who are musically skilled with the knowledge and background necessary for future participation in music.

Before we can expect students to read music, we first have to teach them music. As teachers, we must open our minds to the possibility that this thing we call music is really many concepts and skills all expertly woven together and the ability to read it is dependent upon knowledge, understanding, and skills in all areas of music.

Mandel, J., Bergman, A. and Bergman, M. (1987). Where do you start? [Recorded by Michael Feinstein]. On Isn‘t it romantic? [CD]. New York: Electra Asylum.
MENC (1994). National Standards for Arts Education. Reston: MENC, 1994.

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