Teaching students to read music notation: Some strategies

August 5, 2011

Pedagogy

For some reason, I always struggled with teaching students how to read music notation. I think one of the reasons is because there’s usually a huge knowledge gap between beginning students and those who have been doing music for a while. Since junior students (years 8-10) choose new electives every semester, that gap gets wider and wider every six months.

But I seem to have gotten the hang of this sticking point lately, and now all of my juniors – pretty much without exception – are making a decent go of reading music during each lesson. They’ve also learned more theory concepts in the last two weeks, than any of my students in the last six months. That’s not a reflection on the students at all: it’s an indication of how much my own teaching strategies have changed.

So I thought I’d share some of the strategies I’ve been using.

1. STAFF WARS

A big shout-out to Katie Wardrobe for showing me this one. All my classes, from year 8 to year 12, have played this at least once or twice a week since I was introduced to it. It’s fantastic for sight-reading and learning notation. In fact, I even went so far as to set it for homework for my year 8 students last week! I’ve shown it to parents and guests as well.

We had a group of Japanese students visit our school last week, and they joined my senior class. We played STAFF WARS with them, and we had to write the Japanese symbols for the note names underneath the English ones, as they couldn’t read our writing. They loved the game, and everyone was in stitches.

2. “My Personal Soundtrack”

At the beginning of term, about four weeks ago, I got all my students to do some kind of variation of this one. It’s my way of making sure that at least part of the studied repertoire (if not most or all of it) includes music that they are actually interested in and want to learn.

Two separate year levels, by coincidence, are studying some form of film soundtrack-related unit, so I got them to write me a list of their favourite theme songs from movies, television, and computer games.

My seniors are studying world music, so I got them to pick the genres. Celtic, Jamaican, Indian, and Mexican were the ones they chose for this term.

My year tens are in a transition year, preparing for senior music. I got them to fill out a list which I called “My Personal Soundtrack”. This is a type of list I’ve seen in a few different books and websites here and there, and I made my own variation of it:

“My Personal Soundtrack”:

    1. My all-time favourite song
    2. My least favourite song
    3. A song that reminds me of someone
    4. A song that reminds me of a certain place
    5. A song that reminds me of a certain event
    6. A song that describes me
    7. A song that describes someone I know
    8. A song that I would dedicate to my boyfriend/girlfriend
    9. A song that I would dedicate to my ex
    10. A song that I liked when I was little
    11. A song that I like but would be too shamed out to admit it
    12. A song that no one would expect me to like
    13. A song that I find depressing
    14. A song that makes me laugh
    15. A song that I could listen to over and over and never get tired of hearing
    16. A song that I’ve heard way too often and don’t care if I never hear again
    17. A song that I can play
    18. A song that I wish I could play
    19. A song that I used to hate but now love
    20. A song that I used to love but now hate

Students were able to fill out as many or as few as they wished, and keep it anonymous if they wanted to. Obviously I won’t use every song they suggested, but it has given me a really good selection to choose from so things can stay interesting.

3. A new theme every day

This is the main sight-reading exercise I’ve been using lately. I’ve taken to transcribing 4-8 bars of a new song or theme for every lesson, so I’ve always got something new to add to their repertoire. We start by listening to a recording of the theme or song, and doing a bit of analysis. Then I hand out the musical excerpt and project a copy of it up on the IWB.

We revise learned notation and go over any new symbols and concepts together as a class, they take a few minutes to write down the note names (if they need to), and then they go away and try to play it on a keyboard. Usually, most if not all students will make a good attempt at it on their own or in pairs before asking me for help.

The advantage is that, since there’s a new excerpt to learn every single day, students seem to get less bored, and those who prefer familiarity can practise the ones they’ve already seen as well. It’s out of the repertoire they’ve picked, so they’re more likely to be interested. They’re playing the instruments right after analysing the notation, so it’s as practical as I can make it.

I’ve found that the guitar enthusiasts, after a few minutes playing with the keyboards, will pick up guitars and try to work out the theme by ear. Occasionally I’ve written out the TAB for them as well, and I’ll be showing them how to convert from notation to TAB and back, later in the unit.

At the end of the term, each student will be asked to play three excerpts, and maybe I’ll throw in a bit of sight-reading as well.

That pretty much sums up how I’ve been teaching notation reading lately. We haven’t gone too much into writing it as yet, but that will start soon. If you can add some more suggestions below in the comments, that would be great – maybe we can even get a bit of a “strategy list” going!

Creative Commons License
This article by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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About Gabrielle Deschamps

I'm a secondary music teacher, interested in music technology and its integration into classroom pedagogy.

View all posts by Gabrielle Deschamps

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  1. Sharing Music Tech Classroom Ideas Part 1: Australia | Midnight Music - March 5, 2012

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