20 February 2010

Music notation: suggested teaching methods

At a more basic level, I came across the following resource for teachers which suggests different ways to familiarise pupils with music notation (http://www.name2.org.uk/proj/h2t6.php). Some of these methods could be adapted to suit other representations of sound/noise.

Hard-to-teach area 6:

Teaching notation

Teacher feedback: Some teachers say they find it hard to teach notation and motivate pupils. There was evidence that this is perhaps because their approach is based on their own very traditional background. There is a tendency toward over-reliance on standard notation without due consideration to whether it is the best for the learning context.

KS3 context: The English National Curriculum for Key Stage 3 music includes a requirement to study "staff notation and other relevant notations in a range of musical styles genres and traditions" (3d). In KS2 pupils will almost certainly have encountered graphic notation and graphics software, but many may not be familiar with standard notation at transition. In KS4 familiarity with standard notation makes it easier to achieve higher examination grades.

Index of teaching notation ideas

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Principle 1: Ensure a musical objective

A KS3 lesson should not narrowly set out to 'teach music notation' for its own sake. This lacks true musical purpose and relevance. Instead, the learning task should have a real musical objective and, if encountered at all, standard notation should be of some genuine benefit in achieving that objective. If there is a more appropriate way of achieving the objective then standard notation probably has no place.

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Principle 2: Consider an informal learning context

Notation is used in various ways throughout Musical Futures models, but is brought in after practical activity has been introduced. Pupils develop an understanding of why notation is useful – for example because they need to make a record of what they have been working on in a lesson. The teacher can then show them a relevant way of doing this.

In the informal learning model, where student are directing their own learning, they often request that they source notation, guitar tab, chords etc, usually from the Internet. They start to develop an understanding of notation in this way because it is meaningful to them. It is directly relevant to the activity they are pursuing and the goals they want to achieve. Find out more about the Musical Futures approach at www.musicalfutures.org.uk.

The Internet is a rich source of notations of many types, especially chords, lyrics and guitar tabs for well-known rock and pop songs. Just use any standard web search engine and search for song titles.

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Principle 3: Always keep notation appropriate to need

Bear in mind that there are many ways of representing sound visually: waveforms, grids, contours, chord symbols, guitar tablature, sol-fa, etc. (some of these are described in the ideas below). Ask yourself whether you are using the most appropriate kind of notation for the actual learning need. An interesting case study comparing the effect of using graphic, staff and waveform notations for the same learning task appears in the KS Music Strategy materials at http://www3.hants.gov.uk/music/unit4-p17.htm

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Idea 1: Use waveforms as notation

A waveform is a scientific representation of a sound, as shown below.

Waveforms require very little explanation to pupils. They represent much less of a hurdle to understanding than standard notation but are limited in the amount of detail they convey. Depending on the horizontal zoom, a typical waveform can indicate:

  • when instruments start and stop playing (wave shape or flat line).
  • whether a sound is quiet (shortish waves) or loud (taller waves).
  • overall dynamic shapes and where a dynamic climax occurs.
  • rhythms on a proportional linear scale (but time-related, not beat-related).


  1. Graphics derived from sound waves are used in many sound editing programs, e.g. Audacity, which is available for PC, Mac and Linux and can be downloaded free of charge from http://audacity.sourceforge.net/download.
  2. In this Powerpoint presentation (12.3MB - this will take some time to load!) waveforms were chosen as the most accessible way to guide listening to the interplay of solo and ripieno in a concerto model. The resource is from a year 9 module called 'Concerto Conversations', which is part of the Practical Support Pack at www.teachernet.gov.uk/supportpack/module.aspx?t=2&s=12&y=42,43,44&p=&m=21562
  3. Waveform display was chosen for the Sound Explorer user interface developed specifically for the SoundJunction website (standard notation is also available by clicking a button). Read about the Explorer tool at www.soundjunction.org/explorertoolhelp.aspa, then click the Sound Explorer link in the left column to use it yourself. Why do you think waveform notation was chosen for the main display?

To make your own waveform graphic:

  1. Record or load your audio file into any program that displays it as a waveform.
  2. Adjust the horizontal and vertical zoom to suit your purpose.
  3. Use any screen capture program to save your chosen area of the screen as a graphics file.
  4. That graphics file can now be imported into a word processor, presentation, publishing program, etc.

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Idea 2: Use a piano grid / pitch contour as notation

Piano grids are provided in nearly all MIDI sequencers. They are fairly intuitive to understand, even to non-pianists. The horizontal scale (zoom) can be changed for different purposes but, unlike standard notation, symbol width is exactly proportional to duration. Piano grids convey precise information about:

  • individual note pitches, including within chords (vertical position)
  • beat position (horizontal position)
  • note length and articulation (symbol width and separation)
  • dynamics (not indicated below, but sometimes shown in a separate area under the grid or within each individual symbol).

The diagram below shows note lengths and articulation with more precision than is possible using standard notation (with none of the arcane squiggles and dots). Syncopation can also be shown without complications. Using a sequencer's piano grid edit screen is much more straightforward than its score edit screen. Try notating the phrase below as standard notation and consider how much more knowledge that requires, with no added musical insight.

Mixcraft's piano grid editor (www.acoustica.com/mixcraft)

Pitch contours often look like reduced piano grids. They are usually drawn without the grid and sometimes with non-horizontal lines and curves that indicate ongoing pitch directions rather than discrete events. They sacrifice precision for a less cluttered overall impression.

Matching pitch contour shown on Mixcraft's arrange screen

SoundJunction's Note Canvas tool (www.soundjunction.org/notecanvastool.aspa) is a free online tool intended for educational use. It shows a piano grid and also overlays a sloping contour shape. It is intended that this tool will eventually include a standard notation view option. You can discover some of its other features by opening the Note Canvas tool demo from the link in the introductory text on that page.

To make your own grid/contour graphic

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Idea 3: Use chord symbols

Chord symbols are most appropriate for activities when a harmonic framework is required but there is a need for some freedom of choice in how the chords are realised. Chord symbols are also helpful to indicate a context for more experienced melodic improvisers.

Band in a Box (www.band-in-a-box.com) is available for Windows and Mac computers. It is a powerful program that can:

  • generate backing accompaniments to user-defined chord progressions in a broad range of musical styles.
  • analyse audio recordings and generate matching chord symbols.
  • play its own 'intelligent' melodic improvisations according to settings chosen by the user.
  • record live input via a microphone or MIDI instrument.
  • suggest chords and alternatives that would match a given melody.
  • display its realisations using standard notation.
  • do many other things! (browse the website for more information)

These features allow users to make creative musical decisions without needing a sophisticated existing knowledge of standard notation. This can keep motivation buoyant. Inspecting the resulting notation can then help to improve understanding in a way that is relevant to a musical task. Scores can also be printed out for use in live performance.

Band in a Box screen content can appear quite complex and KS3 pupils will need clear advice and guidance if they are to use it successfully on their own. This is one of the programs included in an optional face-to-face ICT component of the Trinity/OU CPD programme for KS2 music teachers. A time-limited free demo version is available for download from the Band in a Box website and there are several video tutorials there to get you started.

To make your own chord symbol sheet

  • For simple chord symbols, any word processor will probably do fine.
  • Alternatively, you can print out more advanced chord symbols using software such as Band in a Box or from many standard music notation programs (see idea 6 below).

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Idea 4: Use world music notations

Bear in mind that the Key Stage 3 curriculum specifies 'notations' in the plural. Many localised styles and genres across the world have developed their own notation conventions. These are usually very efficiently matched to the features of the particular style. Unfortunately they are not generally amenable for ICT handling without a dedicated program.

Symbols can certainly be created and duplicated within generic drawing software but the process might be less efficient than using pencil and paper. This is therefore an area of notation where it is often best to avoid using ICT.

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Idea 5: Use graphic and pupil-devised notations

Bear in mind that the Key Stage 3 curriculum specifies 'notations' in the plural and that pupils will have encountered graphic notations in Key Stage 2.

Getting pupils to devise their own notation symbols is a good way of getting them to think more deeply about the nature of sounds, textures and structures. They should already have used graphic notations in Key Stage 2. Getting them to discuss whether everybody can 'read' their graphic notations and produce sounds as they intended is a good way to introduce standard notation.

Some programs, such as Sibelius' Groovy Music series (www.sibelius.com/products/groovy), are designed around this kind of use of graphic notation and are also capable of representing the same sounds using standard notation. A program such as this might be a useful transitional tool across the key stages.

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Idea 6: Use standard notation software wisely

Many programs focus on producing standard music notation of publication quality. These range from expensive professional software to freeware with limited features (see below for some examples). There is little doubt that, if standard notation is a suitable vehicle for the learning task in hand, notation software can have several advantages over hand-written methods:

  • Nearly all programs are capable of playing back the music that is displayed. This develops critical listening skills as pupils check whether music they have entered gives the desired result.
  • A visible playline moves across the score as the music plays, which makes it almost impossible for listeners to 'lose their place'.
  • Making changes is quick and easy, e.g. changing a single pitch or transposing an entire phrase up an octave.
  • It is easy to copy whole sections of music without having to re-enter every symbol.
  • Results look neat. (Teachers should remember that this is always the case with notation software, even if musicality is poor. Any marks awarded for neatness have no bearing on musical ability.)
  • Most programs allow realtime performance entry via MIDI, in time with a metronome click. The program will show what was played using standard notation. Potentially, this makes it possible for pupils to include chromaticism and syncopated or complex rhythms that they may not yet fully understand how to notate. (In practice, this sometimes produces unexpected notation unless appropriate settings are made.)

In many programs it is impossible to put the wrong number of beats in a bar – rests and ties are drawn automatically by the software. In other programs this is not the case and pupils need to be responsible for understanding and checking for mistakes themselves. Teachers should consider which is more desirable.

Teachers can use notation software to prepare their own teaching resources. Some programs offer free browser plugins so that notation files can be played interactively (but not edited) in a web browser. (See www.sibelius.com/scorch for more information about one such plugin.) The full notation software does not need to be installed on the computer to use the browser plugin. This opportunity is useful when preparing resources for a Learning Platform or a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), which may need to be accessed from any network computer or from home.

Some programs make it quick and easy for teachers to generate traditional-style music notation worksheets for pupils. These can reinforce understanding of notation and other aspects of music theory. Many teachers use these as a standby for staff absence.

Before asking pupils to use a notation program in KS3, teachers should consider whether pupils are likely to be able to produce a musical product that they would be happy with. If not, their creativity would be restricted and they might become frustrated or disillusioned – a more appropriate vehicle should be chosen. With notation software, a carefully defined, realistic and musical pupil task is more likely to be appropriate in KS3 than a free composition. At KS4 and above there are stronger reasons to channel free creativity through notation software.

Some prominent scorewriting software contenders include Sibeliuswww.sibelius.com), the Finale family (www.finalemusic.com), which includes a free introductory version called NotePad, Notion (www.notionmusic.co.uk) and Personal Composer (www.personalcomposer.co.uk). You should search and explore websites to compare for yourself as there is simply too much information to summarise here. (

Programs such as Words and Music (www.topologika.com) are different in that they are designed specifically for use across the primary/secondary transition. It is possible to switch between standard and graphic notations and also to compare major and minor versions of the same tune. This program also has special features for adding lyrics.

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Idea 7: Consider interactive notation activities

Several publishers sell collections of simple-to-use interactive applications that can be used with a whole class on an interactive whiteboard, perhaps as lesson starter activites. Some collections include skill development activities that are notation-based.

The interactive nature of ICT resources can encourage engagement through promoting a sense of ownership and competition. If pupils can easily make up their own notation patterns they can challenge each other to play what they have made and thereby improve their musical skills. Manipulating notation symbols in a computer grid is much more flexible than using traditional flashcards.

The linked activity below will launch a free demo version of an application to improve basic rhythm reading/performing skills. Users can devise their own rhythm patterns and show them either as intuitive simple blobs or as the equivalent standard notation.

from Interactive Whiteboard Activities for Music (Badger Publishing)

Using ICT offers the potential to flick quickly between the two and so strengthen association of symbols. The user's ability to rotate the grid presents an entirely new but related challenge that would be difficult to implement in the physical world. The success of this type of activity depends largely on how the teacher manages the classroom situation to set appropriate challenges and goals for pupils.

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