Teaching Children to Read Music

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40373177


This article was part of a Symposium entitled
Trends in Music Teaching.

This discussion intends to convey to our readers current ideas on the newer trends in the teaching of music.

Three of the articlesthis article, along with Music Education is Coming of Age by Daniel Schuman and A New Curriculum for Secondary General Music by Bennett Reimerdeal with aspects of instruction in music pedagogy. The fourth articleSome Observations on Instruction in Music Theory by Robert Moevscomments on the future of conventional theory teaching. The Editor will welcome observations from readers on this subject.

All four articles appear in SYMPOSIUM Volume 6.

The problem of teaching people to read music has been discussed by music teachers in the United States ever since 1721, when John Tufts published his "Plain and Easy Introduction to the Singing of Psalm Tunes." The primary concern of the eighteenth century New England singing school masters was to teach their pupils how to transform the printed music symbols of the tune books into a joyful noise unto the Lord. Lowell Mason, who introduced music teaching into the Boston schools in 1838 was a singing master, and it is doubtful if his school music classes differed substantially from his work in the singing school.

From Mason's time until well into the twentieth century, our public school music curriculum was almost entirely devoted to music reading. Pedagogues and publishers pooled their efforts and came up with an astonishing array of methodological devices—staffs which gradually expanded from a single line to the customary five lines, charts to teach the syllables for pitch reading, modulators to explain simple key changes, tables to time names, and hundreds of inane little tunes upon which the children were to practice their reading skills.

By about 1920, the music curriculum had expanded to include rhythmic activities, music appreciation, and the study of instruments. Within a few years, today's sixfold program was well-established—singing, rhythms, reading, listening, and instrumental music, with some attention to creative activities and music in drama. In the face of this expanded program, music reading was either exalted or neglected according to the particular interests of the authors and publishers of the period.

Recent school music publications illustrate the situation just described. In some books the concentration on singing, playing instruments, and expressing music through play or dance practically excludes attention to development of reading ability which the children are supposed to obtain by some sort of osmosis. Other books build their program around a repertoire of songs especially composed to teach the fundamental steps of music reading. These books, however, rarely proceed beyond the most elementary stages of notation, and they provide almost no exposure to legitimate music.

Books dealing with the teaching of music in schools all contain some mention of the desirability of teaching children to read music. But, once the subject has been introduced, the degree to which it is developed is determined largely by the author's interest in the subject which, in recent publications, ranges from minimal to considerable. This divergency of viewpoint is perpetuated in college teacher-training courses and is taken by young music teachers into the schools where music reading may or may not receive adequate attention.

There are at least two reasons why I urge a renewal of interest in the subject of reading music in public school classes. First, an emphasis on music reading would do much to stabilize the enigmatical course of our present elementary schools of the United States [ which are ] suffering dreadfully from a lack of direction; the multiplicity of activities carried on in the name of music classes for children is completely out of hand. Music teachers often pride themselves on the lengths to which a song may be stretched—clapping the beat while singing, learning a descant, adding instruments, creating additional verses, making up a dance, capturing the mood of the song in finger paints, dramatizing the story of the song, visiting the violin-maker's shop, doing research on the country from whence the song came, and viewing slides of the teacher's recent trip to Java. Some of these activities are unquestionably valuable, but the classes never seem to progress beyond this state of nervous activity I have just described. So little measurable learning takes place in this volatile atmosphere that I sometimes wonder if music is the one subject in elementary school that can be taught with the same methods, materials, and objectives in grade six as in grade one. If music is to continue as an important part of the school curriculum, it must become a subject that is studied diligently in a dignified manner; as in other subjects, we must be able to evaluate objectively the learning which has taken place. An emphasis on music reading would do much to accomplish these aims.

A second reason for teaching music reading may be found in an examination of the current state of our home and community amateur music making. Somehow, active participation in music must become more widespread. I feel that our secondary schools should have singing assemblies as well as gatherings to listen to the selected a cappella chorus; churches should have vigorous congregational singing in addition to fine anthems by the choir; in addition to supporting the urban professional orchestras, our communities and suburbs should abound with amateur choral and chamber music societies. These developments cannot take place until our populace has, as part of its general education, the ability to translate printed musical symbols into sound. This ability, even in moderate degrees, permits one to study, perform, and hence to understand much of our vast heritage of music, one of our most important expressions of artistic endeavor.

The customary six or eight years of public school music instruction rarely produces an ability to read music which could be called significant. It is more immediately satisfying to have children learn songs by rote; teaching of rudiments is likely to be dismissed as dull and noncreative. This is a regrettable situation because I know from many years of experience that children can be taught to read music fluently; that the ability to read increases immeasurably their comprehension and enjoyment of music, and that such a learning situation need not be dull and joyless.

There is considerable confusion in the very term—music reading. In seeking a definition, I would like to present two cases for your consideration: (1) A child about seven years old is asked to examine a rhythmic pattern placed on the blackboard—vol6id594. After he looks at it for a moment the teacher asks him to chant it aloud. He responds, "Walk, walk, run-run, walk" precisely in the rhythm notated. The teacher hands him a small drum and a beater; he plays the pattern in the rhythm he has just chanted. (2) A noted colleague of mine at the University of Washington plays the piano fluently. He often plays from the full orchestral score, commenting on the construction of the work, unusual harmonic progressions, or unique contrapuntal devices.

These two people represent extremes in the ability to read music; a vast period of maturation and development separates them. On an imaginary line representing the musical growth separating these people we could place, at arbitrary points, other people such as the choral singer who sings rapidly when the music is black and slowly when it is white, the prima donna who learns her part only with the assistance of an energetic note-pounder, and the college music major who plays fugues and sonatas, but is incapable of participating in chamber ensembles.

The music reading Continuum, as I have chosen to call this span of reading skill, is long and complex; few professional musicians travel its entire length. However, a teacher of young children must be able to view the entire Continuum and place her students on a firm basis at the proper point on the scale.

As we consider this Continuum, two familiar principles of teaching should be obvious. First, it is apparent that music reading ability at any point on the scale is dependent upon an amalgamation of the learning experiences previously encountered. There are, altogether, three simple problems to be solved when reading music—when to play the note, what note to play, and how to play it. At any point on the Continuum there must be an immediate and correct solution to these three problems if reading is to take place. A reader returns constantly to problems encountered previously at a lower level on the Continuum. For example, a person playing from a full orchestral score may well be called upon to solve the rhythmic problem which we placed at the bottom of the Continuumvol6id594. Although the notes may be played on different pitches and with dynamic contrasts, the basic problem of vol6id594 remains.

Secondly, any new experience on the Continuum must be logically associated with the learning which has immediately preceded it. Let us suppose the first lessons on the Continuum are confined to the reading of rhythm only. After some facility is gained, the teacher introduces the concept of pitch without reference to the rhythm work. It is very likely that the studies in pitch reading will never really congeal, and unless they are somehow attached to the previous main body of acquired knowledge, will probably wither away. Typically, the teacher then becomes discouraged with the results of her work and gives up the whole plan to teach her class to read in favor of some new rote songs which will correlate with the next social studies unit.

These two items, which together are readily nothing more than carefully planned continuity, are, I feel, the key to a successful program of music reading in elementary school. Simple as the problem appears, teachers wander up and down the Continuum with only the foggiest notion as to what should be done next. A teacher must be able to keep the Continuum as a whole in mind; she must constantly evaluate the progress and capabilities of her students and proceed upward from that point on the Continuum where the evaluation places them. Hit-or-miss flings at clapping rhythms, singing tonal patterns, marching around the room while playing rhythm instruments, and learning the key signature for E major will not produce music readers.

This paper cannot cover in detail the many steps of the Continuum which apply to music reading in elementary school. There are, however, several broad areas of music reading development which I consider worthy of more attention than seems to be accorded them today.

Before any attempt is made to familiarize the child with the intricacies of printed music notation, it is absolutely essential that he experience a wide variety of musical activities. Programs of music reading are often begun too early—before a sufficient variety and depth of musical experience has been gained by the child. A child's pre-school music experience is likely to be rather sketchy. Many children have musical toys available from an early age; mothers (and fathers) may sing to their babies, and children today are exposed to a great deal of music through recordings, television, and radio. However, unless a child is raised in a musically active home, he will arrive in kindergarten or first grade with a low level of experience in music participation.

The primary grade teacher is, therefore, faced with the problem of raising the child's musical experience level by means of activities which require his active participation. It is my general impression that music teachers and primary classroom teachers often err in trying to interest children in music which is much too complicated. Catchy, pseudo-commercial-popular songs, with tricky accompaniments, should be removed from the primary grades in favor of experimentation with rhythm, pitch, timbre, and dynamics—the basics of music. Observe the two-year-old beating tirelessly on a drum, box, or kitchen utensil; or the somewhat older child improvising a rhythmic chant on two notes a minor third apart. They are fulfilling a need for personal expression, and if this need is blocked by the teacher's insistence that the child play on the unaccented beats, alternating with her playing on the accented ones, the first cracks in the music reading Continuum may be created right at the very foundation.

There should be much emphasis on creativity in children's musical activity; it is essential that every child be encouraged to create his own text to simple melodic patterns, to construct his own little melodies, and to present his own interpretations. With encouragement, children quickly learn to improvise songs about daily experiences such as coming to school, climbing a tree, or riding on the bus. A teacher with a good ear can easily construct simple accompaniments to these child creations and help the rest of the class learn to sing them. When a child of six sees his song on paper and hears his peers singing it, the expression in his eyes and on his face will convince one that further learning along these lines is possible.

Admittedly, this creative atmosphere is difficult to generate and maintain; young music teachers are notably non-creative. Whatever creativity they may have possessed in childhood becomes lost during years of practicing, completing endless exercises in theory, and performing in dictator managed ensembles. Teachers who have struggled for years to learn the great song cycles often have trouble improvising a three-tone song and even more trouble in expressing enthusiasm for simple songs created by their classes. The teacher must see each activity in its proper place on the music reading Continuum and realize the many steps that are to be traversed before the children reach her level of musical experience.

As a powerful, motivating factor in a music reading program for elementary school, I strongly advocate the teaching of a keyboard instrument. There are thousands of pianos waiting to be played in homes throughout the United States; electric organs are also in wide use. The keyboard is a familiar item in most children's experience.

The advantages of the piano are many. True, it is relatively immobile, but is practically indestructible; it does not require tuning each time it is played; a child may play and sing simultaneously; melodies may be accompanied, and creative improvisation is possible by two or more players. Furthermore, it is a legitimate instrument with a vast body of great music literature which can scarcely be said for most of the so-called classroom instruments in vogue today.

I am not advocating class piano lessons which begin on middle C, but rather improvising on black keys, playing tone-clusters in the upper register, and making simple ostinati to accompany singing. By the end of the third grade, children should be able to locate specific notes from their songbooks on the keyboards. Children should take turns playing the keynote and the first tone of a song, and by the time they are in the intermediate grades, they will be able to play simple melodies. Most of our elementary music books contain the chord indications for harmonization and with a little instruction, apt children learn to use them easily.

The foregoing paragraph describes my conception of substantial legitimate instruction in music which may be carried on in the elementary classroom. From the day a child enters school, it should be possible for him to proceed slowly and steadily along the Continuum. By the end of the sixth grade, he will not be playing from full orchestral scores, but he will have laid a foundation that may permit him to do so later. A child in the sixth grade should be able to sing at sight a diatonic melody of not more than a tenth in range and whose rhythmic complexities are not great. He should be able to play these melodies on the piano. He should understand the concept of key and know the most common tempo and dynamic indications. These abilities constitute what I consider to be a reasonable accomplishment in music reading for children in the sixth grade.

How joyous it would be if my university chorus members had these basic abilities! Most of them are still struggling with vol6id594.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 14/11/2018

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