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Learning to read music in a 'musical' way

It's sadly so common for beginner and elementary students to lose motivation and confidence when starting to read music notation. I think this is primarily because it is often taught in a dry, abstract way, devoid of musical expression or understanding. No wonder students quickly lose interest!

I've just watched an absorbing presentation from Gregory Chase Ed.M (Mus)., B.Mus., ARCT, RMT at the NCKP 2023 Online Piano Conference. He has some excellent tips for learning to read music notation in a 'musical' way.

The most important tip is to focus on comprehension - in other words, students need to understand what they are reading. This leads to audiation, which is the ability to internally 'hear' and understand the music we read, even when there is no external sound. It is thinking in the language of music.

Principles of successful audiation:

1. Reading notation is a 4-stage process. 1: Students learn to track their eyes across the grand stave, left to right, and line by line. 2: They need to recognise specific pitch patterns and rhythm patterns, and then 'chunk' them into larger melodic pattern groups. 3: Students then need to hear these melodic patterns in their heads, with their 'thinking voice'. 4: Finally, the student can audiate - i.e. hear the music in their head, with understanding.

2. It's all about patterns. Our brains are hard-wired to find patterns. We tend to group similar objects, make connections between objects, link objects that are in close proximity and look for symmetry. We can use this tendency to our advantage when learning to read music notation, by focusing on learning pitch patterns and rhythm patterns, rather than isolated notes.

3. Building a music vocabulary. Students can't understand if they don't have the words to describe what they are hearing.

4. Separate rhythm from pitch. Rhythm vocabulary includes: macrobeats, microbeats, duple, triple and irregular meters, division, rests, ties, etc. Pitch vocabulary includes: tonality (major, minor, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian), and functions like tonic, dominant etc. Gregory Chase recommended using a moveable Do and La-based minor when singing pitches, and rhythm language to chant rhythmic patterns.

5. Model the sound. Just like language acquisition, the first step in understanding is to listen, then copy/imitate. All rhythm patterns and pitch patterns need lots of regular practice, listening and copying the teacher. This is all done aurally, without reference to written music notation, until the student can confidently improvise using these rhythm and pitch pattern elements. This indicates that learning is secure, and the student comprehends.

6. Highlight patterns on the score. With the student, look at the written score of a piece of music and colour code in brackets the different rhythm patterns you can see. Then colour code in brackets the different pitch patterns you can see. For each pattern, ask the student to sing (pitch pattern) or chant (rhythm pattern) copying the teacher, then audiate (student 'hears' it in their head), and then ask the student to play the pattern. Notice that melodic patterns are the combination of rhythm and pitch patterns put together.



NCKP 2023: The Piano Conference - Online Event (2023), Taking A Musical Approach to Reading Notation, Whova [Online Platform], (Accessed 3 July 2023).



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