Teaching pitch and notation skills to students

Teaching of pitch reading skills is a difficult task for music educators. Sight-singing, a part of the NSW Music 2 HSC examination, can be a difficult area of the course for both teachers and students. I have found in my teaching students who have come from a singing or orchestral background, in general, are better sight-singers. This is a sweeping generalisation though. I have no real data to back up this claim. However, it’s been my observation from over 25 years of HSC music teaching.

Following are some suggestions for the teaching of music reading skills and sight-singing which may be useful for teachers in preparation for HSC performance examinations. This is not a comprehensive list of activities, rather, it is based on some prior research on singing accuracy, audiation, aural identification, and notation reading.

It is important to understand that students will progress at a different pace and to be prepared to adjust and adapt as each student overcomes the challenges in notation reading and sight-singing. Importantly, it is understanding that notation and sight-singing skills are sequential and one skill will build upon another.

Keywords Pitch, notation, audition, sight-singing

Music notation reading and its importance in music education is a hotly debated topic. In many cultures, music notation reading and associated skills do not exists and the music tradition is purely aural based. Music notation reading seems to be a mostly western-driven concept and requirement for music education. It is often associated with being a professional musician.

Learning to read staff notation: Often neglected

Learning to read staff notation is considered but one dimension of music literacy. However, music literacy is considered a foundational requirement in Australian Music Curriculum at school and post-school levels. It is also considered one of the most neglected areas of a music competency and in need of improvement (Asmus, 2004; Demorest, 2004; Mills & McPherson, 2016).

More than a translation of symbols

Music reading is more than the translating of symbols into sounds. There are complex elements of decoding of pitch and rhythm elements which need to occur almost simultaneously although often taught separately (Gordon, 1997). Furthermore, the understanding of how pitch and rhythm relate to each other, is a further mental process that many students do not grasp in the context of a sight-reading exercise. Pitch and rhythm needs to be deconstructed and subsequently constructed into aural images first before they can be translated into sounds. Taking this a step further, sight-singing needs all of the above plus the ability to physically produce these sounds without the aid of an instrument.

Theories of music notation

Theories of music notation reading can explain some of the ways music reading ability develops, but it is not comprehensive. One such theory is Bruner’s (1966) cognitive develop process. The process involves three stages of modes of representation — enactive, iconic, and symbolic. Enactive is where the individual learns by interacting with the environment and demonstrates through physical action. Iconic is when the individual is able to use icons to visually represent those concepts. The final stage, symbolic, is where an individual represents concepts with more abstract code. In the case of music reading, this is notation.

Examples of Bruner’s cognitive development in music reading would be the following: enactive stage is represented by learning about pitch. Students use body movement and singing to represent pitch and rhythm. The iconic stage is where students aim represent previously learnt pitch and rhythmic concepts as graphic notation, pictures, etc. The symbolic stage is where students aims to represent pitch and rhythm with more abstract and precise symbols as found in music notation.

Gordon (1997) wrote about notational audiation. This is a theory of how conceptual understanding develops as we learn music. Gordon’s theory requires students to develop their audiation skills, that is, hearing musical sounds in their minds. This theory has several levels of progress.

The first level is the aural/oral level. Students learn patterns aurally and imitate these patterns by vocalising. The next level is verbal association where students associate tonal and rhythmic syllables to note patterns. The next level is partial synthesis level where students uses these tonal and rhythmic patterns performing at an almost unconscious level. The final level is the symbolic level where students apply notation to the sounds they have been partially synthesising at level 3.

More than one approach

As can be seen, there are many ways to approach learning to read music notation and to learn to sing-sing. No one way is more superior too the other but what is common is the inclusion and combination of physical, aural, and notational activities.

Singing Accuracy for Sight-Singing: Solfège

Teaching students to sight-sing requires they are able to target pitch relationships accurately. Solfège is one way students can begin to accurately reinforce pitch relationships such as interval distance. Teachers lead students singing pitch patterns of limited note range. Perform the pitch patterns with the same rhythmic values os that pitch is reinforced and little attention need be paid to rhythm at this stage. Allow a small amount of time at the end of each pitch pattern to allow students to audit the pitches before they being singing the pattern to the teacher.

Curwin hand signs can be used to represent the sol-fa pitch. The teacher can also indicate following notes to be sung with the use of hand signs as a way of reinforcing audiation. When students achieve consistency at this level they can proceed to singing pitch patterns indicated only by hand signals. This stage allows students to accurately audiate and sing correctly the intervallic relationship between a set of pitches and build mental associations of these pitch relationships.

The next crucial stage is having students formulate a mental image of the sounds without the sounds presented to them through hand signals. This is an internal hearing stage. Start by echo singing pitch patterns and including hand signs. Going on, use hand signs only without singing the pattern to the students. Have the students sing to signed patterns from the teacher.

The next stage is the interpretation of standard music notation. This can prove difficult for some students. An intermediate stage is to use icons representing the sol-fa syllables and hand signs. Letters d, r, m, f, s, l ,t the solfège syllables with a traditional written notation example accompanying the solfeggi icons. At this point, pitch and rhythm are combined.

Below is an example from 185 Unison Pentatonic Exercises by Denise Bacon (1978).

Example of Pentatonic solfège exercises bu Denise Bacon (1978).
185 Unison Pentatonic Exercises by Denise Bacon (1978).

As students master these exercises and skills, they will become proficient at aurally identifying pitches, formulating aural images, and pitch relationships to begin to be able to sight-sing with confidence. Using an example above makes notation reading less challenging. Students have already acquired the skills for solfège singing and the aid of solfège notation to build their aural imagery.

Eventually, the solfège notation is removed and students begin to sing using traditional notation only. They will have developed skills in being able to visually spot intervals and melodic relationships in staff notation. Teachers can go back and forth between notation and solfège notation to improve and solidify audiation of pitches and increase the level of difficult of interval and rhythmic patterns. The understanding of the visual position of music one the stave is a key skill. At this stage students do not need to learn to read the letter names of notes.

This looks like an involved process and it is. Each stage needs to be well learnt and then built upon. Skipping stages can lead students to missing key aural skills and discernment of intervals and rhythms. Moving forward and backward to learn new and revise current skills is important to solidify the learning.

It’s difficult to achieve perfection in the classroom, particularly when lack of time and crowded curriculum is an issue. Not forgetting, currently this aspect of the Music 2 performance examination with worth 5 marks, so its worth spending the time on giving students the best opportunity to succeed.

© iteachpiano 2020

Gordon, E. E. (1997). Learning sequences in music: Skill, content, and patterns: A music learning theory. Chicago, IL: GIA.

Bruner, J. S. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Reifinger, J. L. (2019). Teaching pitch notation–reading skills. General Music Today, 0(0), 1048371319891419.

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