A vast range of experiences in Listening and responding, Performing and Composing throughout the curriculum can be enjoyed by children without reference to music reading and writing. Nevertheless, knowledge of the rudiments of music literacy permits access to a whole realm of deeper knowledge, skills and understanding. For the child, some of the benefits of being musically literate include the ability to
- explore new music independently
- record his/her own music for future retrieval or revision
- share his/her own music with others and observe how others interpret and perform it
- understand how another composer created music and achieved certain effects
- think in sound, which contributes to better musicianship
- develop an appetite for future learning in music.
Music reading and writing should be preceded and succeeded by extensive experience of listening and responding, performing and composing without notation. Children at all levels should encounter rich and enjoyable musical experiences throughout the strands of the curriculum, and with the teacher's facilitation, should come in contact with cards, posters or books with notation in them. As a result, the children themselves will become enthusiastic about making music and will be aware of the possibilities of recording music in different ways.
The key to successful music literacy in the classroom lies in long-term planning, co-ordination and follow-up in which the school policy plays a crucial role. A number of useful techniques that may be used for teaching music literacy in an integrated, musical way are outlined in the following pages. Teachers may choose from among these and other methods in developing an approach that best suits their needs. They range from the representation of musical concepts in pictures (graphic notation) to a number of tools that enable the child to gain an understanding of the concepts of rhythm and pitch. These are the foundation stones that gradually lead the child to reading music with understanding, confidence and fluency from the full five-line stave.
Children of all ages enjoy drawing pictures of their ideas and inventions. In many ways the concept of graphic notation is closely linked with the development of the child's personal symbol system in visual art. The introduction of graphic notation in infant classes also supports the development of the child's ability to match, classify, sequence and count, as well as preparing the child for using conventional or standard notation at a later stage.
The best time to introduce music notation is the moment when the child expresses a need to record his/her musical pieces or collection of sounds so that they can be recalled on another occasion. The first stage in pictorial representation is simple pictures to represent sounds or songs, for example a picture of a sheep to represent 'Baa, baa, black sheep' or a butterfly to represent 'Féileacáin'.
The second stage involves illustrating simple concepts in pictures or symbols. The teacher may discuss with the children what kind of picture or shape could best represent a sound. By accepting their ideas, the teacher fosters and develops the children's confidence in their own ability to record. As the sound source changes, for example vocal sound, body percussion, untuned or melodic instruments, the children will recognise the need to modify their original symbols, and in this way the teacher can assist the children in developing their own rules for recording. The children should always sing, play or listen to the sound before considering it in symbolic form. Simple activities involving echosinging, echo-clapping or improvising rhythmic or melodic answers to given phrases together with movement activities can enhance the children's understanding of the recording process. For instance, crouching down low and stretching up high will reinforce the concept of pitch differences. Similarly, marching to music will support the concept of steady beat, while stamping heavily for a loud beat will encourage the children to consider ways of recording the experience.
EXEMPLAR 15 - Representing concepts
Standard notation need not replace graphic notation but rather can be introduced to complement graphic forms. The easiest way of approaching standard notation is to become confident with notating separatley the two main elements of music -- rhythm and pitch -- before attempting them in combination.
While children generally will not be introduced to formal, standard notation until they have completed three or four years of the primary cycle, simple but carefully chosen songs for junior classes can provide the key to developing musical concepts at a later stage. For instance, familiar songs can be used in senior classes to emphasise features such as rhythm patterns, shape of melodies, structure, tempo and key signatures. In a similar way, older children may experience musical forms that may not be 'analysed' until they reach second or third level. At all stages, therefore, the children hear and experience sound before proceeding to a more conscious understanding of the musical concept through naming or notating.
Of the two main components of music, rhythm and pitch, skills in rhythm are the easier to acquire. From infant classes onwards children need lots of opportunities to feel the pulse in music, and movement is essential so that they can grasp that concept. The child must be able to feel and move in time to the beat before he/she can read rhythm notation with success. As in graphic notation, the beat can be represented in several ways in the early stages before being shown as a single stick. Half beats and silent beats may be introduced almost immediately without posing difficulty for the child. Many variations can be created using these three rhythmic elements (full beat, half beat and full-beat rest), as well as several musical games.
As an aid to teaching rhythm, the syllable system (for example ta, ti ti) is very useful. It allows children to chant a pattern correctly in rhythm, which would be impossible if they used note value names, such as 'crotchet', 'quaver', and 'minim'. The syllables are not names but expressions of duration. They are voiced, and generally not written as words. Their written representation is stick notation.
Stick notation is a type of musical shorthand that makes writing music without manuscript paper both easy and fast. Unlike some shorthand forms, it can be used to notate many complex rhythms. Children find it easy to learn, and such notation can easily be converted to staff notation at a later stage.
Once the rhythm names are familiar to the children, they may be reinforced in a musical way through games and activities, combined with known melodies (identifying rhythmic elements), or the patterns may be used as accompaniment to known tunes (rhythmic ostinato). They are best presented as flashcards in simple stick notation at first and later with the note blobs ('the shoes on the sticks').
The following table shows the different note values that may feature in a music literacy programme in the primary school. While teachers may be familiar with note names such as 'crotchet' and 'minim', arising perhaps from previous experiences of learning an instrument (e.g. piano or violin), children will acquire an understanding of note values or duration more easily through using rhythm syllables in the early stages. An extended version of this table may be found in the Appendix.
Learning rhythm notation through games
Echo-clapping can be used to reinforce musical patterns and to prepare new ones. As a short activity, it can fit easily into a busy school day, provide a contrast from paperand- pencil work, or function as a warm-up activity to a longer music lesson. As well as developing a sense of beat and rhythm by encouraging the children to respond immediately, it can be used by the teacher to provide opportunities for improvisation. Individual children can be invited to lead the class with a given pattern, to improvise an answering phrase or to provide a simple ostinato (a pattern that is repeated over and over) to a familiar tune.
- Work it out
Children enjoy the challenge of working out rhythm patterns. The teacher can present a number of patterns to the children in 2/4, 3/4 or 4/4 time, depending on the age level, maturity and experience of the class, and invite the children to detect which one he/she is playing or tapping. The children can respond, for example, by saying 'It's the second bar' and by repeating the correct pattern.
- Rhythm dictation
Rhythm dictations can be fun, and children find them easy and manageable. As with other activities, they can be presented at a difficulty level suitable to the class and gradually extended during the school year. Individual children also enjoy giving the dictation, and correct answers can be practised and reinforced as a whole class.
EXEMPLAR 16 - Sequence for teaching a new element
As with rhythm notation, informal experiences of singing, listening to and playing music will precede notation of pitch and melody. The children will have enjoyed discovering ways of recording melody using graphic notation. The need to recall phrases and melodies with more precision so that others may read them will create a need for a standard form of pitch notation. Two-note and three-note tunes learned in infant classes can also contribute to the introduction of music literacy. As the shape of these tunes will be familiar to the children, the relationship between the written form of the notes will be easily apparent. For instance, a tune such as 'Hey ho' will have been sung, moved to or 'drawn' in the air before it is represented in notation.
Tonic solfa is a valuable and versatile tool in the acquisition of music literacy. In the tonic solfa system, the home tone or tonal centre of a song is doh in major keys and lah in minor keys, whatever the key may be. The solfa names -- doh, re, mi, fah, soh, lah, ti, doh -- represent the eight notes of a major scale. The advantages of this for teaching music literacy skills and sight-reading is that, for instance, soh-mi, once learned in one key, may be applied to any point of the staff. As sight-singing vocabulary increases, the child moves confidently from reading two lines to all five of staff notation. Solfa names are usually written in shorthand as lower-case letters: d, r, m, f, s, l, t, d'.
Hand signs are also a useful aid in the teaching of music literacy in general and in the teaching of intervals in particular, reinforcing the sense of interval kinaesthetically. They present a visualisation in space of the high-low relationship among the notes being sung. (See Appendix).
Absolute pitch names
Learning a melodic instrument usually gives rise to the introduction of absolute pitch names. These are the fixed pitch names given to notes. For instance, the scale of C major is represented as C D E F G A B C. Absolute pitch names are usually introduced when the child is confident in using tonic solfa on a five-line stave and understands the concept of the moveable doh. Singing with absolute pitch names should always be done with reference to a tuning instrument, for example a tuning fork, pitch pipe, goodquality recorder, piano or keyboard. This can be very useful for developing a sense of key and for enhancing musical reading, as the name of the note is reinforced both by its sound and by its symbol. Absolute pitch names are sometimes referred to as letter names and are written in capital letters.
The finger stave is an effective tool for understanding the five-line stave in a tactile way. Each finger represents one line of the stave. The teacher or child extends the fingers of one hand, palm inwards, and points to the relevant notes with the other. The child can then read or sing the music on his/her finger stave using tonic solfa or letter names. As with hand signs, the finger stave is useful in the teaching of intervals in particular, reinforcing the sense of interval kinaesthetically.
EXEMPLAR 17 - Stages of pitch notation
Pentatonic music can play an important role in the development of musical literacy. The term 'pentatonic', from the Greek word pente, five, is used to describe a scale comprising only five notes (such as the black keys of the piano, or other notes in the same position relative to each other). A pentatonic scale could also be regarded as any major scale with the fourth and seventh notes removed. The major key signature still prevails: for example, if a song has the key signature of C major and there are no Fs or Bs in the music, then we may say that the melody is in C pentatonic.
Pentatonic music exists throughout the world -- from children's singing games and various folk song cultures to the work of composers. Its use in the early stages of musical training and development is highly recommended, as there are no semitones in it.
This absence of semitones makes it much easier to improve intonation, as it is based on the 'pillar tones', the first, second, third, fifth and sixth degrees of a major scale (d, r, m, s, l)
Because the scale is free of harmonic clash, discords are momentary and not unpleasant. The child, however, can remain completely free of this technical knowledge and still use the scale as a basis for improvisation, embellishment of songs and, later, melody writing.
Ultimately, the young child nurtured on pentatonic music in the early stages, without the support of a piano, will develop a healthy, discriminating musical ear.
The ability to internalise sound is an essential aspect of musical development. When the child begins to internalise sounds, his/her ownership of musical concepts and independence in musical thinking become more established. Hearing a piece of music in one's head happens naturally if one has listened to the music on numerous occasions. However, for the child, the ability to look at notation or at silent, lifeless instruments and think in sound is a skill that requires more deliberate instruction.
This skill can be acquired through
- the development of short-term memory
- the development of long-term memory
- using the voice. The following suggestions, using rhythmic or melodic elements, can aid in this development:
- imitation of the teacher's singing of short, previously unheard phrases
- recalling previously learned phrases: for example, teacher hums a tune without the words as the children try to identify it
- singing silently (in one's head) long phrases within a song: for example, at the teacher's indication the children stop singing 'Twinkle, twinkle, little star ...' but continue the tune in their heads, re-entering at a given point, together and in tune: '... like a diamond in the sky'
- improvising from given phrases
- recalling improvisations and compositions for notating later.
EXEMPLAR 19 - Introducing a new note