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How to Read Music Part 1 - Do Every Child a Favour  by David F Wainwright

For all those who never understood written music

Some years ago, as an Arts in School coordinator for Manchester (England) I had the pleasure of teaching music to a group of mature students on a recreational arts course. If you're going to work at something for a whole year, some kind of common language for the tasks is indicated. I asked how many could 'read' music and received the usual combination of shudders and comments of the "You'll never teach me to read music; hundreds have tried and failed" variety. Out of a group of twenty, two claimed to be able to "read a bit".

Conventional wisdom within educational circles is now that a concentration on reading skills is an inhibiting factor. Only in music, of course; Literacy is a 'good thing'. Musical literacy is a reflection of the 'outdated classical training of many of our teachers'. Do you, like me, spot an inconsistency of approach here?

Let me lay out my credentials. I have played, written and conducted 'serious' orchestral music. I also play and write light music, jazz, pop and rock. I have done a fair bit of in-service training for teachers and trainee teachers on the classroom use of music of other cultures. I have taught all age groups from infant to adult.

I lay claim, with this background, to some understanding of the issue, which I intend to lay before you. First some simple rules:

1. Most musical terminology is written in other languages, chiefly Italian. Only musicians regard these words with religious fervour. They are just words of instruction, like 'play it fairly fast (Allegro). Don't let them phase you.

2. DO NOT try to learn everything at once (see 1.) Lots of things will come along, but all in good time.

3. DO try to forget everything that failed to teach you music. This is the hard bit. Do not cheat by thinking of Boys, Football, Cows.... This will only reintroduce failure.

4. Learn the first seven letters of the alphabet in alphabetical order, i.e. A,B,C,D,E,F,G

5. Remember that most of the words used have a specifically musical meaning; a 'high' note is not physically high, as in nearer the ceiling. Musicians call notes which vibrate very fast 'high' in pitch, and assume that everyone will understand. To understand the difference between 'high' and 'low' notes play some notes on a keyboard; as you move to the right, the notes get 'higher', to the left they get 'lower'. (lower frequency of vibration - slower!)

And that's more or less it. So read on and turn learning music back into what it should be - fun!


Notation and Deadly Sins

Mnemonics - a system for improving memory

Perhaps the first deadly sin of music teaching is mnemonics. One such system is used in physics lessons to aid pupils in remembering the colours of the rainbow in order;

Richard Of York Gained Battles In Vain, giving from their capitals Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet. An odd but, hopefully, memorable phrase. The hard bit is 'Gained'. My first inclination is always 'Fought', but luckily I cannot think of a colour beginning with 'F'. I found it easier to remember the acronym 'Roy G. Biv'. So, mnemonics have their place in learning complicated lists, although they can be prone to memory lapses.

The letters which we are required to remember in music, in order, are; A,B,C,D,E,F,G. You may find the order a little complicated, so I have devised this mnemonic to help; All Bad Cats Dig Eight Foot Graves. I realise that, in the heat of the moment, you might have lapses, such as Big Dogs, or Fat Cats, but in principle, the mnemonic must be easier to learn than the random order of letters.

But hold on, I hear you say, surely ABCDEFG are just the first seven letters of the alphabet? Surely everyone in a school music lesson, particularly at high school level, will know with absolute certainty and fluency these seven letters in that order? Given the possible memory lapses, surely it is easier to just use the letters as they are without a mnemonic?

All right then, I over simplified matters; consider the next, more complex example;

A B C D E F G - how on earth are you going to remember that every other letter has a line under it? A simple mnemonic should do the trick. How about All Cows Eat Grass for the ones without underline, Big Day Friday for the ones underlined? I know, you're going to say 'How do you remember it's supposed to be Friday, not Monday?'.

Several generations have now grown up believing that reading music is far too complex for them. That is to say, a seven letter alphabet is far too complex; the traditional western alphabet has 26 letters; the Russians handle 36; the Chinese have a written language which requires thousands of symbols, and the Japanese have Chinese-style symbols which can be interpreted differently depending on the context, but music, with a seven letter alphabet, is too complex!

I dare say if English teachers utilised a mnemonic to remember the alphabet (All Bad Cats Dig Eight Foot Graves Hereabouts Incase Jackals Kill Little....) then the standard of English literacy would match the standard of musical literacy.

The simple truth is that a mnemonic, far from being helpful, is not only unnecessary, it is positively harmful in the reading of music. It adds complexity, not simplicity. Over the years I have taught many adults who were resigned to never being able to read music. Their biggest confusion arose from Every Good (Bad?) Boy (Girl?) etc.. Because other people / pupils learned the mnemonic faster, or just dispensed with it, they were always behind and resorted to guessing under pressure.

It's not easy, because, with the alphabet starting at E in this case, the sequence on the stave goes E F G A B C D E F (note that when G is reached, we start again with A) - so the alternate (not underlined) letters are EGBDF, not a readily recognised sequence. (The notes not on a line will have the line passing through them, the notes on a line will be in the space between two lines) So why artificially separate the notes not on lines from the ones which are? They are a continuous alphabetical sequence if left together. I am very much aware that even in describing why it doesn't work, the complexity would put many people off. So,

RULE 1 : no more Good Boys, no more Favours, no more mnemonics

Next time: It's not what it's called, it's where it's going

David F Wainwright is co-author with his wife, Pamela, of 'Your First Year Violin Course' ISBN 9780956272300 which is very much based around the principles of this and later articles. With their daughters Emily Beth and Penny they form the Spring Quartet, a leading Wedding string quartet in the North West of England. The tutor book can be ordered from where you can also read more about the book, the Quartet and other educational materials produced by the String Family. The two sisters have formed their own electric violin duo, Ponticello, who can be seen on their website

All the family are also instrumental teachers. David and Pam's pioneering work in large group tuition predated the 'Wider Opportunities' scheme in English schools by some thirty years and led to the creation of the tutor book. They have presented workshops in group tuition for instrumental teachers throughout the North West of England and Pam contributed to the initial thinking on the Government Wider Opportunities programme.

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