Why all cows do not eat grass, or, in other words, why using mnemonics to learn to read music does not work!
When you learned piano as a child, you may have learned to identify note names using mnemonics. There are four you may have had to learn. Examples include:
For the treble clef spaces: FACE
For the treble clef lines: Every Good Boy Does Fine
For the bass clef spaces: All Cows Eat Grass
For the bass clef lines: Good Boys Do Fine Always
Here we have four sentences to remember, the ones for the notes on the lines are confusingly similar! So not only does the student have to remember four sentences, he or she also has to remember to which clef they refer and whether they refer to line or space notes. The student also has to remember that the mnemonics all start from the bottom of the stave and go up. Are you confused yet? I am!
Now imagine you're under 10 years old - can you imagine the confusion and struggle a younger person (possibly your child) will face?
I hear many adults still using mnemonics to identify note names. If mnemonics worked, they would not have to keep referring to them. They would simply be able to name the note instantly (like we piano teachers can!). So what is it that musicians do to be able to name notes they may not come across much, for example on 3 or 4 ledger lines? We name them with reference to another note that we do know. This is called a landmark note.
Enter the realm of landmark notes and reading by interval! This is the strategy that I and many of my colleagues in The Curious Piano Teachers use to teach note reading. It's also used by the tutor book Piano Safari.
When reading is introduced we start with reading intervals of a second (steps) up or down from only two landmark notes; treble G and bass C. The advantage of doing things this way is that once a student can recognise and play a second, he or she can recognise and play a second written anywhere on the stave, including notes he or she can't actually name. This leads to far more fluent reading and playing as students do not need to spend time processing note names, just intervals. It also allows for a wider variety of music to be played. As students progress they learn to recognise intervals of 3rds, 5ths, 4ths and so on.
Learning this way also has a profound benefit for the aural element of music exams where students have to name intervals. Did you have to do that as a child? Was it difficult? I relied on my perfect pitch in this area of the exam, not my instant recognition of the sound of an interval. In the intervallic approach, students are introduced to intervals from very early on in their learning and do not have it suddenly sprung on them a few weeks before an exam.
Teaching this way is a gift to our piano students. It reminds me of the Chinese proverb 'give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime'. We could just as easily change this to 'teach a student a note name and he can play one note. Teach him a landmark note and reading by interval and he can play any notes'!
'Teach a student to read one note and he can play one note. Teach him a landmark note and reading by interval and he can play any notes'!
Reading this way benefits students' sight reading because again, they are not having to process note names, just recognise and play intervals. I did not learn this way but I do teach it! I have seen for myself the benefits for students' reading and playing fluency. I know it works, not only because I see it in my students but because when I come across one of those pesky ledger line notes, if I just read the interval, I can instantly play the note!
Are you curious about landmark notes yet? Have a look at this video from Music Mind Games which shows all the landmark notes. All other notes that students up to about grade 6 will come across are less than an interval of a 4th or 5th away. So provided a student knows his or her landmark notes he or she will be able to read the music with much less of a struggle than one that reads by note name.
Of course there is a place for knowing absolute note names but that is a post for another day and in the intervallic approach comes a bit later (it also doesn't use mnemonics!).
Director of Surrey Music School.