Dots, lines and more

Our fourteenth post in our (re)learning to teach music series. The posts over this week and next week focus on the tasks in Gary Spruce’s chapter ‘Culture, society and musical learning’. This is week three of the collaborative blogging of the tasks in Learning to teach music in the secondary school. 

Think of the ways in which you have worked with different forms of notation or with staff notation in ways other than simply realising a ‘score’. What kinds of musical learning and skills did these engender?

Vaughan Fleischfresser @VFleischfresser

Having reflected on the relevant sections for today’s questions, I must say that I’m feeling somewhat deflated about the perceived meaning of the musical upbringing that I’ve had – the musical upbringing that has brought so much joy, meaning, and benefit to my life. As someone who learned music predominately through the means questioned in these sections, I wonder – has my musical upbringing been of a detrimental nature? I would passionately argue – ‘no’, however, this chapter certainly leaves a sense of uninfluenceable guilt in my stomach, and a renewed desire to ensure that all of my pupils receive a broad, general, and meaningful music education. For me, this still involves a blend of all that has been discussed positively and questionably, for as I discussed yesterday, I believe all music has value and meaning that can be learned from.

As Spruce writes, “Music literacy is not the ability to read staff notation but to be able to communicate and respond to music”. I am in complete agreeance with this statement, and the focus of my teaching when it comes to music literacy is grounded in this philosophy. The experiences I’ve had over my 15-year career have shown me – again, harping back to yesterday – that there are many different ways to be able to communicate and respond to music. As I’m sure will be a theme in today’s collective blog, I’ve used a myriad of ‘notation’ methods. I’ve used staff, graphic, electronic, and a surprising combination of all three. I have seen children equally baulk and be closed off to the power of music by staff notation, and graphic notation. Staff notation requires a certain understanding of order and sequence, while graphic notation requires the ability to think (and draw) with a certain degree of abstractness. I’ve witnessed pupils flourish in the freedom of graphic notation, while being stifled by the order of staff notation. Equally, I’ve witnessed pupils completely closed off to music until the code of staff notation sets their musical thoughts free. And, also, in a nod to the enculturation discussed at various points throughout the reading, I’ve had moments when – using graphic notation – many in the class have asked, “When will we get to do this using ‘real’ music (staff notation)?” That’s a fascinating discussion for another time.

To summarise – I’ve used almost every form of notation imaginable, each with varying levels of success depending on the pupils in my class. What is for certain, there isn’t one form of notation applicable to all children. Just as each child is unique, so too are the ways in which their thinking and understanding in music is best communicated. As for the kinds of musical learning and skills engender by these, that will require some further reflection, as I don’t really ask myself such questions enough. I do, however, ask myself at every juncture, “Does this form of notation help the pupils to communicate what they’re trying to communicate, and, understand what I’m wanting them to understand?” If the answer is ‘yes’, then I continue until a block is reached. If the answer is ‘no’, then I continue to try different forms, and combinations of forms, until the desired communication and understanding is achieved. Invariably, as the curriculum dictates, there comes a time when traditional staff notation needs to be taught to fulfil the requirements of said curriculum, however, to coin another one of my prior food analogies – we cannot live on vegetables alone. Staff notation is great. Graphic notation is great. Electronic notation is great. However, a delectable spread of all is the best for me, and I hope, for my pupils too. 

Liz Dunbar @HuntSchoolMusic

I’m going to start where I left off on Monday (Social and Cultural context) by talking about how notation can potentially be viewed as a social divider. It will always be the case that when students come to us in year 7, some will have had more experience with notation than others, and with that experience , or lack if it, comes a load of preconceptions.

Lots of students have the misconception that if they can’t read conventional notation, then they’re not a proper musician. It divides a class straight away, not in terms of actual musical potential, but in terms of students’ perception of their musical potential. And this is where we, as teachers, can make a significant difference. I’m going back once again to my opening of blog 1 about what makes a good teacher:

Someone who can see a piece of learning, a challenge, a task, from the student’s perspective

If staff notation is a familiar language to a student then their ability to ‘parse’ the task and give a response is going to be that much faster and no doubt more self-assured than a student who looks at notation and basically sees Wingdings. It doesn’t mean that the notation reader is a better musician, it simply means they know how to translate the language because they’ve had loads of exposure to it.

At Huntington we use four forms of notation side by side, and occasionally visit 2 or 3 others as classroom conversations shape the direction of our learning.

The ‘big four’, and the resulting learning and skills gained, are as follows:

5 lines 4 spaces

Sometimes using staff notation is exactly what is required. It is perfect for accuracy and reproduction in performance, sight reading, and composition. It’s a common language so it’s transferable, making it an immediately sociable form of communication if everyone is a fluent ‘speaker’. It’s great for composing when visualising range, playability, idiom, textural density, harmonic integrity, and it’s an accurate tool for visualising syntax and musical ‘spelling’ (F/E#), alongside understanding keys, harmony and tonal relationships. Then there’s all the subtle detail – the additional markings that bring the dots to life.

At Huntington we don’t shy away from using staff notation at all. It is ever present, but we use it alongside other forms of notation to let students who don’t use it on a daily basis, become confident musicians too.

Jazz/Blues chord charts

Chord charts are really good for making everyone think deeply about harmony. It’s really common for fluent notation readers to make harmonic connections for the first time when faced with chord charts. All those years of putting down vertical stacks of dots and not even hearing if it’s major or minor or augmented – and all the rest. It’s a great way of connecting really closely with sound. You’re not glued to the paper – you’re listening.

Here are a few ways we use charts to train ears:

Year 7

Start off by playing the game “chord or not a chord” to warm up ears (students are used to this and know how to find primary triads). Write the following letters in boxes on the board:


You play the major, then the minor triad of each. Invite students up to the board to write the ‘ms’ in for the minor ones.


Students then head off to locate the first 4 chords in sound. (No clues – use your ears). Come back, show, discuss. Next write these 4 chords on the board, play them to the class. Students head off to locate them.studentsthenhead

Ooo, hang on a minute, there’s something different going on now. Conversation to get rid of misconceptions….. Now ask students to apply their chord knowledge to work out the following:


You then provide some context by presenting this chord sequence in a range of familiar and unfamiliar pieces of music. Students commonly say….’Ooo I think I’ve heard this before’. You can do this with a whole range of songs/works.

Year 9

You’re working on a performance of something that uses functional diatonic harmony. You want to introduce the idea of chord inversions and talk about why inversions are useful. 

You play the first 2 bars of the melody harmonised with block chords: F, C, G, Am, write the basic chart on the board and ask students to go and find the chords for themselves in sound. You then play the same 4 chords with the second chord in first inversion:  F, C/E, G, Am, and ask students to go and work out what changed in the second chord (emphasise the C on top when you play it).

Discussion follows and connections are made between ears and hand shapes, between ears and charts, between charts and staff notation (spacing etc), notation and ears. The two forms of notation, used side by side, strengthen understanding. Happy days.


Year 12

Using charts to analyse harmonic devices and modulation is really useful for demystifying full scores. Start with an aural exercise identifying basic triads, dom7ths, inversions, and work your way up to extensions, modulations, Neapolitans, Aug 6thsetc. It leads to a richer and deeper understanding of the sound than simply following the score. It’s great harmonic ear training for all the other Qs on the paper and for informing comp, stylistics and performance. Students will start spotting things by ear all over the place. One student told me the tale of him shouting ‘CIRCLE OF FIFTHS’ from the back seat of the car. Everyone laughed. He said it just leaked out involuntarily. I told him, that’s when you know you’re listening like a musician.


‘Box and cross’ notation

This is great for sorting out rhythmic understanding. We find a lot of our students are strong with pitch and poor with rhythm (except the percussionists). The ‘box and cross’ system is a really effective tool for the exploration of syncopation, cross rhythm, triplets and compound time. We commonly use it teamed up with conventional notation and or software editing screens.


Edit screens

There is an obvious natural connection here with ‘box and cross’ notation.


Edit screens are great for examining textural density, harmonic rhythm, rhythmic granularity, pattern repetition, symmetry etc. It’s a very immediate language that students are really drawn to, so making connections with this grid system and conventional notation is a great was of creating equality of access for all types of musicians. Here’s the early stages of a bit of remote learning, that a year 8 sent me a few days ago. He doesn’t play an instrument or read music fluently, he hasn’t got a studio at home, he hasn’t even got a computer – just his phone, but it’s not stopping him from composing. I can’t wait to hear the rap that’s going to sit on top of this next week.

David House @House_dg

Rather than “realising” a score, I might say “reproducing” a score. One of the reasons for this is rooted in the regular score-reading [vocal and orchestral] I do during rehearsals, it is not always useful to play [or attempt to play] every note for every part – instead decisions have to be made of the importance of certain melodic lines, harmonic support and rhythmic material in order to best help the situation. This is an exciting way of working, and effectively an immediate analysis of the piece. Another reason for this change in designation is because of my experience in continuo playing from figured bass – in that instance I am “realising” the figured bass. Instead of merely identifying a 6/5/3 chord and playing it, for instance, I would be considering voicing and register as well as potentially incorporating melodic ideas. One of the most interesting things in learning to do this was the idea of building up a “stock” of chord shapes and patterns which would work in certain circumstances – then when playing they would become part of my “aural library” to be used as necessary. This continued as my only way of interacting with scores until becoming interested in Jazz, and using it in teaching. Suddenly the very same decisions [interpreting chord symbols, voicing chords, incorporating melodic features, deciding which parts to support or leave out] were taking place but in a different musical style and context – also now, there was often the need to supply a suitably stylistic rhythmic accompaniment pattern to support the harmony. Again, I found this was best achieved through building up a “library” of shapes, patterns and figurations that can be called on as necessary – effectively building up what Eddie Harvey referred to as a “dynamic library” of musical ideas.

Ewan McIntosh @ETMcINTOSH

I think that every music teacher at one time has taught a schemes of work on graphic scores and that pupils have produced a range of scores that can easily be recreated or are just lots of line and squiggles that pupils then ‘make up’ as they go along. Most graphic score pieces, especially at KS3 are not very helpful as aid memoirs. This is mostly due to pupils not having a good enough musical vocabulary to be able to show different musical ideas graphically so that they clearly show changes in pitch, tempo, dynamics etc. Where I have used Graphic score, especially at GCSE and a Level is after studying 20th Century music by composers such as Berio and letting pupils listen to the music whilst following the graphic scores so that they can get an understanding of how to use other symbols to notate their ideas.

I have done lots of work with weaker students at GCSE in using commentaries instead of a score and this really makes you think about how in words to represent things that are quickly done through musical notation. Having a dialogue with the student composers is vital so that you can help them express in words what their music is trying to communicate. Lead sheets are also a good way of doing this with the student creating a basic melody with written chord changes either using guitar chord boxes or written chords. This can then be used to help the student evolve their backing material, with the teacher showing how different chord voicing can help change a composition.

Having good aural skills is vital when helping these ‘non traditional notation’ students to realise their own work. Being able to sing or play pupils ideas back to them can help them hear what they have done. This is turn improves their own aural skills and musicianship.

Sean Dingley @DGSMusicDept

It’s every accompanist’s nightmare – a student turns up to something and says “I haven’t got my music”. The inevitable scrabble for a device to locate some chords to use as a guide to help them perform is a manoeuvre with which many of us will be familiar. It is often in these performances that I feel more musically aligned with the soloist than when using score notation. The chords provide the skeleton but I always feel the freedom to react to the performer in more ways than just phrasing and dynamics in this format, whether it be playing with the bass line or altering the rhythm. What I put this down to is fully engaging in the actual music rather than being fixated on the score.

This happens in our cover song projects also – in Year 8, our students get into bands and are asked to perform a pop song (this year it was a choice between Happier by Ed Sheeran or RIptide). In this project, the diversity of the performances is vast because we only give students the chords and lyrics and so the way in which they perform those chords is entirely up to the students. During this project, I am always startled to learn a new way of interpreting a section or a different way of accompanying the lyrics. If students were given notation to perform from, I am sure that the diversity of musicality would be diminished significantly and my thus my enjoyment of the project, particularly with multiple classes!

Lewis Edney @LewisEdney

This was a new idea to me that I tried with my Year 3s this past term, I saw the initial concept (head heights) on a YouTube video from a music teacher in America.

Start with a fairly conjunct melody, I started with Ode to Joy (sorry!), and put the class into groups. I decided to have groups of nine which was a third of the class. Eight of them had to stand in a row and the ninth was armed with a whiteboard marker. I played the first eight notes of the tune a few times asking them to listen to the music and whether the notes went up or down. As a class we agreed that the last note was the lowest and that the fourth and fifth notes were the highest. They were then given five minutes (with me playing the eight notes continuously) to put their heads at appropriate heights along the line. Have you forgotten about the ninth child? They were in charge, and had to draw a line on the table when they were happy with the heights. The groups then put dots on the line to indicate the eight notes.

The music was then put on the board (starting on a B as I didn’t want to have to deal with ledger lines at this stage), and gave them a ruler and a different coloured pen to draw the stave on. As I am sure you can imagine there was varying success across the three groups. Over the term we covered several other simple tunes (Mary had a little Lamb, Frere Jacques, Yankie Doodle), each week we went a little further into the correct notation and terminology but it was never the main focus.

Reflecting on the understanding I was pleased that all the pupils felt they had learnt something about how notation works and the relevance of place and position on the stave.

Do I think they have learnt new skills? Possibly not yet, but I do think they are in a much better position to begin learning to read notation fully. I definitely felt that the musical learning was enhanced, as we went on to play the tunes on recorders and the pupils were able to see the connection between the ‘score’ and the musical outcome.

Steven Berryman @steven_berryman

When I worked in Dorset I was keen to continue the contemporary music making I had enjoyed as a postgraduate so I went and joined a COMA group in Southampton. Lots of improvisation and playing from photos. I enjoyed it immensely. One work I remember performing on harpsichord, flute and vacuum was Molly House.

‘Molly-House’ is an ‘assemblage’, having no particular order for its set of freely juxtaposed parts. Some of these parts are soloistic, and conventionally notated (19 arias derived from 4 operas by Handel). Others are ensembles (trios and quartets) with various degrees of pitch specificity, or indeterminate ‘solos’. Some (containing lists of numbers) are for electronic gadgets (hairdriers, mixers, drills, vacuum-cleaners … etc.). 

I thrived on being able to focus on connecting with my fellow ensemble players, being creative and playing around with musical ideas. When I came to teaching A-level set works such as the John Cage, and the Berio Sequenza I felt at home; I could see notation was the servant of the composer in relaying their design to the performer. I could see how hollow western staff notation is for not capturing all that we hope to pass on to our players. Thankfully Elaine Gould has done a wonderful job of helping us share some of the ingenuity of our avantgarde composers so we can make the best of this staff notation (her Behind Bars book is super). 

I loved analysis at university. I loved unpicking the musical data and making sense of it (if any sense were possible). I enjoyed philology. And my piano teacher was very strict on obeying the ‘text’ and taking care to unpick the data we have from (dead) composers and being a servant to that data. I miss his lessons immensely, as in comparison to my time with COMA it was less creative in what I could do in some respects, but the creativity came in how I could shape lines and unfold musical ideas in performance. I can always remember his face after my performance at his summer school in Edinburgh when I seemingly had forgotten most of the second movement of Prokofiev’s second piano sonata. 

Taiko didn’t involve any notation. It was a very physical experience (very sweaty) and the repetition and drills were sufficient to really push the music into your body. As a singer I found I absorbed the musical data rather quickly (just a few lines of text, so little compared to the Prokofiev I had forgotten) – I spent more time with the words than the ‘notes’ as I could get them into my body quite quickly. I would listen endlessly to recordings to help me learn material, particularly learning roles such as Tamino. 

I have quite a flexible relationship with notation. I enjoy it’s ease for sharing music, and being able to pick up a piece and be able to play it quickly. I also love the freedom when not using it, and being able to rely on physical queues. As a composer I happily communicate my musical ideas in notation. A past composition teacher told me off for avoiding the use of a final bar line once; ‘the piece never ends’ I said. His reply was ‘all music ends; use the final bar line’. 

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