Making Music Notation Easier for Children

Music notation is a complex writing system that should be simplified in a similar way that children’s books are simplified. Children’s books have large font, simple sentence structure, common vocabulary, few types of punctuation, and so on.

Music notation for children should be similar. This doesn’t mean that children should only play open strings or just a few notes. They should play songs with a clear melody. But easy music does not actually address the complexity of notation.

Children seem to ignore the notation they don’t recognize or understand, so removing notation that they ignore might help them. The music will be less cluttered, and there will be fewer markings to confuse them.

Some things I have noticed as a teacher:

  • children sometimes mistake stems with bar lines
  • children ignore notation that means nothing to them, especially more abstract concepts
    • key signatures and time signatures mean little if anything to them – the concepts are too abstract
  • note names can be confusing
    • C4 and C3 are both C, but they are different notes
    • E natural, E sharp, and E flat are not the same even though they share the same space or line on the staff
  • too much information teaches children to ignore what they see on the page…what a horrible habit to encourage!

Some ideas I would like to test:

  • large font: 12mm staff size
  • letters in the noteheads so that they can quickly identify the name of the note
    • this also draws the eyes to the notehead rather than a fingering outside the staff
  • avoid notes with flags, at least in the beginning
    • rewrite music and try to stick to whole notes through quarter notes
  • no bar lines – this will need careful engraving so that the music is still legible
    • commas might be a helpful way to show the phrases – this also eliminates the need to explain why the pickup of one measure musically belongs to the next measure
  • avoid ledger lines when possible
    • write and arrange music for the middle strings and then practice transposing by ear for the other strings, at least at first
  • avoid key signatures – they are frequently ignored and children forget the rules for how they apply
    • write the accidentals directly in the music
  • avoid fingerings in the music
    • lay out the fingerings in an easily accessible chart that they can reference
    • fingerings can always be penciled in if necessary

Here is a mockup of what this might look like with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

:page_facing_up: Mobile users: there are pictures further down for easier viewing.

Simple notation mockup_2022-03-31.pdf (22.6 KB)

I decided to keep the bass clef. It’s a simple enough symbol to explain: “That spiral at the beginning tells us that the music is for people or instruments with low voices.”

It’s pretty weird for a trained musician to look at the music, as it’s missing a lot of what we are used to reading. But I think for a beginner it would be helpful.

There is a natural gap in between the half phrases. Engraving rules space notes based on their rhythmic value, and a lot of beginner songs have longer notes or rests at the end of phrases. So I expect that there will be enough visual space to help separate phrases. This can always be adjusted manually to help make it clearer if necessary.

The space between the half phrases would almost certainly mean more to a child over explaining 4/4 time and that the first two measures are a half phrase and the second two measures complete the phrase. One could even sing it to the student and then pencil in commas and periods to help relate the music to them.

The only bar line I left in is the one at the end. It’s visually distinct, so I’m not worried about students confusing stems with it. It would also be a nice way to introduce the concept of a bar line to a young student, and the only explanation it needs is, “This marks the end of the song.”

I put two reference charts at the bottom of the page. This way the student can easily find what the fingering should be, but they can’t rely on the fingerings to read the music. Their eyes are always drawn to the notehead.

Here is a comparison of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star from Suzuki and my mockup:

My first impression looking at the two is just how much easier it is to read the larger font size and how less cluttered the page is. Compared to the Suzuki version, there is much less information in the mockup:

  • no key signature or time signature
  • no down-bow or up-bow markings
  • no dynamics
  • no marcato text
  • no dots and dashes
  • no fingerings
  • no bar lines

That’s a lot of information the student won’t learn to ignore. Instead, they can focus on the music on the page and learning to be comfortable recognizing note names and rhythmic values.

My goal is to write several songs like this so that I can try testing it with new students next school year.

1 Like

Interesting read! Please make an update in the feature about how it seems to work for your students! :slight_smile: