by Jennifer Hummler & Steven Bowen
Boy, we really wish everybody would stop using mnemonic devices to teach music “literacy.”
Reading music is hard, it takes a lot of time, effort, and memorization… except it doesn’t! It’s not hard, not even close! Unfortunately, many people believe that first statement, and it can keep them (or their children) from taking the leap into music literacy.
Music reading is EASY — like really, really easy. Becoming a fluent sight-reader – someone who
can read and perform complicated music at first sight and in real time – is a process that does
take some time and dedication. However, just reading music – identifying notes – couldn’t be
much easier. Here’s a little-known secret: it’s in alphabetical order! Not only is the staff set up in alphabetical order, but we only need to know seven letters for the musical alphabet: A–G!
Almost everyone has heard “Every Good Boy Does Fine” or some other mnemonic for identifying notes on the various lines and spaces of the musical staff. These little tricks were, no doubt, invented with the very best of intentions, and many music teachers who still use them also have good intentions. They think, “Well, everybody does it this way, right?” Mnemonic devices can be helpful for memorizing complicated lists or disparate facts. But since music notation works by applying a pattern, why not just memorize the pattern? Using random sentences assigned to lines and
spaces just convolutes a very simple process.
We hear so often “I can’t remember what that note is.” When it comes to music reading, that’s fine! We don’t need to remember much of anything. Because it’s not about remembering, it’s about understanding. Unfortunately, once a child has been taught mnemonic devices to remember the notes on the staff, it’s understandably difficult to get them to “unremember” and to start thinking. When it comes to music education, we’re looking for long-term
comprehension and a deep appreciation for music as both an academic subject and an art form.
Without going into a full-on lesson on how to read music (which we will do at some point!), there are really two options to get someone to be able to identify notes on the staff:
METHOD 1. Teach the student that notes “live” alternately on the lines of the staff and in the spaces between the lines (i.e., line-space-line-space-etc.) and are named in alphabetical order A–G (i.e., ABCDEFGABCDEFGABC, etc.),
METHOD 2. You can make your student memorize four seemingly random sentences and then memorize which situation calls for which sentence (“Hm…treble-clef line notes. Is that ‘every good boy does fine‘ or ‘good boys deserve fudge always‘?”). Assuming your student gets this far, he/she may still not know exactly which B (for example) to play on his/her instrument. Oh, and forget about reading off the staff. METHOD 2 doesn’t work with ledger lines.
By the way, students of Method 1 can read absolutely any note, even in clefs they don’t play, even multiple lines off the staff. It’s because they actually understand how music notation works. This fits so neatly into the, “If you teach a man to fish…” philosophy, don’t you think?
In closing, mnemonics never educate musicians on note identification, chum.
(Couldn’t resist. : P )