37. “War and Peace” on the Grand Staff
One day in Ukraine, a teacher came to visit our preschool and spent a long time telling our oldest group of children about the highly respected Russian writer Lev Tolstoy. After the lesson, one of the teachers thought to ask the children what they remembered from the lecture. The children all eagerly expressed all sorts of things about a “fat lion,” and even a “tiger that’s fat!” The traditional grand staff is understood in much the same way by a beginner as “War and Peace” is understood by a first grader. Because of this, under no circumstances should colors and shapes be abolished completely from lessons.
The grand staff and its notes are absolutely unfamiliar to the beginner’s visual perception, but he’s familiarized the colors and certain images long ago. What do pictures have in common with music grammar? They have a shared language – the language of graphics. A colorful picture can be the guide especially to the visual perception of sheet music.
The main difficulty in reading music is that it involves a brand new approach in reading graphic information. It is hard for the teacher to see the problem; he doesn’t understand what the student’s vision is trying to depend on. The beginner, before anything else, looks for an analogy to something with which he’s already familiar, such as reading from a normal book. More often than not, beginners look at sheet music and see it as a “book for notes,” and try to read the notes while following the same graphic rules… and fall right into the trap!
The letters of the alphabet are all graphically different, and can be memorized separately by comparing each in turn. Notes are identical circles, are graphically very similar to each other, and are most easily memorized in a system.
Just as with letters, the beginner searches for distinguishing characteristics in the notes. And the first thing that jumps at his eyes is their various “ornamentation:” white, empty (whole and half-notes), and black (eighths, fourths, sixteenths). Then, in a glance, he sets aside another “important” difference: some notes have “tails,” and others don’t. The perception deduces that these little circles are distinguished by tails and colors, and that one must focus on this! Immediately, a filter falls over what is perceived: colors and “tails,” when in actuality these are just symbols of rhythm. Oftentimes, children play two separate keys on the piano when they see two notes of the same pitch but with different lengths (“ornamentation”).
The graphical representation of the most important quality of notes, their pitch, is barely noticed. Notes on lines and between them are almost indistinguishable. After all, the little line through the middle is barely noticeable. Even a grown person has trouble noticing this difference sometimes; what does that say about a child?
The graphics for rhythm in music notation appear more boldly, and are remembered more easily than the graphics for the pitches of notes. Thus, the person misses the most important thing: the pitch of the sounds. This is why the ability to distinguish notes by their pitch must be mastered before rhythm exercises in lessons. This is, after all, what the natural development of coordination needs.
While learning to play an instrument or sing, a person goes through four consecutive stages of development:
- Coordination: the student learns the notes and the proper sequences of the music text. The goal is to play without any mistakes. Like any perception of space, we should first understand what directions the notes can move, and what types of paths they can follow.
- Rhythmic Organization: the student begins working on the rhythm of the music text. Ideally, he learns to play the song without any stumbles and unnecessary pauses. This means that the child has become familiar with the musical space and has attained a sense of “balance,” and can start to work on his movement within it. This involves changing different speeds spontaneously, much to the chagrin of adults.
- Metric Organization: the student works on the tempo, the pulse of music, trying to play without any stops. Now, his movement in musical space is more conscious and organized, and the speed of his steps is deliberately calculated.
- Performance: The student works on the dynamics and nuances of the work of music. Having mastered the basic skills of movement in the space, the child is ready for creativity. He can learn gymnastics, dance, judo, etc with pleasure.
I’d like to focus you attention on the fact that these stages form a pyramid of skills. The higher skills are built on top of the lower ones. Of course, with time, the skills start to grow together, developing at the same time. Nevertheless, one needs to keep in mind that while the preceding stage hasn’t been properly worked out, the demanding of work from the next stage is a sharp break from the rules of gradualness. While the student can’t read the notes by pitch, he can’t play the entire note sequence. And while he can’t play the note sequence, he doesn’t have the proper coordination. Asking him to play rhythmically and dynamically at this stage would drag him into a state of confusion. Doing so will negate all of your efforts to familiarize a person with an instrument.
Now, let us return to our graphic analysis of sheet music. Rhythmic graphics scream and wave at the beginner with their contrasting colors and flags. The graphics that indicate pitch are barely noticeable, and are perceived much like lines in a book, organized in fives. Because of this, most students never learn to properly read notes. The graphic position of the notes is bowled over by the graphics of rhythm, and pitch reading is never worked on properly, since the teacher rarely notices this.
Something must be done so that the pitch of notes can become more conspicuous and practically throw itself at the eyes. Colors can be used for just such a task. The closely positioned little circles can acquire some contrast with the help of a color code.
The principal question is: how many colors are needed to distinguish notes by their height? It is important to understand what the color needs to warn the person about. I’ve seen many different attempts at color-coding notes, all trying to demonstrate the difference between the notes by their height. As I have explained, this only trips up the person’s perception. Color should never be used to “explain” sound. The ‘bicycle’ has already been invented, and it is the grand staff. The assignment of colors, then, should make the representation of the music staff more understandable, not the other way around. Thus, we first need to work on the development of the eye’s focus
Visually speaking, all notes are separated by one simple feature: they are either on the lines of the staves, or between them. The ability to quickly differentiate notes by this feature must be developed at once! Musicians that are capable of reading sheet music on the fly first take note of this very quality. For example, seeing five notes between the lines in succession, no one even thinks of naming all of them – rather, the hand automatically skips one key between each note it plays. When one note is on a line and the other is on a space, the fingers automatically skip an even number of keys. If the notes are homogenous, the fingers skip an odd number. The representation of intervals and chords is “embedded” in the fingers, along with the ability to distinguish notes on lines from notes on spaces. It is confounding that no one bothers to train this crucial skill in beginners!
The reading of sheet music shouldn’t involve a “deciphering” of text, but rather a subconscious ingestion of the entire textual representation, done at a glance. This is because while literature is read one line at a time, the musical text is constructed of multiple lines. This type of “vision” should be trained from the very beginning of the student’s education. “Textual vision” is the main component of reading. In traditional lessons, this skill forms spontaneously, if it forms at all.
More often than not, a student’s work on a new musical piece is a rather sad affair. The student assiduously ‘sits’ on each chord; he painstakingly deciphers each note, and then seeks out its corresponding key on the instrument. This kills the very essence of music reading. Just like normal books, the songs in sheet music must be read at a decent tempo, or else you can’t understand what you’re reading about!
The problem of music reading can be easily solved, and it still surprises me that no one else has thought up a solution. All you need is two colors, and the eyes receive a wonderful support. The perception of colors is a soundly mastered skill (with the rare exception of the colorblind), and contrasting colors direct the attention specifically to the graphic difference between notes.
Imagining that the lines of the staff are solid, and the intervals between them are ‘air,’ I colored the notes on the lines red, and called them “girls” because of their “skirts.” The notes between the lines were colored blue, and named “boys.” Even two-year-olds understand that there are two genders; to them, the separation of the notes into boys and girls and seems natural. This association quickly catches on, and children immediately respond to it. From the very first steps, the beginner receives an important directive: an aim to distinguish notes by their position on the grand staff. Later, this skill will help them to learn the intervals and chords.
In order to develop the eye’s focus on music notation, special flashcards can be used that train a quick count of skipped steps between separate notes. This type of training is fundamental to quick reading. But in order to fully understand this, the teacher should recognize how an unprepared student’s eye perceives the lines of the staves.
 The Russian name “Lev” can be translated into “lion,” and “Tolstiy” into “fat.”