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Okay, bear with me here. This is going to be weird.

A few years ago, my husband and I bought our kids a used Rock Band set for our Wii console. They're all musically inclined and love video games, so it seemed like something they'd like. What actually happened is that my husband and I got really into playing, spending 30 minutes to an hour each night at it. He'd play the guitar parts, and I did bass.

At first, it was hard to read the videogame notation. I just wished they would put traditional music notation on the screen for me. I mean, simplify it to only include 5 notes for the 5 buttons, but lines and spaces, quarter notes, eighth notes, dots--all of that would be so much easier for me to read! Instead there were these weird dashes coming at you, some of them further left than others, and the width of each "note" and distance between them "front to back" indicated the rhythm. Totally new, totally foreign. I was frustrated that my husband took to this system faster than I did--he wasn't even a musician. I should be better at this!

I was doing something all my students have to do, something I couldn't even remember doing: I was learning to read music a new way. Eventually, I picked it up. But one thing surprised me. Sometimes the game took the colors away and made all the notes white, requiring you to read by placement alone for a bonus. I always messed up in these sections far more than I did in the colored-note sections.

Okay, here's where it connects to piano pedagogy (music pedagogy in general, really). I woke up one morning thinking about this and about how some kids (especially those with excellent ears and an inclination for music) just never learn to read music. I am a very adaptive teacher--I want my students to learn, even the ones who are struggling. I try to meet them where they are and try different approaches and strategies all the time. I have mnemonics beyond Every Good Boy for each note. But some kids . . . they just never get it. Too many kids never get it. Imagine if I were an elementary school teacher and just accepted that some kids never learn to read. It would be awful!

And I thought about how it would have been learning Rock Band if all the notes where like the white note sections from the beginning. How much more I would have struggled than I already did. And I'm an adult and a musician who understands the basics of what information any notation system is trying to convey. That gives me an advantage over most of my students.

I started wondering: What if we started students out with colored note heads? What if, for example, every C was red, every D was purple, every E was blue? What if it was a logical system in rainbow order so that students could see the relationships between D# and E flat (they would be the same color)? You could start out with all music in color but then transition to coloring only the first note after a hand move, or only sharps or flats in a key signature, or only missed notes. Eventually wean them off the color altogether, like the game's white-note sections.

The advantage I saw to this was that any time I write a note's name in a student's music, their eye goes to the written letter rather than the note head. Especially with younger children. They know how to read words/letters, so that's easier, and they bypass the note reading entirely. So I try not to do this too much. But with colored note heads, they'd have to get both the color information/training wheels and the note head information at the same time. They're inseparable.

I jumped out of bed and got on my computer to see if a notation program existed that would let me color the note heads. My copy of Finale Songwriter didn't. But I found www.flat.io, which did. I tried it and, while it was a slow process, I liked it. I wrote some little beginner pieces and colored their note heads and assigned them to my students.

It didn't go as well as I expected it to. I think the main problem was with my printer. Some colors were either very light or very dark, and it was hard to tell the color, especially with half notes and whole notes. Some students really liked the colored note heads, but others asked if I just had a copy of the music with all black. The students who liked the color made huge progress with reading and stopped needing it, so I transitioned them to traditional music.

I kind of gave up on the idea for a year or so, even forgot about it. Over the summer I got a whole bunch of new beginners, some of whom really struggle. And a few weeks ago, I remembered about the colored note heads idea. But I tried something different with it.

I got out some colored pencils and had them color their note heads on their beginner pieces. (Now, I use a very unusual method that has them place their hands in different places for every piece in the first book--there's a map of the keyboard with instructions on where to place your hands in the first few chapters, and then they start learning notes one by one and starting songs on that note, beginning with high and low C, then middle C, then treble and bass C's, and finally notes that are thirds or seconds from those C's.) I had them color their little keyboard maps. I would hand them one color and say, "This one is a D. It hangs down just below the treble clef and is a space note. Can you color all the other D's in this song purple?"

And ALL of them are learning to read music. There are some songs that have been challenging to read for every single student I've ever taught--the same reading mistakes every time--and these students are playing them perfectly. They're no brighter than other students, but they are connecting to this method. They can see small differences, like a single note that's different in the first phrase from the second in order to resolve to do, because these are highlighted in color. They're paying attention in a way many of my students never have. And I can see when they're understanding, or not! That's huge. Sometimes when a student comes and plays a song well, it's hard to tell how they're reading, what information they're gleaning by ear rather than by sight.

If you're interested in trying this, here's my system:

C: red
C# or D flat: magenta/pink
D: purple
D# or E flat: indigo/violet blue
E: Blue
F: light/sky blue
F# or G flat: turquoise or blue green
G: Green
G# or A flat: Yellow green
A: Yellow
A# or B flat: yellow orange
B: orange

I've been able to find these colors pretty easily in basic colored pencil sets.

Last edited by Brinestone; 11/06/21 11:40 AM.

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Interesting idea but I think it is overcomplicating things. There certainly would be students that would benefit from this on a very basic level. When you start to go play more complicated pieces you would run into information overload real quick.

Reading music is like reading regular text, practice enough and almost everyone will be able to get fluent in it.


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In more complicated music, I would only color a note or two here and there as needed. I'm talking about first year students at this point.


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Originally Posted by Learux
Reading music is like reading regular text, practice enough and almost everyone will be able to get fluent in it.

I'm not sure I agree with your first half, and it's far more difficult to enforce the second half than it is to enforce text reading because we music teachers don't have as much dedicated time with our students. We get half an hour a week, and then it's up to them to practice on their own the rest of the week. And if they don't practice--or don't practice in a way that aids note reading--then they don't learn it. And then they quit. We have all had students who do this. I'm trying to reduce the number. And it's working, with (honestly) about the same amount of work on my end and far less reteaching and pulling my hair out wondering how else I can reach my students who aren't learning it easily the traditional way.


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I don't agree with color schemes. All they do is to get students reading by color instead of the actual position of the notes on the pages.

In my experience, the only reason why students 'fail' to learn to read music (assuming they don't have some neurological abnormality or 'learning difficulties') is that they are pushed along too fast - which the vast majority of so-called 'beginner' books encourage - and/or they get short-cuts that are quicker to use at home (like Synthesia videos) or they are good at memorizing, and use that instead.

Why do I say that? Because when I was a child student, I knew many other child students who all learnt piano, encouraged & fully supported by their parents - and all of them were able to read music fluently. (In fact, all of them also reached Grade 8 ABRSM in their teens.) Even the ones who dropped out of lessons within a few years (my siblings) because of parental indifference and total lack of support. All the teachers used the same beginners series, which is about as slow - and with lots of revision along the way - as you can get.....because that was the only beginners piano book available in my home country then (which is not an English-speaking country).

I learnt a completely new language (English) and method of writing (the Western alphabet) aged nine, so I still have some idea of how slow and difficult it was. Every squiggle - totally different from my native language - had to be carefully memorized and then practised daily. But if you were brought up in a Western language (and you spoke it at home), you are very unlikely to remember how long it took you to get even the basics of the alphabet, let alone make use of them to make words - despite speaking it all the time.

Whereas the language of musical notation is not used except when one is playing - and reading while playing. Do teachers know whether their students are actually looking at the score while playing or do they just rapidly memorize (or copy their teachers playing their pieces for them, while 'teaching' them) and continue along that vein? Are they having their students sight-read every new piece in front of them - as slowly and laboriously as required - before they start learning it (in other words, continual assessment of their reading skills)? If not, why not?


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I think it's a great idea.

Children don't all have the same learning style. Most of them pick up sheet music pretty quickly but some struggle, and your experience points out that some other methods can work.

I am for anything that reduces frustration; children get plenty of that other places.

I did try the colored notehead idea with my handbell ringers some time ago, thinking I could get them looking at the notes rather than the letter they wrote on top of the staff, and then gradually fade away from the color. But it was too much work because I had to do separate sheets for each pair of notes.

There is an amazing musician whose youtube name is smalin, who creates performances with those guitar hero type graphics. I highly recommend him.


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My question re colored music heads:
Mnemonics, for me, became a barrier to instantly seeing a note in the stave and playing the note, as my brain had to go through the mnemonic as an extra step. It was a hard step to remove.

Will the same thing happen with colored note heads? The mental pattern possibly being color— note— key rather than just note followed by key.

Just a thought,


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Don't want to get into Guitar Hero or the Rock Star game not intended to teach note reading or playing chords. It's just a game for fun. Otherwise the designers would program the songs to display in standard notation.

IMO it's a good idea. First, you're doing it only with the slow learners. Second, it's not permanent. After a while, the colors would be removed 1 by 1 until you have only a B&W page. The first few months of learning is the most crucial. If it takes too long for a student to learn a piece, it'd discourage him/her from continuing or even pick up an instrument again later in life. I've seen 1 young man quit the Yamaha program after 2 years. His parents allow him to play video games all day which I consider to be an addiction.

My idea how to make it work:
1. Hand out a piece of music with just the notes (no color).
2. Put color pencils / markers on the table.
3. The first note that he sees he would pick a color and put in a dot on top of the note.
4. Get him to find all the same notes on the page and put in the same color dot. You will guide him to make sure he put the dots on the correct notes.
5. The next note that has no dot on it the student would pick another color and put 1 on it. Find all the notes that are the same and put a dot on top.
6. Go through the whole page and eventually all the notes have a color dot.
7. Take out some sticky notes.(single color). Use the same colors that was picked and put the same dots on different ones.
8. Guide the student and place the sticky notes on the proper keys and he's ready to play the song.

You don't print music with colors on it already. It's a 5 min. exercise the student would do in front of you in the beginning of the lesson. You don't assign a fixed color scheme ahead of time so the students can't memorize C is red or E is purple sort of thing. And instead of getting a student to fill the page with letter names of the notes, you use color dots so that the students won't use mnemonics to learn the notes.

What about a higher & lower C? Treat them as different notes with different color dots. Don't want to make things complicated for the student. In other words, all the same Cs get the same color. Each assigned piece the student would choose colors at random and put the same color dots on the same notes. Since the color scheme in each piece is different, the student can't memorize red is C since the same color can be assigned to a different note.
What about the student learning a song by memory instead of reading? Anybody who plays a piece long enough would have some of it memorized anyway (sound pitches, name of the notes, chords or muscle memory). In a performance wouldn't matter if somebody read through his pieces or play the whole recital from memory. In this case, you are handing out a piece of paper to a student with just the notes and get him to go through the page before playing. Even someone like myself who is an intermediate player or a professional would read through a page to see the tempo, dynamics, key & time signature and other nuances before playing a single note.

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Originally Posted by thepianoplayer416
...IMO it's a good idea...

Agree.
I have seen the quote variously attributed, but "Try something, and if it doesn't work, try something else."

Begin teaching every student in the usual way, and if a student isn't getting it, try something else. Adding color seems like a reasonable "something" else.

When the "something else" starts working, then think about when and how to to fade it.


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I think it is an absolutely wonderful idea, and not only for children. Coloured score would also make clear how bass clef continues into treble clef, and that the two middle c's are the same notes.
And why only use white and black when making pianos? Imagine keys in the same colours as the notes. (However, that would probably not be good for learning to read the black and white score.) But imagine when you need to make a jump, and your keys have colours. Seems so much easier.

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It's ok to put sticky notes or color stickers on the keys. painting each piano key in a different color would destroy the piano keys and the paint becomes more permanent since it's hard to get the colors out.

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I remember a thread a while ago about someone trying to clean adhesive off of the keys where some sort of sticky labels had been used.

Maybe if someone is struggling with this issue a cheap keyboard could be used and possibly wrecked.


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Thoughts on this (complicated topic so I hope I can make them clear).

A decade ago I set out to get solid reading skills. What I had per "reading" had major flaws; I had bypassed the "traditional" system, not having had a teacher so that part was not in question. As I started on my quest, I ran into a teacher who had put serious thought into what reading piano music involves, and had been prioritizing this skill for several decades. It made sense, and dovetailed with what I'd been finding. This teacher's students were able to read music including accidentals, key signatures, clef changes, much earlier than is the norm. This also paved the way for reading / playing a much greater variety of music.

(I'm aware, as I write, of intervalic reading and landmark notes, while writing this.)

The regular way tends to involve the names of notes (C, D, E) learned in two contexts, and then joined. You learn the names of the notes on the treble and bass clefs - you also learn the repeating names of the piano keys - and then your mind goes from "this treble clef note is D - which of the piano keys is also D?" That makes it a three-part process, with separate associations centered around the abstract letter name D. One may add intervalic reading to this, once the first note was found on the keyboard; in fact it's normal to do so. With landmark, you locate G, F, middle C, and I don't know if you end up counting up and down from them.

The system I learned proposes to create a direct link between notation and keyboard. It is taught a particular way, in stages, under the teacher's guidance and supervision which also involves parents who get trained into it. There is a pictoral type chart on thee keyboard that gets removed as the association kicks in. You end up with a reflex where this note on the staff makes your hand want to go to that spot on the keyboard, like a red traffic light makes your foot go on the brakes and you anticipate "stop". The name "D" is then associated with this double experience of written note + piano key.

Brinestone, your colour system reminds me of this, in that it bypasses this dual and abstract note-name path, with the note names coming second. Like the system I know, you are creating a direct association between a written note, and the piano key, as a single reflex. (This is how they are similar). The in-between shades for the black keys is also clever, because it goes past the duality of names (Bb and A#) - any duality also slows down the mind.

I also like that you gave all notes equal value. It is not "C-centric", or "G-position centric" etc.

Some differences:
The piano has 8 yellow notes. (there are 8 C's). The system I learned gives room for that. Students do learn to find all D's (between two black keys), all the GA's (two-finger poke between the 3 blacks) etc. but note reading associates the location on a line or space with a location on the keyboard.

Accidental notes - in my own words, accidentals are treated as traffic signs. # is "go right" or "go up one sound higher" (for ear people such as myself). Thus within an octave we're dealing with 8, not 12 (which you've reduced to 12 by getting rid of the dichotomy of A#, Bb). I debated accepting this part, and after experimenting, adopted it. If later on you go to much more complex music, this "traffic sign" approach works really well.

What happens later when a student gets B#, such as in G#7? Will a clash happen because what the hey - that's a yellow note but now it isn't. Ofc by that time, the student may have a fair bit of theory, whether learned or internalized. In the key of C#m, you'll be anticipating that V7 sound.

(stream of consciousness thoughts on the topic - hopefully making enough sense)

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Originally Posted by malkin
Agree.
I have seen the quote variously attributed, but "Try something, and if it doesn't work, try something else."
The burning question is: is the teacher sure that the student is doing things right? (See my post above.) Or is she making assumptions: the student can't seem to associate notes on staff with keys on piano, therefore let's throw color into things.

Personally, I was glad that when I learned the alphabet (A - Z), everything was in black & white and we students just had to knuckle down to memorize how the hieroglyphics make letters, how the letters are pronounced, how they make words and how the words are then pronounced.

Same for music notation and associating notes on staves with keys on keyboard very gradually, which is in many ways far simpler than learning the alphabet from scratch, then making coherent words from the letters.

Quote
When the "something else" starts working, then think about when and how to to fade it.
How do you fade colors?

But hey, why not publish a beginner's book (in versions for adults and children) with colored notes? It would sell like hot cakes. smirk
Surely someone, somewhere, anywhere, have thought of this before??


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Originally Posted by thepianoplayer416
It's ok to put sticky notes or color stickers on the keys. painting each piano key in a different color would destroy the piano keys and the paint becomes more permanent since it's hard to get the colors out.

I was rather thinking of modern technology, using lights that enable you to colour every key the way you prefer. Including white and black.


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If it works so well as you say, I think it's a great idea and it's probably worth contacting publishers and offering them to print a beginner's book in colors using your method with your name on it. Probably including some pieces that children will need to color themselves.

Some additional terms to google for if you're interested: chromesthesia, artificial synesthesia, Alexander Scriabin.

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Originally Posted by bennevis
[quote=malkin]


Quote
When the "something else" starts working, then think about when and how to to fade it.
How do you fade colors?

"Fade" is a semi-technical term to describe the gradual removal of prompts.

To your first point, perhaps your experience is not all encompassing and does not reflect the experience of all learners.


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Originally Posted by malkin
To your first point, perhaps your experience is not all encompassing and does not reflect the experience of all learners.
Actually, it is as close as all-encompassing.

I talked about my own personal experiences as a student, because my experience as teacher is limited (- BTW, all my child students have no difficulty learning to read - as I said, using the most elementary beginner's book, and going real slow), as I haven't been teaching for long. But before I started teaching, and also since I started, I talked to several teachers of my acquaintance to learn how they teach (or taught, if retired), and their experiences. Between them, they have close to a hundred students, and not a single student of theirs had any issues with being unable to read music. Some were slower than others, but all eventually read competently.

Of course, there is a different method of instruction here, compared to the US: every child student does ABRSM or Trinity piano exams (and every parent wants their children to do them), which require sight-reading at every grade. And every student knows they have to learn to read music, and every teacher knows that they have to teach that. Which is why every teacher assess their students' reading skills at every lesson, in the way I described earlier.

Incidentally, if you introduce an intermediate step which will need to be eradicated eventually (and completely), you need to have what politicians term an "exit strategy". Teaching students to recognize notes by color is a totally unnecessary intermediate step which has the problem of how you'd wean them off it. Suzuki teachers know how difficult it is to teach students to read after they've had several months of learning to play by rote - and they weren't using an alternative method of reading. Once ingrained (red = C, whatever), it is very difficult to wean children off it.

In my job, I see the kind of problems parents face when they adopt plausible intermediary methods when trying to get their children to learn what they need to learn, or do what they need to do.........

Finally, if this is reasonable method of teaching students to read music, why isn't there a popular beginner's series that use colored notes to teach note recognition? (If anyone knows of one that exists - or ever existed - I'd love to know about it.) After all, there are so many weird and wonderful method books out there already, for all ages.......


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I asked the question many posts ago: will this be like mnemonics used for learning where there will bd difficulty removing this intermediate step? I don’t believe I have seen one reply.

Mnemonics, to my knowledge, is no longer used to teach lines and spaces. But I was a childhood victim of it—- it took me a long time to discard. Personally, I would have a hard time with a system that inserts an extra learning step. Just based on my own, painful experience.


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My background is special education, that is, working with kids who don't respond to the normal instruction in the normal way.

If a kid struggles with the motor skill to alternate feet climbing the ladder to go down the slide, it is customary to provide prompts by touching, squeezing, or supporting the leg/foot that needs to take the next step. As the kid develops the skill and confidence, the touch to the leg is decreased (faded) until the kid can climb independently.

Do all children need this support? Obviously not. Most kids can figure it out on their own.

Some children struggle to learn to read. Sometimes additional marks are made on the text to promote the development of this skill. Once the extra marks have served their purpose, they are faded (gradually removed) so that the student can read normal text.

Although I have never attempted to teach piano or music at all, I imagine that there may be students who require a level of support beyond what is typical and I don't think it is unrealistic to think that color may provide a useful support to some students.

Of course it is not needed for all students and it is likely not to be useful for all students who struggle.

There are always many ways to reduce prompts. To fade a color prompt, color intensity could be decreased so that all the colors approach gray. Or in pieces with repeating sections, colors could be provided for the first iteration and then eliminated for subsequent sections. The size of the color mark could be reduced. I'm sure there are more.


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