“The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As syllable from Sound” –
Since Carl Orff first coined the phrase a consensus has developed between Examining boards, music educators and teachers that teaching ‘sound before symbol’ is the most efficacious practice. Phonics and music pedagogy have a creative exchange as there is a clear analogy between learning music and learning to read the written word. We hear, speak and understand before we read. Similarly, it is said that music students need to connect aurally and practically before we teach them to read music.
Children start to connect the spoken language with sound and meaning long before they go to school. Most are learning to read language at the ages of 5 or 6. In music education, although there is consensus about ‘sound before symbol’, there is no consensus about the age at which we introduce symbol in the form of standard notation – the integrated learning of sound and symbol.
The capacity for learning language is hard wired and many researchers believe the same of musical capacities. The development of the brain’s four lobes is fairly well understood. It is clear there are many areas of overlap in the laying down of language and musical skills. The lobes perform different functions and develop at differing rates although they clearly communicate. Concurrent learning of music and language accelerates their rate of development, the development of the lobes and the rate of all learning, including mental and social development. Playing music and/or singing whilst reading notation uses all the 4 lobes of the brain.
Neurological research confirms that babies start to connect the sound and feeling of music before they are born. The heartbeat in the womb develops the innate sense of pulse. When mothers walk, the unborn baby feels the rhythm. Mothers’ singing and dancing completes the association of sound with action.
Babies develop emotional connections with music before they are born and newborns can recognise tunes played to them in utero. The lilt of our voices in ‘motherspeak’ and rocking them develops these connections. There is evidence that very young babies differentiate major and minor keys.
Are we born with pitch awareness? Research suggests we are and it is stimulated before we are born. In most pre school nurseries, children sing nursery rhymes, clap, march and dance to music for much of the day. These activities further develop innate musicality.
It is rare to find a child of 5 or 6 who cannot play a simple call and response game. Although their voices may not be completely in tune, their aural capabilities are far enough advanced to benefit greatly from integrated learning. We may do our pupils a disservice if we delay teaching of notation, and connected understanding, until they have advanced aural skills. We do not expect our children to be excellent speakers before we teach them to read.
Our children are connecting sound with action long before they go to school. Many have already connected sound to symbol and started to read by the age of 3 and the majority of children in the UK have made this connection by the ages of 5 or 6. This is when they learn to read the written word.
As music teachers, especially when teaching from ages of 5 or 6, we don’t have to connect sound to action. “Sound before Symbol” has already been done for us by mother nature and learning time before mainstream school. Our children are ready. They are ready to learn to read music and, by this, I mean notation. I realise this is a contentious position but one I hold with conviction born of many years of teaching music with notation to young children.
I see my responsibility as a music teacher is to help connect the sound, the playing and the reading simultaneously so that it is embedded in the child’s musical experience and as hard wired as learned language skills. The earlier this starts, commensurate with the child’s capacities, the better.
To draw the analogy with learning to read – “The literacy element does not need to be obvious but can be unobtrusively interwoven to render it almost subliminal. In this way the skills required for literacy can be established early and embedded for later use.” So it is with musical notation. [Maria Kay. Sage. 2013] By the age of 5 or 6 most children are ready to learn to read musical notation if they have not already done so.
Musical education is about giving all children the same opportunity to fulfill their potential by giving them musical independence. If they can learn to read they are ready to learn musical notation, without the use of transitional methods between sound and note.
“Separating theory from practice can’t be a good thing”.
Michael Elliott, CEO. ABRSM