When you first started playing an instrument, how did you learn to read notes? Did you use little rhymes, known as mnemonics, to decipher the line and space notes in each clef? I certainly did. In fact, one of my first memories of piano lessons is trying to decide whether ‘Every Green Bus Drives Fast’ or ‘Good Boys Deserve Fresh Apples’. Even back then it seemed confusing to a 7-year-old!
However, when I started teaching piano in 2015, it seemed natural to introduce my pupils to notation using this traditional method simply because it was the way that I had learnt. I created a little crib sheet and introduced them to the rhymes I had memorized as a child.
Does this look confusing? I think so! Let’s take a moment and think about the steps involved in this process:
- Identify where the note sits (line or space in the treble or bass clef).
- Remember the correct mnemonic for the note.
- Stop on the correct word.
- Work out what letter that word begins with.
- Find the corresponding key on the piano.
The Trouble with Mnemonics
As well as the brain power needed to apply mnemonics to note reading, plus the fact that they don’t help learners instantly recognize a note, there are several other fundamental issues here. Notes are seen in isolation rather than being linked to melodic and structural patterns. The words themselves lack any musical meaning and rhymes used are not consistent – hundreds of variations have developed over time.
Landmark Notes – An Alternative Approach
A couple of years into teaching, after reading a lot of pedagogical material on the subject, I had a real lightbulb moment. I discovered Landmark Notes. To say that things fell into place is an understatement. Suddenly clefs, note names, directional and intervallic reading could be linked by a common thread. Unlike mnemonics, each landmark note was easily identifiable and included ledger lines. Furthermore, landmark notes could be introduced gradually to students in a far less perplexing and more creative way. Just look at the symmetry of landmark notes on the picture below.
Many of you will already use landmark notes, but hopefully you will find some useful tips and ideas below to help with your own teaching. If you still use mnemonics, I highly recommend that you investigate this alternative approach.
The G Clef and F Clef
It all starts with the clefs. As teachers, we know that music is written on lines called staves. On the left-hand end of the stave, we have a clef which is used to indicate the pitch of notes. However, rather than just being referred to as the bass clef and treble clef, it’s worth knowing that these clefs originally derived from old fashioned letters – G and F – designed to tell us the musical letter of a particular line.
The treble clef derived over time from the letter G and is also known as the G clef
The bass clef derived over time from the letter F and is also known as the F clef
Why is knowing the history behind the F clef and G clef so important for music reading? In short, these clefs provide an easy way for students to start identifying landmark notes.
Landmark Notes – Identification and Intervallic Reading
As mentioned above, landmark notes are memorable and easily identifiable. Take a look at treble G, bass F and middle C below. Furthermore, landmark notes link to directional and intervallic reading and keyboard geography because all notes in between are either a step (2nd) or skip (3rd) up or down from the nearest landmark note.
Introducing Landmark Notes to Students
In his fantastic book ‘Teaching beginners: A new approach for instrumental and singing teachers’, respected music educationalist Paul Harris states that:
‘Lessons should always be infused with creative thought and activity. Creativity is central to the development of a young musician.’
There are so many ways to teach landmark notes to students in a memorable, creative and fun way. Here are just a few ideas that I use in my own lessons.
Fairies and Giants
Early on, I made up a memorable story about Fairies and Giants to embed the positions of F’s on the F clef and G’s on the G clef. I also created / sourced some imaginative props. Even now, my teenage pupils who learnt this story as youngsters still refer to Fairies and Giants when reading notes! As well as using the story to identify written notes, your students can place little erasers on the keys to link to keyboard geography.
Crib Sheets and Activities
I created some crib sheets and activities at different levels to help students learn their landmark notes in lessons and at home. The landmark notes are colour coded to link to the Fairies and Giants story and provide a more visual prompt for quick and easy identification. You can also use a magnetic stave (see below) and get students to place the landmark notes in the correct position, then find and play them on their instrument.
By using these in conjunction with other resources, such as repertoire, sight reading cards, flashcards, games and note reading apps, students suddenly start to make connections between the notes on the stave and on the keyboard.
Flashnote Derby Challenge
Each year, throughout the Autumn term, I run a studio wide Flashnote Derby challenge. Pupils are supported with their learning in lessons using the landmark notes approach, then asked to practice note reading at home using the Flashnote Derby app. Their scores are noted each week on a score sheet and horses are moved along the home-made race course. At the end of term, prizes are given to the pupils gaining the highest score in their group, the most improved score and to anyone who sends a score in each week.
There are so many fantastic resources available to teach landmark notes and directional and intervallic reading in a progressive and creative way. Here are just a few recommendations.
Flashcards and Crib Sheets
Snowy Pengiun Note Reading Cards by Kate Thompson (free)
Fairies and Giants by Ruth Alberici (£2)
Steps and Skips Interval Flashcards by Rachel Inwood (£3)
Landmark Notes Bumper Pack by Ruth Alberici (£6 RRP)
Note and Interval Recognition Games
Spooky Steps and Skips by Georgina Wilson (£3)
Christmas Steps, Skips and Repeated Notes by Kate Thompson (£3)
Under the Sea by Kate Thompson (£1.50)
Build a Penguin Note Recognition Game by Kate Thompson (£3.90)
Note Reading Apps
Sight-reading cards Level 1by Piano Safari (£14.95)
Magnetic stave by Music Escapades Shoppe (£27.00)
Manumat Floor Stave by Simpson’s Sounds (£49.50)
Around the World Landmarks by Safari Ltd (£13.80)
Mneumonics in music reading: Help or Hindrance by Sally Cathcart
Stop Teaching Mneumonics and Create Fluent Readers Faster by Nicola Cantan