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The Importance of Avoiding Alphabetic Notation in Music Education

When it comes to learning music, one of the fundamental skills students must acquire is the ability to read and interpret musical notation. This process is often a challenging one, akin to learning a new language. In music, we have a specific system of notation that represents pitch, rhythm, and more. However, there's a practice that has become somewhat of a crutch for students and teachers alike: notating alphabetic names on music notation. In this blog post, we'll explore why this practice should be avoided and why students should be given only one or two opportunities to write a letter name or solfege name for one or two notes.

The Pitfall of Alphabetic Notation

Alphabetic notation involves labeling the musical notes with their corresponding letters (e.g., C, D, E) or even using solfege names (e.g., Do, Re, Mi) directly on the sheet music. While this might seem like a helpful shortcut, it can become a significant obstacle to a student's musical development. Here's why:

1. It Hinders Musical Literacy

Music notation is its own language. Just as you wouldn't use the alphabet to represent mathematical equations, you shouldn't use letters to represent musical notes. Alphabetic notation hinders the development of true musical literacy, which includes the ability to sight-read, understand musical structures, and grasp the nuances of rhythm and dynamics.

2. It Stunts Ear Training

One of the essential skills in music is ear training. This means being able to listen to a piece of music and understand what you're hearing. When students rely on alphabetic notation, they miss out on the opportunity to develop their ear and connect with the sounds they are producing. Instead, they focus on associating letters with notes, which can become a crutch they struggle to abandon.

3. It Inhibits Expression

Music is an art form that allows for incredible expression and creativity. Alphabetic notation limits this expression because it encourages students to think of notes solely in terms of letters rather than feeling and interpreting the music on a deeper level. The result can be a robotic and uninspiring performance.

Limiting Alphabetic Notation: One or Two Opportunities

To help students break free from alphabetic notation, teachers should limit the use of letter names or solfege names on their sheet music to just one or two opportunities.

Here's why this approach is effective:

1. Forces Students to Connect with the Music When students are only allowed one or two chances to write the letter names on their sheet music, they are encouraged to truly connect with the music. They are forced to look beyond the letters and start understanding the patterns, rhythms, and melodies present in the notation.

2. Promotes Musical Problem Solving Limiting the use of alphabetic notation encourages students to become problem solvers. Instead of relying on a simple letter-to-note association, they must actively engage with the music to identify notes and understand how they fit within the piece.

3. Fosters Independence By reducing alphabetic notation reliance, teachers are helping students become independent musicians. They can develop the skills needed to read music without the training wheels of letters, which will serve them well as they progress in their musical journey. In conclusion, while alphabetic notation may seem like a helpful way to bridge the gap for music students, it can ultimately hinder their musical growth. By limiting the use of letter names on sheet music to one or two opportunities, educators can encourage students to truly engage with the music, develop essential skills, and become independent musicians who can express themselves through this beautiful art form. It's time to ditch the crutch of alphabetic notation and let the music speak for itself.

Frayne, Dennis. "Approaches to Music Note Reading." Dennis Frayne's Blog, August 6, 2019, Accessed October 14, 2023.

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1 Comment

Daniel Ikpeama
Daniel Ikpeama
Nov 09, 2023

Overall I agree with the assessment, though I do think that the amount a student depends on letters also relies on their understanding of the additional notation's purpose. I treat writing in note names like I would any other mnemonic. It is one of many methods of generating pathways that ultimately strengthen a student's ear and musical intuition. As with any other form of music theory, such as writing in chord names or Roman numerals, students can easily miss the forest for the trees, becoming both theoretically intelligent and artistically illiterate. Of course, I agree that students should aim to recognize notes and musical structures without having to write much, just like they shouldn't be needing to count aloud while…

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