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Why aren't 14 year olds able to read music?

Discussion in 'Music' started by Phantom of the Opera, Jun 20, 2007.

  1. bod99

    bod99 New commenter

    it is NOT required - it may be desirable for you, but there is NOTHING saying we need to teach notation in primaries. You should be glad that some of us do bother.
    Stick to facts, rather than distorted criticism and we'll all be a lot happier, and the moderators will have an easier time.
  2. The moderators would have an easier time if the likes of you stopped making pointless criticisms of relevant posts.

    Yes, Primary schools should be teaching notation - it is that simple - a variety of notations. And any pupil unable to play from simple notations (as per abi's wonderful cut and paste (again, brilliant abi - you are such a good teacher!)) shouldn't be getting anything higher than a level 3.

    Strange how so many Primary kids get higher levels.
  3. I suspect the treble stave positions of the notes and the rhythmic values are being taught in quite a lot of schools - for some value of the word "taught"

    My brother, a lecturer in education with 20 year's teachering and headmastering behind him, was fond of pointing out that you can't say "I have been teaching all day but no-one has learnt anything" because what is teaching if it's not the setting up of a learning situation?

    And any monkey can learn the stave positions and the values. They're next to useless unless you can process them into music-making - either by being able to follow them with some sense (test by identifying the correct pattern in the early stages) and more importantly, playing or singing from them. Without this, thi is just empty knowledge, like knowing the five highest mountains in the world.

    So they don't remember them - why should they (from their point of view)? In our school the y3 or 4 children learnt the Greek alphabet when they were stodying the ancient Greeks. I doubt if any of them could remember any of it by y6. I know it, because when I learn it I was learning Greek, I was using it. Some of our kids have probably remembered it, because they've chosen to. When it's easy enough to listen, perform and, to a simple degree, to compose, always assuming they want to, why should they choose to remember these things? And - excuse me, Phantom, I know you thought this was irrelevant, but it's not - when there's no family or cultural tradition of reading music or of learning an instrument, when it comers very low down on your list of priorities, below coping with some of the bloody awful home conditions that kids in poorer areas have to, the "need" to learn and remember, for them, becomes even less. They need to be able to read words. They need to manipulate numbers

    So what we're really looking at is the problem of why the children aren't using this notational knowledge at least in school. I'd have thought it was simple. In many primary schools there's nobody fluent enough to lead them in it. Or if there is, they're the music co-ordinator, and their job may entail finding material the teachers can teach from - and heaven knows there's plenty of that, designed for use by class teachers with no musical experience - but they don't teach all the classes because they have a class of their own. In very small schools there quite possibly isn't one at all because the small staffing requirements cannot afford what is seen to be the luxury of a musically literate and fluet teacher. And there aren't so many of them around that small schools can pick and choose.

    And really, was it ever any different? I went up to secondary able to (just) sight-read Beethoven. But I hadn't been taught it in school. I think there were four children in my secondary class who coulod read music. That was 1959. I started teaching secondary in the 70s and again in the 80s. We had children coming up who were fluent. And we had children coming up who had learnt nothing so far. My daughters went up to secondary in the late 80s reading music because they had learnt instruments. d#1 was in a class whereabout 7 or 8 could read music. I don't think she'd done any in class in her primary. d#2 fared a bit better - we were in a selecting area and she went to a single-sex grammar school. Maybe a little over half the class could read music: not surprising - they came from homes where it was done, and they had learnt instruments. Again, I don't think they did it in class. I don't think in her last primary (2 years of it) there was a "music teacher" per se.

    So I'm not at all sure it's gone downhill. On the otyher hand, possibly it should have gone uphill more than it has.

    However, I don't think it's fair to blame it on poor teaching by music teachers. Abi, bod99, zia, are all getting results because they are specialists. Take someone like carosd (sorry, caro, if you're reading this) who runs her choir but says she isn't a music teacher. She's still, if I've read it correctly, the nearest thing they've got in their school.

    I don't deny that it would probably be a good thing if they could all be reading (not just "knowing") the notes by the time they moved up, but it's not down to poor teaching any more than the lack of French at the time of moving up is down to poor French teachers. Rather, it's down to lack of experienced French teachers. Same with music.

    So instead of having a go at the teachers - which is what you started this thread for, and you know it - why not do something to help the situation by finding a way to train, and create the jobs for, those who will know what they're doing? If you read Opinion or Primary, every so often you'll get a thread about what subject teachers would most like not to have to teach. Music always comes very high on the list of priorities. They know they're not musicians. In some schools it's because the management put a very low value on it, but in some cases it's the fact that they can't get them for love or money.
  4. bod99

    bod99 New commenter

    show me the documents that say you can't get higher than level 3 without reading staff notation.
    Your OPINION is that primaries SHOULD teach staff notation, but what I'm objecting to is you hurling abuse at people that are doing their job and more. You're entitled to an opinion, but you're not entitled to be abusive. That's why we are perfectly entitled to report you for misusing this site.
    Don't bother replying as I'm not reading this thread any more. I'm sure someone else will report you if you are aggressive again.
  5. I am neither hurling abuse nor being aggresive - I am reporting what many of my colleagues in the Independent sector and in state secondaries see for themselves - that Primary School Music Education is a farce, badly lead, badly taught (if at all) and continually made excuses for.
  6. "According to zia her post 82 is now 91 - which suggests that EXTRA posts have been added rather than some removed."

    When I tried to work out what had happened last night whole sections of posts had been repeated, while others have been removed.
  7. erp77

    erp77 New commenter

    It's hardly surpsising that some 14 ye olds can't read music when some of you have got your hads so ar up you own backsides!

    Yes, some primary pupils get all their music entitlement and have dedicated music teachers and are taught basic notation.
    The same stands that some don't. Swings and roundabouts.
    In an ideal world there would be provision for all and funding to pay for it. Those primary teachers without the confidence and skills to teach music would be able to access all the help and support they need.

    Yes some secondary teachers put all the blame on primary teachers. So secondary teachers do nothing to addess the possible problems at KS2. Some secondary teachers are great and re-enforce the skills taught at KS2 and develop them throughout KS3

    The issue of being able to read music for GCSE is a separate issue. Maybe something that should be taken up with the exam boards.

    It is obviously a very controvesial issue and i think this thread has lost the plot slightly by too many egos.

    So some of you should get your heads out of your backsides and see the big picture
  8. erp77

    erp77 New commenter

    bloody typing too fast.
    first sentence should have read

    It's hardly surpsising that some 14 yr olds can't read music when some of you have got your heads so far up your own backsides!

  9. (Apologies - long post)

    Don't you just hate it when what could be an interesting discussion is highjacked by posters who indulge in empty rhetorical flourishes and pointless namecalling? So please forgive me while I indulge in my own moment of childishness. To those of you who said: "no music happens in primary schools"; "the **** that masquerades as education in state primary schools in this country"; and "appalling primary sector's failure to adequately teach music" ... Plththththt! (Raspberry Noise)
    Sorry about that - but I do feel a little better now.

    Back to the`question - why aren't 14 year olds able to read music?

    As many other posters have pointed out, there are explanations other than bad teachers or 'thick' pupils.

    For a start, the requirement in the National Curriculum Programme of Study for KS2 is that pupils should be taught "how music is produced in different ways ... and described through relevant established and invented notations". Although POTO may protest otherwise, this is not a specific requirement that children be taught classic stave notation. The QCA schemes of work for KS2 Music, which, although non-statutory, are used in many schools as the basis of their music curriculum, say that children in Years 3 and 4 should be shown enlarged copies of the songs they are singing.
    "Point out the time signature (the numbers at the beginning of the music). Only refer to the top number which generally gives the metre, eg 3/4 beat pattern. Point out the stave as a ladder with notes placed higher or lower to match the higher or lower sounds. Show how the song moves along the line just as when reading. Point out the different shapes of the notes and how these tell how long or short the note should be sung, eg. Let them become familiar with this form of notation before adding any more detail."

    In Years 5 and 6 this is extended to: "Continue to use songs written in staff notation. Remind the children constantly how the notes reflect how the voice goes higher and lower. Use the top number of the time signature to say how many counts or claps should be made before they sing. Point out the different notes highlighting the long (two-beat minims ) and the very long notes (four-beat semibreves ), the short (half-beat quavers ) notes and the very short (quarter-beat semiquavers ) notes."

    So by the end of KS2, children whose schools are following the QCA units should know how standard notation represents the rise and fall of music graphically, should understand how the top number in the key signature gives the pulse, and should be aware of the relative durations of the notes.

    I'll continue this in another post.


  10. Now I'll agree that although the NC for music and the QCA units should be the minimum requirement for children's experience of music in primary schools, in practice the situation is more patchy.

    For a start, to teach any subject confidently, teachers need to be secure in their own subject knowledge. Not every primary school has a music specialist on its staff, and those that don't will probably find it more difficult to teach music well. The position is the same for other skills based subjects such as Art or Technology.

    Second, as many have pointed out, music stave notation will only really stick if you are using it regularly. Those children who are learning an instrument, whether through the peripatetic service or at home, will obviously do better at this than children who have only met it in the context of a handful of music lessons at school.

    Another factor is that primary schools are under pressure to raise standards in literacy and numeracy (and to a lesser degree in science). As has been well documented, this pressure does result in a narrowing of the curriculum, especially at the end of KS2.

    The problems with Primary music have already been identified, and steps are being put in place to try correcting them. The QCA have issued new guidance units which focus more on instrumental teaching. There is a national training programme for KS2 music specialists run by Trinity College and the Open University. The Wider Opportunities programme is seeing more money go into LEAs and schools to help broaden the musical experience of KS2 children. I hope that these initiatives will help more children become involved in music.

  11. I was going to post one of the things Damian did, that is:

    Listening, and applying knowledge and understanding

    4) Pupils should be taught:

    how music is produced in different ways [for example, through the use of different resources, including ICT]and described through relevant established and invented notations.

    Personally, I DO interpret "relevant established . . . notations" as pertaining to staff notation. But it does not specifically say that.

    I actually start teaching my infants to read from staff notation. I have only been where I am now for two years so I have yet to discover whether this will result in them being able to read fluently when they get to Year 6. I hope it will.
  12. POTO - Why is it that you have such problems with people pointing out facts which contradict your opinion - don't come on these forums if you are not prepared for people to disagree. You clearly have problems taking it, and have to resort to becoming rude and insulting. It is not pleasant and is uneccessary!
  13. My own opinion is that children should be taught the use of the treble clef in primary school. But that is my own personal belief; and just because I think that something should be taught does not mean that those teachers and schools who do not teach it are poor teachers, or failing schools, or in any other way at fault. If they are teaching the use of graphic notation, and showing children that music is conventionally written down using stave notation, they are fulfilling their legal obligation to teach the National Curriculum.

    I was brought up in the Western classical music tradition. I am a fluent sight reader of piano music (2 stave), organ music (3 stave), bassoon music (bass and tenor clef) and singing (bass or treble clef). But I am not particularly good at playing by ear, at improvising, or at 'jamming' along with a group. I started to teach myself Jazz Piano a few years ago, following the ABRSM scheme (which I think is brilliant) and have begun to appreciate the areas of music making which were historically neglected by the Western classical tradition.

    My son is quite an accomplished guitarist, in the rock and pop music tradition. He reads fluently from tab or chord notation, and is able to play by ear with more facility than me. He does not read staff music fluently. He knows the notes, but takes time to decipher them when looking at a piano or vocal score.

    Now I think that I can read staff notation fluently because it was needed in my musical life; I played from it every day, and it was eventually internalised. Indeed, when I read music I'm not really reading the notes - the symbols on paper are being translated directly into movement of the fingers or feet. I only have to think when I'm sight singing, probably because this is something I came to later in life.

    Anyway, I'm saying this to try and illustrate three points:

    1. Although we can teach children staff notation, I think it is only those who are using it regularly and often who will become proficient at using it. For most schools that will be only those children receiving instrumental lessons.

    2. We need to show children more than just staff notation. My son and his friends use tab notation and chord symbols fluently, because that's what they need in their musical lives. They may be limited by their lack of familiarity with staff notation; but their musical life is still fulfilling for them.

    3. The purpose of music education, in my opinion, is to allow as many children as possible to enjoy music throughout their lives. To do this we needed to broaden the curriculum to be more than just the Western classical tradition. I heartily approve of initiatives such as Musical Futures which have this philosophy at their core. But I do agree that we must not lose all that is great within the Western tradition. Pupils need to be able to analyse music, so they know why it works; and we will do them a great disservice if we close off avenues because we are not teaching the 'harder' elements of music.

    If the above seems a little incoherent I apologise. I think I'm trying to say that we needed to widen the definition of music education so that it fulfilled the needs of many more pupils, but that we musn't let the core knowledge become diluted in the process. But I'm sure you knew all that already.

  14. bod99

    bod99 New commenter

    I rather feel like this discussion has drawn to a conclusion, mainly thanks to the moderators.
    To summarise:
    1)it would be great if all children were at least introduced to staff notation in primary schools
    2)it would be fab if all primaries had music specialists (watches pig fly past window)
    3)there needs to be more communication between secondaries and their feeder primaries re music expectations
    4)we're all basically agreed on the above
    4)people who are abusive to others get banned from the site (HURRRAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY)
  15. Our whole school is learning to play the ocarina at the moment - it starts with the ocarina picture notation, then moves onto having both that and staff notation. I am finding that some children are able to learn the staff notation alongside the ocarina notation and play things on their ocarina from other staff notation music! Finding it very interesting to watch them as they learn - it is fascinating!
  16. The skill of being able to read notation and to transfer this ability of reading into producing sound on a conventional musical instrument, should in my opinion be a cornerstone of musical education.


    Because it enables the student to fully participate in analysis and understanding of historical musical styles and genres that would otherwise be impenetrable. Can you imagine trying to understand, both formally and aesthetically any music from the European tradition from the past 400 years without the ability to read notation?

    Compare this with teaching english......do we expect students to be able to understand the great texts from the last 400 years without being able to read? Do we expect them to be able to memorize, analyse and gain meaning and understanding from them if given to them purely in an oral tradition?

    I haven't waded through the 14 pages of this thread......the first page was enough.
    As someone who started playing the clarinet at age 10 (end of Year 5) and who achieved grade 8 clarinet playing by the age of 14, I can say that my own ability to read single line treble clef was achieved by daily practise. (Tune A Day, Demnitz, Jazz stuff and twiddling)
    I do think wind instruments (clarinet, flute, oboe, sax) are great instruments for introducing notation because as notation is simply an instruction of where to put your fingers on a particular instrument, wind instruments have more variations of fingerings rather than say a brass instrument.
    Also because the clarinet 'overblows' at the 12th (produces its higher register using the same fingering as the lower register, but a twelfth apart), once the separate fingerings have been learned, then the reader can dedicate almost all of their attention to the notation, rather than trying to first figure out what the note is, and where it lies on the particular instrument (n.b. I teach both piano and guitar and these instruments are much more difficult in my opinion to make easy progress).

    Tied in with this whole question though is what shape musical learning should take and the bigger picture of any curriculum including the question 'What is music?'.

    For my musical credentials see:


  17. Basso_Profundo

    Basso_Profundo New commenter

    As a musician and music technologist [I also have a degree in IT and computing] I take a number of approaches to traditional, five-line, Western scoring:
    <ol>[*]It's been an essential part of Western musical notation for at least half a millennium;[*]It's not difficult to teach the fundamentals within a largely creative and "practical-based" teaching structure;[*]It's an "industry standard" a bit like programming a computer in Visual Basic</ol>But I also take the approach:<ol>[*]There are plenty of other ways to represent music visually / graphically [just one of a number of threads in an MA I am working on ...];[*]If we are to teach children according to their learning styles [V, A, K as a minimum], should we not also teach them to represent their music in an appropriate style? The five-line stave was devised to support Western tonal music and the scales commonly available to Western "serious" musical instruments. Even here it breaks down if one studies the violin works of Scelsi or Lachenman, with their eighth-tone intervals;[*]Learning VB doesn't mean you can automatically program in Java, C++ or SQL without further training![*]Even before the arrival of electronic technology, composers were reaching the limits of what could conveniently be expressed on the five-line stave, but were nowhere near the limits of their imagination. </ol>Surely we must all agree that music is, above all else, a form of expressive art? Surely, then, it must follow that we need thje ability to communicate from composer to performer every smallest nuance and harmonic inflection [wether tonal, atonal, serial, "glitch" or silent]. Take a look at something like the newest release [version 5] of Steinberg's Cubase. It affords an enormous wealth of alternative ways to express musical ideas and sound-art graphically. It has not abandonned the five-line stave: indeed, its authors have significantly expanded the features available to the composer who wishes to write in that medium. But that's only one of a wealth of ways it allows the composer and sound-artist to visualise their work.

    Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton don't "read music" - does that make either of them any less a musician? I remember when Yehudi Menuhin and Stephane Grappelli first performed jazz duets: Grappelli so used to playing "by ear" and improvising; Menuhin so highly-trained to play exactly what was written in the score. After some time working together, Grappelli remarked that he was a "novice violinist", comparing his style against Menuhin's ability to play straight-from-the-score. With a smile Menuhin replied "Yes, Sir, and I am only a very amateur Fiddler" - a reference to the unfamiliar concept of spontaneous improvisation.
    I hold a university diploma in music which the RSM regards as a substitute for Grade 8 Theory should I wish to apply for Licentiateship. I would argue that such understanding of scores and how to write them does not, by itself, make me a musician, any more than a BA in Shakespeare makes one an actor. On the other hand, I can give a Year 7 class a rhythm pattern, learnt through basic clapping, and a pentatonic scale shown simply by drawing part of the keyboard on a whiteboard, and the majority will soon be composing music. Likewise, sit many of that class at a drum kit. After initial near-silent trepidation or [more likely] fortissimo experimentation, the basic rhythm will be played. Leave them to practice / experiment even for a few minutes, and some notion of subtlety, phrasing, in-fills will appear. Is this music? Yes. Unrefined, possibly. Developing ability and enthusiasm, usually. Engaging the pupils? Almost always. Does Helena or Hassan need to know how to write Western notation at this point? I would argue that they do not.
    However - the introductions above usually lead to pupils wanting to know how to represent their work on paper. Now we have a very much more effective way forward.
    For the student of "serious classical" music [layman's language for "serious music of the Western tonal styles of the last half millennium" - that, in itself, still more of a generalism than I like!] then the five-line stave is something of a necessity. I have studied the same to honours graduate level. I love it. But I don't dare to suggest that it's the be-all and end-all of music. I have also studied non-Western World music to a similar level, including exploration of the impact of Western electronics and other influences on the development of World music in recent decades. I am working on a text-book for A Level Music Technology students in collaboration with an octogenarian retired music teacher. My colleague is actually rather less bothered about the need for any form of notation than I am. The irony here is that he's also a very accomplished composer following some of the best in western idiom, and with scores of scores to show for his labours.
    Ability to write and read a Western score helps me to communicate. In no way on this Earth does it make me a performing instrumentalist worthy even to accompany the likes of Clapton, or many of the great jazz musicians who also cannot read a score, far less to compare myself with them as a performer. Take the music of the Jali people of Africa. In many social circumstances, it is the musician's role more to understand the family politics of the audience and to express this in improvised lyrics, rather than to perform with accuracy annotated instrumental solos comparable in complexity to Rachmaninov's second piano concerto!
    Is the watercolourist any more or less of an artist that the sculptor, the painter in oils, the potter, the weaver?
    When I was at secondary school, we were taught solid music theory for three years [years 7-9]. Out of 92 pupils in my year one went on to take O-Level music [and that wasn't me!]. Sure, my ability to recognise the notation in a score helped when I started to study music in later life, but the idea of "teach 'em how to read a score at any cost" cost my year-group very dearly indeed.
    I am certainly not saying: Don't do it
    I'm not even saying: It's unnecessary
    But I <u>am</u> saying: It's not the be-all and end-all of musicianship.

  18. madenglishgirl

    madenglishgirl New commenter

    In response to the OP - I took GCSE Music 2 years early, whilst in Y9 despite only learning to read music competently the year before....I was at grade 7 level violin (unofficially) and went on to take grade 8 when I was 15. Thing is, I learnt with the Suzuki Method and learnt to play music to a high standard just by learning by ear.
  19. RJR_38

    RJR_38 New commenter

    I don't normally come in this forum but saw the thread on the main page so thought I'd add my own 2-pence worth in....
    I had quite a formal secondary education, as a result I could read music notation fairly fluently (might struggle a bit now but sure it would soon come back). HOWEVER - I am practically tone deaf, struggle to keep a decent beat can only play VERY basic keyboard. From the OPs comments I would have been a good candidate for GCSE music because I could read music? Ummm no, I don't think so. Reading music is not the be-all and end all you know! (Slinks back off to primary forum)
  20. Diversity is the key here. A lot of music teachers are finding they are having to spread themselves a lot wider and take on board new skills in order to engage students. That's been the way for me since I started teaching in 95. Classically trained, off to college to 'specialise' in my interest of music technology. A lot of musical genres have been created by fusing skills and styles together.
    Not everyone chooses to read/use notation. And why should they? Lets keep music interesting. lets keep it diverse by teaching it as we have been, to our own strengths, likes and tastes whilst encouraging willingness to try something else.
    Work with the loose directions of the NC. Go forward and be diverse. Good luck.


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