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Elementary Music Rhythm Reading Standard Notation vs. Stick Notation

Elementary music teachers, are you considering starting your young students with standard notation instead of stick notation? See this post.

When you first teach rhythm reading, which should you start with – standard music notation or stick notation? Some music teachers want to turn this into a big debate, but it doesn’t have to be. Here is the short-cut version.

If you’re a busy music teacher without enough class time to get everything taught, start with standard notation. Young children can learn standard notation as easily as stick notation.

In fact, standard notation is quicker in the long run because there is no transition time. Check out this Rhythm Reading Activity Bundle for the early elementary grades which begins with iconic notation and leads straight to standard notation.

Teaching Young Children to Read Music | Standard Notation vs. Stick Notation

Standard Notation vs. Stick Notation | The Back Story

When I graduated from college I imagined I would teach middle school and high school band for my entire career. After teaching in my first band position for only 1 1/2 years, my husband got a new job 250 miles away and we had become pregnant with our first child.

With a new baby, a band director career was not in the cards for me. It was also evident I was not well prepared to teach at the elementary level (although no one seemed to notice except me).

I did, however, find a position teaching elementary music. The part-time position was 5/8 time which was perfect for a new mom. Because the position was over half-time, I received health insurance benefits but I was not teaching a full load.

Kodály  Method

When a local college began offering Kodály certification courses I jumped right in with both feet. The timing was perfect as I had finished my Masters degree but still didn’t feel prepared to teach young children.

I embraced the Kodály method wholeheartedly following every step and all the techniques I had been taught while implementing the lessons in my elementary music classrooms.

The year our second child went to kindergarten was the year I switched schools and returned to full-time music teaching. And year after year I felt the pressure to teach more with less time.

I dropped stick notation and redesigned my teaching materials to begin with iconic notation which led to standard notation. My students learned quickly and the progress we made was noticed by parents, administrators, and other teachers.

This does NOT mean I skipped the Kodály “prepare” phase of introducing each element aurally. It means when I introduced the notes visually, I used standard notation instead of stick notation.

For several years I felt guilty about this deviation from what I had been taught. I only told some of my closest music teacher friends. Then, I heard a nationally-known, well-respected music educator/presenter say she taught standard notation with her early elementary students.

Finally, I felt like I was validated. I did not have to hide in the shadows anymore.

Standard Notation vs. Stick Notation Rationale

My rationale for starting with standard notation is as follows.

I began to identify correlations between how we teach young children to read language and learning to read music. This analogy is a little weird but stick with me. (No pun intended. 😊)

Teaching Young Children to Read Music | Standard Notation vs. Stick Notation

When we teach young children the letters of the alphabet (the building blocks of written language) we do not teach that two parallel lines | | is an H and then later say, oh, this is really an H. You must connect those two vertical lines with a horizontal line.

In fact, we teach the uppercase and lowercase letters at the same time – H h. As music teachers, we don’t have to oversimplify the music reading process. Children are capable of learning standard notation from the start. And, this effort to oversimplify can complicate things in the long run.

Students Learn Standard NOtation as Quick at Stick Notation

You may have heard the argument that starting with stick notation helps students better discriminate between quarter notes and eighth notes. I have found no difference. When presented correctly, young children identify and read standard notation as quickly as stick notation.

I have found children recognize and read half notes quicker when they begin reading music with standard notation. They’re not so focused on the note stem and beams. They see the notes more as a “whole” complete symbol.

And when you begin with standard notation, you eliminate the transition period when you move from stick to standard notation. This approach saves time.

Popsicle Stick Dictation

This does not mean you won’t ever use stick notation. Popsicle dictation is one of my favorite activities. Children easily figure out how to represent notes with popsicle sticks. And, I like to do rhythmic dictation with pretzels and Skittles at the end of the year. Yum!

Real-World Music Symbols

When young students begin to read standard music notation, they “find” music notation in their environment. Children see the music notes in a hymnal or songbook at church. They see a parent’s or older sibling’s music and they’re excited to see notes they can read.

A positive side effect of teaching standard notation is it raises music advocacy. When parents, other teachers, and administrators see children reading “real” music they become more supportive of your music program.

See this post for more – Increase Music Advocacy by Developing Music Literacy.

Standard Notation or Stick Notation, What Do You Choose?

You will have to make your own decision whether you will start your early elementary students with standard notation or stick notation. Every teacher and every elementary school is different.

But, creating all of your own materials is time-consuming. If you’re looking for no-prep music reading lessons that use icons and standard notation and are non-rhythm syllable specific, check out these Music Literacy Activity Bundles.

Standard notation vs. stick notation is not a big deal no matter which you choose.


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