Rhythm Reading | Standard Notation vs. Stick Notation

Standard notation vs. stick notation. When teaching young children to read music, which should you start with? Want to make a long story short? Don’t have time to read the back story? Here is the short-cut version.

If you are a busy music teacher without enough class time to get everything taught, start with standard notation. Young children can learn standard notation just as easily as stick notation. In fact, I believe standard notation is quicker in the long run because there is no transition time. Do you need some rhythm reading resources that begin with icons and standard notation? Check out this Rhythm Reading Bundle on TpT.

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

Standard Notation vs. Stick Notation | The Back Story

As Paul Harvey used to say, “And now for the rest of the story.”

When I graduated from college with my Bachelors of Music degree, I imagined that 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. It became clear that a band director career was not in the cards for me. It was also woefully evident (although no one seemed to notice except me) that I was not prepared to teach little ones.

I did, however, find a position teaching elementary music. It was a 5/8 time position 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  Certification

When a local college began offering Kodály certification courses I jumped right in with both feet. The timing was perfect as I had just finished my masters but still didn’t feel completely prepared to teach little ones. I embraced the method wholeheartedly following every step and all the techniques that I had been taught while successfully 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.

Year after year I felt the squeeze to get more and more taught with less and less time. I eventually dropped stick notation and redesigned my teaching materials to begin with standard notation. It worked like a charm. This does NOT mean that I  skipped the Kodály  “prepare” phase of introducing each element aurally. It simply means that 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 that she taught standard notation from the beginning. 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 teaching young children how to read language and learning to read music. When we teach the alphabet (the building blocks of written language) we do not teach children that two parallel lines (| |) is an H and then later say, oh, this is really an H. You must connect those two lines. In fact, we teach the uppercase and lowercase letters at the same time – H h.

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

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

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

By beginning with standard notation, you eliminate the transition period. It simply saves time.

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

Materials That Begin with Standard Notation

Standard notation vs. stick notation. You will have to make your own decision. Every teacher and every child is different. No matter how you teach your beginners, developing sequential lessons that build on prior learning is crucial.

Creating all of your own materials is time consuming. If you are looking for ready-made, no-prep music reading lessons that utilize icons and standard notation and are non-rhythm syllable specific (that is a future post), check out the lessons at Frau Musik USA.

Standard notation vs. stick notation is not that big a deal after all.

What are your thoughts? Do you begin with stick notation or standard notation? Would you consider beginning with standard notation? Leave a comment below.

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