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I want to teach a friend of mine how to read music, but I don't know if to use mnemonics or not. The benefit of using them is that you can remember them more easily. The downside is that you might start "counting" the lines and reciting the mnemonics in order to recognize each note. to use mnemonics or there is another way?

For those who don't know what I'm talking about, example mnemonics are:

  • Treble clef lines: Every Good Band Draws Fans
  • Treble clef spaces: FACE
  • Bass clef lines: Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always
  • Bass clef spaces: All Cows Eat Grass

During research for this question I found this site which looks really nice to help memorize the different notes using flash cards.

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This might be offtopic (more about memorization than music), but if not it's definitely too subjective, answers will be pure opinion. Including mine. –  Matthew Read May 13 '11 at 14:12

5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted

It is harmful to spend time learning mnemonics for something you plan to use without looking it up all the time. It will slow you all the time and all the way (like writing letters on the notes) and act like a crutch, because you will have in fact several things to remember to go to the result.

The best way is to use a book with, say, treble clef reading exercices, introducing one then two, then three, etc. different notes. You are not supposed to learn music notation at once, in a day.

This way, at each step, you are training only for novelty. Many instrument methods for young beginners (when you have to learn at the same time music notation and instrument technique) use this trick. And some of them are beautifully illustrated. I have used them successfully with adults.

If your friend is already playing guitar, if you can do it yourself (for instance with a freeware music notation software), make random reading exercices for him with more and more open guitar strings notes on the treble clef (start with the highest ones (G B e) and reserve low E for later). Then add a few notes in between, like A, c, d, f, f#, Bb. And make them longer.

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Personally, I think this is too simple for mnemonics to be particularly useful. The important thing is practice. It doesn't matter how they're recalling the notes, as long as they're practising them. If they do it enough it will become automatic.

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I've found over my years on studying music that some mnemonics learned in the past have become an annoyance. I agree that in the early stages of musical development they do help focus a persons attention to the essentials of note reading, interval recognition, and sequence of accidentals.

This concept used in ear training, where a commonly known song is used to identify intervals, has been the most difficult for me to shake these 20 years after learning it. For example 'Here Comes the Bride' for an ascending perfect 4th or 'My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean' for an ascending major 6th are both called upon when I'm trying to sing a melody that I have never heard before. It can be frustrating to be singing those songs in your head at this stage of musical development. I'd be interested to see if singers who sight sing regularly suffer the same problem. Perhaps reliance on mnemonics is limited to activities that are done on a less regular basis.

If you want to be really cruel but effective you could have your friend go through Hindemith's 'Elementary Training for Musicians'. They would certainly become an adept musician if they make it through that book.

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I've never found mnemonics helpful for music notation (obviously very subjective)

Dangerously close to being out of scope for this site, but I am aware that people learning Morse code are told not to use mnemonics because it slows down recognition. One of the two most popular methods for learning Morse code (and arguably the one most effective for full speed recognition) is the Koch method, which involves introducing new letters gradually.

I believe the same would be true of music notation: No mnemonics, just gradually introduce new notes.

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The really hard part is remembering which mnemonic goes with which thing. Is "Fat Boys Eat After Dumping Garbage Cans" the order of the sharps on a key signature or the order of the flat keys? Or is it the Resistor Color Code? No, wait, that's "How I want a drink, alcoholic of course."

I was so young when I learned to read music that I never would have understood the mnemonics.

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