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I am working with a student in with a developmental delay. He basically cannot understand spoken or written language at all, so he has to learn by observation.

He has expressed much interest in music, so I'd like to explore if he can possibly learn to play piano. When I studied piano, I had to learn using the traditional staff notation. I think the teacher chose this because its what has been used for centuries, that is what is found in music books sold in the music stores, and not because it is easy or intuitive. I'm not one to regard something as "best" just because it is mainstream. I think in his situation, having something he can grasp quickly and will get him started and interested takes priority over being traditional.

Is there another notation system I can consider starting this student on, where the symbol-to-key correspondence is easy to comprehend the logic of?

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    There's always the possibility to teach piano playing without reference to those pesky dots. It wouldn't be the first time someone didn't read music - in any form! – Tim Jan 8 at 7:09
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    I don't see the benefit of learning an easy-to-grasp notation, if you find no scores afterwards according to that. Somewhat this reminds on the topic of artificial (synthetic) languages: sure they are easy learn, but how to apply them afterwards (outside of a potential messenger group bubble)? – guidot Jan 8 at 12:01
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    Why not try by ear. Just learn to play then worry about "reading" later? – user50691 Jan 8 at 12:13
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    I can think of dozens of possible ways forward. The problem is we need to know in detail what the student can and cannot do. Do they have manual dexterity? Can they hum a tune? Can they recognise a tune as belonging to a favourite TV programme? Might they enjoy simply hitting a drum or a xylophone at random? What is their general cognitive ability? Without a full assessment (someone must have done one) it's impossible to say what will work. The way forward is experiment. Music is about sound before anything else. – chasly - supports Monica Jan 8 at 14:39
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    1. I don't understand why the question was closed. I see no comments suggesting the reason. 2. I agree with Tim and ggcg. Music notation is an abstraction we use to communicate and comprehend music intellectually. If the student has trouble to understand language, then there is no point to bother him with notation. Rather let him learn by ear, by demonstrating how to play, maybe by viewing videos. Also, if he has poor manual dexterity, maybe piano is not the best instrument? Perhaps singing (without words) would come more naturally? – user1079505 Jan 8 at 17:46
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This might be more like a comment, or it may answer the actual question behind what you literally wrote. You decide.

You seem to assume a musical scenario with (1) a composition, (2) a performer, (3) an audience. Would it be possible to ditch that whole preconception and think about music in other ways? Why does there have to be notation? What is the thing that is supposed to be communicated using notation? Is that really the only way? Is that really the only possible purpose and goal? Music can be interaction. Music can be playing like a game or child's play with toys. Music can be a conversation. Music can be social. Music can be made in a group. Music can be made on the spot, improvised. Let's sing together, play together, make sounds together. Pitches, melodies, rhythms, harmonies, words, impressions. Real music.

Have you ever participated in music-making any other way than "some mastermind above me tells me what to do, and then I execute the given instructions?" Have you ever said anything of your own to another person musically? Have you had a musical conversation? Musical game? Musical fun and messing around? Have you tried to add something to existing music? Repeat what you hear? Repeat what you hear, but with some deliberate variations? Surprise someone musically? Annoy someone? Make someone laugh? Make yourself laugh? Cry? Dance!?

Sorry for ranting, but I have heard that children these days don't know how to play anymore. They don't take everyday objects and imagine them to be something else, see how other kids react and let their imagination flow freely. They're so used to pre-programmed stories and rules, everything has to be a predefined and pre-imagined detailed product made for that exact playing situation. A similar development has happened with music for a long time already. You don't just take an instrument and start, well, playing. Music has to be legitimate and proper, officially recognized pieces and genres. If you make a sound, you need to make sure that it's a socially acceptable, respectable sound! Or at least one that gets you upvotes and Likes.

obTopic / Re: notation

In the Suzuki method, at least at first, no notation is used. I haven't been there, but I've heard from friends and relatives that for a small child they might use a postcard or other picture as "notation" that's used (IIRC) simply to have something to look at, to assist remembering, if needed.

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    This answer is so good I'm gonna print it and study it and learn to recite it to anyone who asks a similar question. – JiK Jan 9 at 1:50
  • The Suzuki method is what came to my mind. Or just listening to simple melodies and watching the teacher play them, and then trying to repeat it. – md2perpe Jan 10 at 17:45
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Provided writing out scores for the student is an option, I suggest creating a notation that matches an image on the "score" with the same image placed on the keyboard.

For example, you could purchase "inventory circle labels" in a variety of colors. The score would be a sequence of variously colored labels which would correspond to keys with the same color labels.

Circle labels in various colors

In order to accommodate duration, you could place a row of adjacent labels (cut for partial beats).

I would begin by placing the "notes" in a single row. If this works for the student, then next steps could include adding a second row for the left hand and/or displacing the "notes" in space to emulate their positions on a staff.

As you develop a sense of how the student processes this notation, you could continue evolving it toward a more standard form or some other arrangement tailored to the student's needs and abilities.

Allowing for the possibility the system can evolve in the direction of standard notation, you could eventually try colorizing more traditional scores. Score-writing software can do this. For example, here's a two-handed score created with MuseScore.

Mary Had a Little Lamb with colored notes

The images comprising the score, of course, need not be colored dots. They could be any objects familiar and easily identified by the student.

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  • This idea has worked with youngsters for me. A couple of books 'Through the Rainbow' from memory. C=red, D=orange, etc. 7 colours, 7 notes. – Tim Jan 8 at 7:08
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    Isn't this wasted effort though? Because if your brain associates the notes with colours and then suddenly they are gone, all the effort you invested in to learning them been wasted. At least if you're only playing by ear you're not wasting time on something that you won't keep on using. I feel that those stickers that literally show the note on the staff would be better in this respect. – DKNguyen Jan 8 at 22:13
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    I guess what I'm skeptical of is the assumption that upon graduating from coloured dots to coloured notes, the student will learn to associate the staff positions to the keys using colours as the intermediary. But if the note remains coloured, why would they ever pay attention to the staff position? I know I wouldn't. There would be no need to because you already have something that works. – DKNguyen Jan 8 at 22:20
  • @DKNguyen Well said. My post should not have suggested a direct move from colored dots to colored notes on the staff. I've updated to suggest how the system might evolve. – Aaron Jan 8 at 23:37
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    @DKNguyen Well, if accidental rules (colours only present on first instance of each note) and then, eventually, fingering rules (colours only present on non-obvious notes) apply, it might be easier to make the shift. – wizzwizz4 Jan 9 at 17:46
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Traditional western musical notation has the advantage of having been subject to lots of practical tests. It can range from the simple lead sheet with the melody written out and the accompaniment indicated symbolically. From experience assisting in teaching a music kindergarten for a few years, I'd say that a single staff (probably treble clef) is pretty easy to understand. Time runs from left to right and pitch from bottom to top. One need not learn lots of highly complex notation at first but the foundation for doing so will be there.

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I think the teacher chose this because its what has been used for centuries, that is what is found in music books sold in the music stores, and not because it is easy or intuitive.

A writing system must be consistent and effective, that doesn't mean that it has to be intuitive (in fact, it usually can not): is the written latin alphabet an intuitive writing system? Certainly not - in fact, writings based on ideograms like Chinese, while considered complex and unintuitive to "us" latin-writing people, are conceptually more intuitive.

Music is a very complex language, and the traditional staff notation is a convention that has been developed, evolved and tested along centuries. It's not immediate, nor easy, but is ironically more intuitive than latin characters: the horizontal position shows progress in time (usually in a consistent way, as longer notes have wider margins after them), the vertical position indicates the pitch.

It is probably not the "best" system, but I doubt there would be just one.

Take for instance the "piano roll" visualization in many music production programs (this is museScore):

museScore piano roll

This is clearly more intuitive than staff notation, as the pitch is pretty clear and time positioning is consistent, but it has its flaws: it requires a lot of space, you can easily be "lost", and using the chromatic scale can be confusing since we normally use a tonal system.

That said, also considering the spoken/written handicaps, the first thing to keep in mind is to use the music as it should: by listening and performing.

Before approaching the reading part, there are more important aspects that should be explored and understood first: pitch, time, dynamic.

Assuming that the pupil is able to vocalize in some way, that should be probably done through singing and imitation - exactly as we all do when learning to speak.

Start with short, easy melodies (if he already knows some, use them) with very few notes - avoid tunes that use an extension greater than a fourth or a fifth at the beginning.
Even a simple C, D, E, -, E, D, C, -.

Try to do them at different heights, even very different, so that he can begin to understand the difference of listening and singing/playing very high or very low notes. Imitation can be done with your singing, and then when playing and singing: sing a simple 3-4 notes tune, try to sing them together, then sing the same tune while playing, let him try the same, then do the same tune starting from a different note on the piano.

Then there's the matter of time, both as speed and duration. You can use the same simple tune and sing/play at different speeds, or at the same speed but with shorter and longer notes.

Finally, as the above, but with different dynamics.

You can also do this while "silently" beginning to use the color method Aaron proposed, which is a very good suggestion and is actually widely used for any child. Just put those stickers on the piano, doesn't matter if you don't use them from the beginning; you can

After some time, you can put those stickers on paper, and try to show the correlation while playing.
Let him try to create its own tunes by giving him stickers to put on paper, or, even better, drawing with pastels or colored pencils. This is very important, because it allows a better awareness of what is happening and what can be possibly done.
Consider that once the basic concepts have been grasped, you can also try to play short tunes and see if he's able to "write" them down using colors (maybe you can do the opposite too: he plays some notes, and you draw them).

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He basically cannot understand spoken or written language at all, so he has to learn by observation.

I feel there is a non-negligible likelihood that you are underestimating your student's capability in learning sheet notation. It is certainly true that we cannot start with sheet notation for him, but I do suspect that he still can eventually learn sheet notation!

From what you said, I surmise that he is able to learn a new piece by imitating you. And you should continue to let him learn new pieces this way. However, this does not preclude you showing him the score (in standard notation) after he has learnt a piece, and show him the correspondence by pointing to the notes as you play them! If you focus on just the notes and duration, (ignoring the notation for the time signature, dynamics, ornaments, and so on), the notation is actually not hard to pick up.

You can try using notes with simple duration (1,1/2,1/4,1/8,1/16) first, and notate other durations using ties, and once he has gotten that you can show him what beamed notation means by starting with a score using simple-duration notes that he has already understood and changing the adjacent quavers appropriately, perhaps by first drawing a wavy line through the flags to join all the poles up, and then erasing and straightening that wavy line.

Similarly for dotted notation. For example, starting with a score using simple-duration notes that he has learnt, you can first circle all the instances of tied pairs of notes where the second has half the duration of the first, and then erase the pole and flag of the second (still leaving the head and tie there), and then replace that head and tie with a little dot next to the first note.

Dynamics can be learnt later, by showing them in sequence:

pp < p < mp < mf < f < ff

And by starting from a simple score that he has learnt (i.e. after the above steps) and adding just two or three such dynamic markings and playing the piece with those dynamics. Crescendo and decrescendo may take a bit more time to convey without words, but should also be doable.

In general, I believe it should not be hard to grasp the meaning of various notations if it is conveyed via a sequence of simple transformations from a simpler base notation. The key is to introduce new notation step by step and not start from a modern published score that is filled of notation! There may be some notation that cannot be conveyed this way, but I think we do not lose much by not learning them. For example, the time signature can be basically ignored.

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I think you have a kind of disconnect here. If the kid can't learn to read printed words, then it's unlikely that printed notes (of any kind) will be of any use. There's really no difference between reading letters to form words and reading notes to make music. Both involve translating arbitrary, abstract glyphs into concrete actions.

Drop the idea of teaching notes.

Find a simple piece of music the kid seems to like. You'll have to play songs and watch the reactions.

Once you've got something the kid is enthusiastic about, sit down at the piano together with the kid. Play part of the song. Something that the kid obviously likes. Ask the kid to try playing it. If need be, place the kid's fingers over the first keys and press to get across the idea that pressing the keys makes the noises of the music.

You're going to have to show the kid how to play the music by doing it together. It'll probably take a lot of repetition to get the sequence of notes across. It may even take a while for the kid to recognize that pressing the keys is what makes the sounds and that the order of the keys is what makes the music.


Teaching music (or anything) by hands on demonstrating how to do it is going to involve a lot of close contact. Be sure that the kid (and the kid's parents) are OK with that.

Be sure that the kid really wants to play music before you try to teach it.

It's going to take a lot of patience. There will be lots of wrong notes and as many misunderstandings. Never, ever flip out over a wrong note or a whatever.

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Does the student understand/respond to colors? Or sizes? Or shapes?

Perhaps, listening to a simple piece of music (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, for example), then playing it on a keyboard with color-coded keys, to create something that can be visually matched. Then, if that works, try putting the colors on a piece of paper - nothing special, just colored blobs or scribbled blocks - to see if the student can follow...a red blotch means the red key, a blue blotch the blue key, etc.

If that works, then refine it still further, and put size to the blotches. A wider blotch means a longer note, for example.

It's a bit crude, and certainly simplistic, but it eliminates the need for standard notation. If the student responds well to this, then you could go further and try putting the blotches on a staff, then making the blotches note-shaped, then putting the note-blotches in the appropriate lines/spaces on the staff, etc. Unfortunately I don't have any ideas for how to make the connection between wider blotches and longer notes in notation, such as half or whole notes, but perhaps you could come up with something there.

It doesn't have to be colors, it could be shapes or anything else the student responds to and understands and can make connections with. Perhaps even a combination (maybe instead of regular and wide blotches, it could be circles and triangles and squares).

If the student responds better to touch, then perhaps even this crude notation isn't for them...perhaps you could equate certain physical sensations to the notes. For example, a tap on the left shoulder becomes C, a tap on the elbow becomes G, a stomp of your foot with a tap could mean a longer note, etc.

Be creative! Let your student guide you...if they truly have an interest, they will find a way. :)

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I am a mathematician working in time-frequency analysis (and a keyboarder, having a few instruments, and loving improvisation).

I may suggest to try to download the STX software *free, from ARI, the Acoustic Research Institute of the Austrian Academy of Science (google for STX ARI, or STX, ARI, Peter Balazs, the director of this institute, and my former PhD student).

This real-time spectral analyzer allows to produce pictures from sound, so this goes the other direction, but helps to get a good understanding... of the meaning of a decision taken at the keyboard on the sound and coupling it with the visual impression of a score-like graphical notation (so in a way we undo to notation).

Also the gaborator (also based on work of my students) is interesting: www.gaborator.com (here you can upload your WAV file, so it it NOT interactive).

Hans G. Feichtinger
hans.feichtinger@univie.ac.at

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  • How does this relate to teaching a developmentally delayed student interested in piano? – Aaron Jan 11 at 7:48
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Several people answered this in comments, but strangely no one put it in an answer yet:

Just play by ear, i.e. literal imitation. Commit every piece to memory. This is not a bad method for any kid. It's a part of the Suzuki method that was already mentioned as an aside. It places a different focus than sheet music based teaching, but that's ok. Someone learning that way will probably learn to play fewer pieces, better, rather than a lot of pieces, just ok. They will have a better mental connection between pitches and what they need to do to make them sound than someone who primarily plays from sheet music.

In the past it might not have been a viable method to learn exclusively by listening, but today you can access recordings of pretty much every piece you might want to learn, so it's no real problem if even a pretty serious musician never learns any music notation.

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