David Gorbe

Reading Music: Music and Reading and Music Reading

David Gorbe

CEP 842: Instructional Application Project

Spring 2010


Introduction (What I do)

            For the past 14 years I have been a band teacher.  I have probably taught over a thousand students to read music and still I feel that there are some I am not reaching.  I decided on this profession during my junior year of HS after a fellow student approached me for help with a piece she was having trouble with.  In hindsight, I think she may just have been hitting on me, but what she said had a profound impact.  She was a sophomore and didn’t know the names of the notes.  She mostly just played by ear or looked at what others were playing.  I didn’t believe her.  It seemed impossible to me that a student could get along for four or five years this way, but it was true.  She knew a little, but not enough to actually look at something she has never seen before and play it.  I decided that was unacceptable, and I would do what I could to keep others from musical illiteracy.  I was young.

            Instruction in music education at Michigan State University didn’t give me much to go on in my undergraduate years when it comes to teaching music reading to young students.  It is assumed that you present the information the way that you learned it, and they will learn it as well.  I didn’t really think much about it, I just assumed it would work for them the way it worked for me.  But I have found that some students simply do not understand the complex symbols placed before them.  They are confusing dots and lines on a page and many of them still will learn by ear and imitating others. 

            I took a graduate course after a few years of teaching with Dr. Edwin Gordon, who started the “Gordon Institute for Music Learning (GIML)” which approached learning music the same way we learn language.  Much of his approach is based in brain research, so it seemed quite logical in its presentation.  Yet its biggest flaw is that it doesn’t really focus on reading at all, it pretty much stops there.  Gordon himself said that they have been taught how to “think music” correctly, the reading falls into place.  I haven’t found this to be the case, probably because I also don’t agree with his ideas on testing students first for their musical aptitude, and only teaching them (although this might not be his aim, it is the way the tests his company produces are used).  When asked how early a student should begin musical instruction, his answer is “When the mother is born.”  What about students without this cultural equity?

            Part of the difficulty lies in the way that today’s band classes are designed.  In a beginning class at Waverly Community Schools where I have taught for the past 12 years, we will start about 120 students, divided into two classes that meet twice a week for about 40 minutes each time.  These two classes are then divided by two teachers according to instrument classification.  For simplicity, we divide by woodwinds (flutes and clarinets only to start) and brass and percussion (trumpets, trombones, and bells).  I usually teach the brass and percussion, meaning that my class uses three different forms of the musical language.  Trumpets play in treble clef in the key of B-flat, meaning that they will have different names for all of the notes that we discuss in class.  Trombones play in bass clef, meaning all of their lines and spaces will be different from the bells and trumpets.  Bells play in treble clef in the key of C, meaning they use the same clef as trumpets, but use different note names.  Trombones share the same note names as bells, but use a different clef.  Yet somehow these three versions of the music language need to be taught in the same class that only meets twice a week, just before lunch when students are only thinking about pizza and recess.

            Our materials are limited as well.  Students are required to buy their own instruments, which can be expensive.  In today’s economy and with our changing district make-up, we are consistently getting families that cannot afford to buy or are declined when they try to rent an instrument, leaving it to us to provide one for that student.  Students also need a book for when we introduce written music after the first three months.  Some of the students have a hard time affording one, and when give them one, often have trouble staying organized.  We find that many of the students that we provide instruments and books for often do not take very good care of them, and holding the families financially accountable is incredibly difficult.

These students are not tested for musical aptitude, they are simply given the opportunity to join band if they want to regardless of their background.  This is done in hopes that it helps both the individual student, since many studies have been done that support the idea that music education helps students in other educational areas, and it helps the program grow in membership, ensuring that it will still be there to help other students in the future.

Why study music?

            There are many studies that show being in performing music classes are helpful in other areas.  For example, “Neuharth (2000) examined the effects active band participation had on academic achievement in middle school grades. Results show significant differences in reading achievement that favored band students.”(Huber, 2009)  There are even studies that show music and language skills are related in a way that even helps those with dyslexia (Music Perception, 08).  I myself have noticed through my years of teaching the high numbers of students in our band classes that are in the National Honors Society and a good portion of the top ten graduating seniors in our district.  Many books support the idea, including How the Gifted Brain Learns by David A. Sousa.

            Because of this, I hope to make as many students as possible successful in learning to read music.  I know that “reading is not the goal (Socol, 2010)” but only a tool to help more information, or in this case pieces of music, to be accessed, but I notice that more of those students who struggle with reading music tend to give up on playing their instrument.  It would be nice to see all 120 5th grade students make it all the way to 12th grade together, but the fact is only about 30 or less usually graduate together.  I believe that if more can read successfully, then more will stay with it.

Plan of Action

            I have focused much more on music reading this year than in the past.  I believe that much of it has to do with this class, although some of it comes from having a student teacher.  I like having student teachers because it makes me evaluate how I teach more than when I am by myself.  I have tried to slow down more, and spend more time on repetition and checking for understanding in all of the students.  The Response-to-Intervention approach my district has adopted this year has made me reconsider the way I do homework and testing.  Yet still I notice some students that would still struggle with the concepts.  It may be less than in the past, but we do still want “no child left behind” in concept at least, although I usually phrase in a more action-movie way (“You don’t leave a man behind!”) when I talk to the class.

            I plan to use (steal) ideas from Response-to-Intervention, Differentiated Instruction, and Universal Design in my curriculum design for next year to try to improve this.  Motivation to learn the material will also be considered.  Although many of them already are there learning to play their instruments because they want to be, there are still some students pushed by their parents into being a part of band class.  Extrinsic motivation has previously been used for these students in the form of grades or chairs (later in Middle School) to learn the material, though I am inclined to try the “Possible Selves” idea (kucrl.org, 2005) to have students make their own plan for what they want to learn and why.

            For Response-to-Intervention, the main focus will be using a test to identify those who are having a hard time identifying written notes by name as well as how to play them on their instrument and keeping track of their progress.  The goal by the end of 5th grade will be to know 7 notes on their instrument and on the page, and rhythms containing whole, half, quarter, eighth, and dotted notes and rests.  By tracking their progress more carefully and identifying students who need help I can then group students with a “reading buddy” like they do in Differentiated Instruction.

            The “reading buddy” idea from Differentiated Instruction (Tomlinson, 2000) is interesting to me, since students usually share stands anyway.  I will give time in class where the two students will go through a short piece of music and go through the note names together, quizzing each other on how to play it on their instrument, and help each other prepare for playing the piece.  This will require some initial instruction, but once it becomes a ritual, it should be effective.  Small groups can also go into a practice room to work on something to perform and even teach to the class, again pairing them by ability levels that complement each other.  The personal agendas idea will also be included with the “Possible selves” paper they will fill out and keep in their folders so they can track their own progress.

            Universal design will mostly take the form of “Flexibility in use” (Shaw, Scott, &McGuire, 2001).  This is the most difficult idea, since pencil and paper has been the standard for so long.  I have been researching computer programs that help with music reading, and have found a few promising sites.  Offering these as an option instead of the pencil and paper standard is very enticing, although difficult to implement.  Not all students have internet access, and the ones I found so far are internet based.  Students could use computers at school, but again the size of the class makes that difficult to work out.  I also found one that would even keep track of each individual student’s progress, but only with a monthly subscription, which may be cost prohibitive given the current state of our district’s financial situation.  I will continue to look for more options over the next four months.

            Many of the ideas posed in these educational approaches are already innate in a band class.  A band is already a community of learners that has a common goal in the form of performances.  Many pieces of music are already “tiered” with the more difficult parts separated in some instruments, like first and second trumpet parts, etc.  Parts can even be simplified to promote inclusion.  The music is already both auditory and visual, and the fact that playing an instrument is a physical activity helps many stay focused as well.  Rehearsals are structured and consistent, which helps those with ADHD (US Dept of Ed 2004).

            Although music reading was not something that we studied in this course, I hope that I have been able to take some of the concepts and adapt them to another content area.  The benefits of being in a group like a band class are many, and should be seen as essential.  Many people think of music as one of the “nice to haves” and not a core content area, but I think that if we want to compete in today’s world, we need to look at what people have known about studying the arts since the days of Plato.

Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form – Plato (McClard, 2010)









Huber, Juanita J. (2009).  Music Instruction and the Reading Achievement of Middle School Students.  Advanced online publication.  Retrieved from: http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1318&context=doctoral


Winner, Ellen. (2008). The Relation Between Music and Phonological Processing in Normal-Reading Children and Children with Dyslexia.   Music Perception, Vol. 25, No. 4, Pages 383–390, DOI 10.1525/mp.2008.25.4.383

Socol, Ira. (2010, March 27). Reading is NOT the goal.  Message posted to http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2010/03/reading-is-not-goal.html

The University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning.  (2005). Strategic Instruction Model Content Enhancement.  Retrieved from: http://www.kucrl.org/images/presentations/CEoverview2005.pdf

Tomlinson, C. A. (August, 2000). Differentiation of Instruction in the Elementary Grades. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

Scott, S.S., McGuire, J.M., & Shaw, S.F. (2001). Principles of Universal Design for Instruction. Storrs: University of Connecticut, Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability.

United States Department of Education (2004). Teaching Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Instructional Strategies and Practices.  Retrieved from: www2.ed.gov/teachers/needs/speced/adhd/adhd-resource-pt2.pdf


McClard, S. (2010, February 6). Oedipus the Musical - Cognitive Benefits of Music Reading. Retrieved from:  http://ezinearticles.com/?Oedipus-­The-­Musical-­-­-­Cognitive-­Benefits-­of-­Music-­Reading&id=3713302









Gordon Institute for Music Learning

The Gordon Institute for Music Learning (GIML) is dedicated to advancing the research in music education pioneered by Edwin E. Gordon. The purpose of the Gordon Institute for Music Learning is to advance music understanding through audiation. We believe in the music potential of each individual, and we support an interactive learning community with opportunities for musical and professional development.

We encourage you to learn more about GIML and become a member. Please read the Join GIML page for more information and a membership application.





About the author

Ricci Adams first envisioned Musictheory.net during his senior year of high school. Soon afterwards, he created his first lesson: The Staff, Clefs, and Ledger Lines. The Interval Ear Trainer was developed a few weeks later and the site officially launched on January 1, 2000. Since that date, he has authored over thirty new lessons and several new trainers.

In May of 2004, Adams graduated magna cum laude from Millikin University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science. He currently lives and works in Cupertino as a Software Engineer. In his spare time, he works on new additions to his website as well as other projects.



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