Mnemonics in music reading: help or hindrance?

Do your young piano pupils struggle to fully grasp reading music notation?

Do some pupils drop out because they can’t seem to get the hang of it despite your best efforts to help them?

notation mnemonics

For teachers this can be very frustrating. Often, we wonder what exactly the problem is.

USING MNEMONICS

One traditional way of helping pupils to learn and remember note names is through the use of mnemonics. Mnemonics are: ‘The art of improving or developing the memory, especially by artificial aids: a system of precepts and rules intended to aid or improve the memory’. [1]

I’ve been doing some research into the use of mnenomics in music reading recently trying to trace their evolution and history. Certainly their roots stretch back to the Victorian period (for more on this see The Social History of Piano Teaching). The earliest I have found so far is a piano tutor book in the British Library that was published in 1903. I have also been doing some more up-to-date research on the internet and almost every site I have visited uses of mnemonics to explain notation on the staff. This Wiki-How site has had over 5 million visitors! No wonder the use of mnemonics is so deeply ingrained.

But this is the 21st century and our understanding of how we learn has evolved massively since the Victorian period. Our continued use of mnemonics as one of the primary ways of teaching notation is a real hindrance and has to be challenged.

Here are six reasons why.

WHY NOT MNEMONICS #1

Mnemonics lack any musical meaning. In other words they have nothing to do with musical sound or engagement.

WHY NOT MNEMONICS #2

Mnemonics are merely a memory hook helping students to remember the letter names EGBDF for example. A number of stages have to be gone through before the mnemonic can be applied – recognising the clef, identifying whether the note is on a line or in a space, working out which line or space it is on. They don’t actually help pupils to recognise a note instantly on the staff.

WHY NOT MNEMONICS #3

Music is full of rhythmic, melodic and structural patterns. Using mnemonics does just the opposite and isolates notes. Instead the patterns the brain remembers are the sentences (e.g. Every good boy deserves favours). Although even that isn’t always easy with the hundreds of variations that have developed.

WHY NOT MNEMONICS #4

We know a lot more about the brain and how we learn stuff now than we did back in the Victorian period when mnemonics were first used. There is a robust theory of learning [2] that has three stages, cognitive, associative and autonomous. WIth a mnemonics approach to learning to read notation most pupils never reach the autonomous stage of just ‘knowing’ a note. If we’re lucky they reach the autonomous stage of ‘knowing’ the mnemonic which then has to be painstakingly matched against the lines or spaces of the staff.

WHY NOT MNEMONICS #5

Learning to read music using mnemonics tends to limit pianistic development to solely what can be read. Pupils first start lessons because they are excited by the piano and its sound – just like we are. Why should pupils only play what they can read? It restricts their creative soul and limits their musical engagement. Of course as teachers we have to be careful to get the right balance between rote and reading – but that’s our job both as individuals and as a profession to ensure.

WHY NOT MNEMONICS #6

Pupils can have a lot of fun making up their own personal mnenomics. That’s great but does that enjoyment continue 6 weeks or 6 months later when it is being used to read the notes of a piece? The excited, emerging pianist of the first lessons is often eventually weighed down by the strain of continous reading.

So mnemonics are not an efficient way of learning to read notation. That’s not to say that this way is impossible – I was taught to read this way as, I am sure, many of you were. But we are the lucky few who managed to ‘get it’; many, many others didn’t.

If you are interested in finding an alternative system for teaching notation join me next week on Facebook and YouTube where I’ll be sharing with you the 7 secrets that every teacher should know for helping your pupils to SPARKLE with their music reading.

Right now you can help the change to happen by sharing this blog post with other teachers and with your piano parents.

This blog post was written by Dr. Sally Cathcart, Co-Founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers

[1] Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. OUP 5th edition 2002.

[2] Fitts and Posner 1967.

10 thoughts on “Mnemonics in music reading: help or hindrance?

  1. Emyr

    I have found mnemonics successful because I make the distinction between treble and bass as clear as possible. I use FACE and Every Green Bus….for treble and then animals in the bass – All Cows Eat Grass and Good Bears Deserve Fish Always. Then for little ones, they remember that cows and bears make low sounds! With enough flahscards and repetition, all my students eventually reach the automatic stage.

    Reply
  2. Penny

    Thanks for this blog Sally. The question of note reading is something I have been thinking about for some time. I know the “Every Green Bus Drives Fast” method doesn’t work for a lot of learners, but have never been sure what to replace it with. Looking forward to finding out more.

    Reply
  3. Sandy Holland

    There’s also the confusion of remembering which Mnemonic is which for bass/treble and lines/spaces.
    A similar problem arises when a student who already reads treble clef tries to learn bass clef by thinking that a note is like treble but a space lower … or is it two notes higher? So confusing! These systems prevent fluent sight reading and efficient learning.
    If a new pupil tells me they think this way I tend to get out a piece that is full of chords and ask them how long they think it would take me to learn it if I had to work out all the notes. Then we explore better ways, which I’m sure you are going to do in your series.

    Reply
  4. Judith Bogod

    in the 1950’s, I was taught EGBDS (Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge), Good Boys Deserve Fudge) for base and treble notation. Because of it, I have to repeat the entire neumonic to hone in one on note so for me neumonics were a good idea.

    Neumnics writing flats or minors the staff for scales, E Major “FCGD” (Fat Cats Go Down), Bb Major “BE” (Be Early), Eb Major “BEA” (Be Early Always), for F Minor and Ab Minor (BEAD), I have found helpful the neumonics helpful.

    Song clues for hearing majors and minor intervals, “O Canada”, “Michael Row the Boat”, “Star Wars’, “Hey Jude”, “Born Free” not strictly, neumonics, but prods to help the correlation to intervals.

    Reply
  5. Andrew R

    Sounds great. Lots of my students struggle with learning and recalling note names.
    Will the 7 secrets appear on the community?

    Best wishes and thanks. Andrew

    Reply
    1. Sharon

      Yes, we’ll be sure to share this S.P.A.R.K.L.E. videos series inside the Curiosity Lounge next week Andrew! 🙂

      Reply

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