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Is Music Notation Necessary?

Is Music Notation Necessary?

Ed Dumas

I have heard this question asked of me by potential band students more times than I can remember. Or, at least, the question was asked in one form or another, quite often in the form of a statement such as “I can’t memorize musical notation.” My gut instinct is to tell the students who made that claim that I have never met anyone, ever, who is completely unable to memorize the system of musical notation. But usually, it is not very helpful to tell students that they do not know of what they speak.

So instead, I try to show the students that the problem is that they usually do not have a complete vision of where we are heading in the band. I reassure them that the place we are going is totally doable by them and that memorizing the system of musical notation is not hard. As beginning-level music students, they need not have the entire system figured out before starting. They will learn it as we go along.

Some students will then double down on their first statement, and say things like “No, I really cannot memorize anything.” As a response, I will say that if they have made it to grade 6 where we are starting in band, I will take that as proof that they can memorize at least some things. Since they can read the English language, it is kind of evident that they were able to memorize the English alphabet. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not talking about special needs students here. What we are talking about is a very common response coming from very typical “average” students who truly believe that learning to read musical notation is hard. It is not.

So, sometimes with students that are very persistent in their belief that reading musical notation is difficult, I have often run through an imaginary scenario. This is a situation in which John Williams, the composer, has created an exciting soundtrack for this new movie called “Star Wars.” Star Wars used the London Symphony Orchestra in the soundtrack to the movie, but John Williams lived in New York at the time.

So, John phones up the first violinist of the London Symphony Orchestra and says, “Okay, I have this great new piece of music that is going to be a HUGE hit! I will teach it to you over the phone. So, the first note is a D.”

The first violinist plays a D – “Daaahhhhh” on his violin.

“No, no,” says John, that is too long. “Play it shorter.”

“Okay – Daahh.”

“No shorter.”




“Right. Now play me three of them.”

“Da. Da. Da.”

“Okay, now play me a G after those three notes.”

“Da. Da. Da. GGGGGgggggggggg.”

“No. No. Too long again. Much shorter!”

At this point, I can imagine the exasperated violin player saying to John Williams, “Is this going to go on all day like this? Exactly how short do you want this next note?” This is the first illustration of why we need the musical notation system currently in use. How else can you teach new music at a distance if it cannot be written down?

By now, the student who has insisted to me that he is going to learn to play a musical instrument without learning to read music is now beginning to understand the enormity of that task. John Williams wrote a two-hour-plus soundtrack for an orchestra of about 100 musicians, and the first musician to learn his or her part would be completely exasperated within the first few minutes of trying to learn Star Wars by memorizing the sounds instead of learning the system. My student by now would begin to see that learning to read the conventional notation system is actually the FASTEST route to playing something like Star Wars music. Anything else takes just WAY too much time when you are talking about a large group of musicians all doing different things.

Now I have had similar discussions with students wanting to play guitar in the secondary school jazz band. My response is always along the lines of “Yes, you are welcome to play guitar in the jazz band, but keep in mind that you must be able to read musical notation by the time you get there.” Some students will then claim that they are learning to play guitar by TAB instead of notation, so they will need to have the music given to them in TAB format.

When I then show them that jazz band music only comes in notation format, and that I will not be rewriting it for them in any other format, they again begin to understand the enormity of their requst. Since TAB for guitar does not contain rhythm information and only contains information on where to place their fingers, spending a great deal of time re-writing notation into TAB means that the student still must listen to someone else play it first to copy it. This is a huge waste of valuable time in an educational system that is already overloaded with things to do and learn.

So, going back to the question posed in this article, “Is music notation necessary?” The answer is that no, it is not absolutely necessary. But, it is by far and away the fastest route to success, and learning to play a musical instrument without learning notation at the same time means that your progress will be dramatically slowed by having to memorize so many things that could be easily delivered using a traditional notation system. “You can spend a few hours now learning how to read music, or you can spend countless numbers of hours having someone else (not me) help you memorize each one of the pieces of music that we will play only once in a concert before moving on to something else new. Trust me, reading notation is the easy route!”

So, the question for teachers is what resources should you consider using to help your students learn to read the musical notation system. My first-year players, then, were asked to purchase three small books along with their rental instruments. The first, of course, was their “Method Book” which was the first-year songbook, such as Standard of Excellence or Essential Elements. The second book I asked students to purchase was a performance book, which had a collection of band arrangements that were suitable for a first-year performance. The third book was a theory book where the students could practice the intellectual part of learning to read music.

The book that I used for many years was Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory Book 1. This is an excellent quality book that gives the students plenty of practice in all of the steps of learning to read music. It is a very affordable book as well, costing about the same as a method book. There are some specific advantages to using a written theory notation book as compared to other alternatives that I would like to suggest to you.

It is Already Created

When I started my career in music, I began with creating some note-naming practice pages and some musical counting practice pages. These were very helpful and useful, but I did spend a fair number of evenings creating these pages. I still had to photocopy them at school later, and standing over a copier was another big chore. Once I found Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory, all of that time was recovered to be able to do other things. For a busy secondary music teacher, this was very valuable to me.

One Book for All Instruments

The point of using a theory book is that the students are learning the System of musical notation. They are not learning the system that goes with their instrument. They are learning the one common system that everyone plays under, therefore everyone does the same pages. This includes bass clef and treble clef note naming pages regardless of which instrument the student plays. What I have usually told my students is that regarding the “other” clef, they need to know enough about those note names that they could then learn the system better if they should happen to switch instruments, which does occur fairly often. Usually, that just means doing what the book asks.

No Computers

Not very often will teachers suggest that not using computers is an asset these days, but in this case, I believe it is, especially for beginners. That is because, in most rooms where your students will be learning and making music, there will not be placed a full class set of computers for students to use. That means when you want to have your class complete a music notation assignment on computers, the class must put down their instruments, go to a different location, settle in, and log on before they can begin naming their pitches. This is just far too intrusive and cumbersome when a simple paper assignment will likely meet the same objective in less than half the amount of time. I have seen classes complete their one-page assignment for this week in about 5-10 minutes of band class time. The rest is for us to get back to making music.

No Photocopies

Besides the fact that you as the teacher do not need to stand over a photocopier for hours on end, there is an additional benefit to having the students bring a booklet to class for their theory work. Over the years of my work as a teacher, I have seen a profound change in how some students deal with paper. Some students today are so disorganized that a single sheet of photocopy paper going home with them as an assignment is almost guaranteed to be lost or destroyed, never to be returned to the teacher. For some students, the only way to have a single page returned is to complete it in class in front of the teacher.

A small lightweight book about the size of a method book, though, tends to stay intact longer and come back to class more regularly. Having the students write their name on the book right away means that more likely someone else will help return the book to its owner, instead of being tossed in the recycle bin. This may sound like a small point that is not worth mentioning, but for some students, this can represent the difference between initial success and initial frustration leading to leaving the music program.

Write-In Book

Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory is a book which students are expected to write in to complete the exercises, not just a text that they would read. This means the book cannot be used in future years, but it also makes the book extremely practical and successful by helping your students learn to read the notation system.

Make sure, though, that you also direct your students to complete all of their work in PENCIL and not pen. That is because when you find that they have completed the assignment incorrectly, you will want them to redo their work to show they now understand it properly. The most common student error that you will find when using this book is when treble clef players have to write in letter names in the bass clef. It is very common for these youngsters to write in a bass clef, and then proceed to name all of the notes using treble clef letter names! At that point, you will want them to understand that in bass clef it is not just the clef that is different, but the letter names are different as well. With a pencil, they will be able to erase and fix the problem.

Final Thoughts

If you are wondering if it is really necessary to have a music notation book, no it is not absolutely necessary. I have found though, that using this book for decades has given my students great success in learning to read notation while I could spend time more time teaching the ins and outs of their instruments to them.

My beginning band students would see me twice per week at the elementary level, and in each class, they were asked to present something to me. In the first class of the week, the students would bring up their practice record to me which showed me how many days they practiced in the last week. I would quickly write the number down in my marks book.

In the second class, the students would bring to me the one page of Alfred’s Theory that they were asked to complete over the last week. Usually, it would take the students 5-10 minutes at home to complete it, and this was not much for each week. I could then quickly check it over for correctness, and if it looked like they understood the work, I would give them a check mark at the top of the page. I would also then give them a check mark for that completed page in my book.

These presentations to me were done in usually just a few minutes at the beginning of the class, and it was during that time that the entire class was also getting set up and beginning to warmup. Once students were set up, they could bring their materials to me and I could quickly make the necessary marks before getting on with playing. It would always take a few classes to establish the routine, but once established, the students could move through this task quite quickly.

Finally, I would like to make a final comment about writing note names on the music. Students must be told that they should NOT be writing note names on their music for everything that they play. First-year students in particular want to write the note names on their music “just until I have it memorized.” I have heard that comment more times than I can count.

It is important, though, to help the students understand that as long as they write the note names on the page, they will NEVER memorize the notation system! The reason is very simple. Once they write the note names down on the page, their eyes will always be looking at the letters they wrote down, and not looking at the note-heads which give them the letter information. As such, this now completely undermines their ability to memorize their note names, and they will be doing this system forever, or until they quit, which is most common.

If your students are having trouble memorizing their note names, do this strategy instead. Place a piece of blank paper below their line of music. Then, using a pencil, write the note names on this second piece of paper. That gives them the practice of figuring out the note names and learning them. Then, and this is important, take that piece of paper away and just play the music with no letters written down. If they are still struggling, they can do this exercise a few times more, but writing on the music all their letter names and leaving them there will destroy all of that effort!

The intention of using a paper-based notation book is to help students overcome their dependence on writing letter names on their music. Writing on paper in Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory Book is better for memorization than a computer screen, cheaper & more available than technology, and more consistent than photocopies. Plus, practicing writing in Alfred’s book will not undermine their reading of the musical notation system later on! Parents will understand the small added cost of this book if you also explain the huge added benefits that come with it.


Ed Dumas is a retired band director who taught his entire career in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District. Ed is now living with his lifelong partner Laurie in Parksville, BC.  Ed & Laurie also work as Mid-Island reps for Tapestry Music while enjoying making music in retirement.

You can find Ed’s other writings for the MusicED Blog at:

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