How can colors be used to help students learn to read music?
For centuries, music notation has been a "black and white" subject. To read this music, musicians have decoded black and white print and transferred it into colorful sound. Even when making notations in our printed music we have usually grabbed an ordinary pencil, thus adding a shade of gray to the page. When things get really bad we might actually use the red pencil for extra emphasis.
In this issue, Sarah Lyngra shares fascinating information about the history of color in musical notation, as well as valuable scientific information about how the eye processes visual data. All of this, along with her own experimentation, has led Sarah to the extensive use of color in music notation in order to facilitate reading. Click here to download additional .pdf samples of Sarah's "colorized" standard repertoire.
Color-coded music simplifies the challenge of reading by Sarah Lyngra
I became interested in using color as a teaching tool fourteen years ago when I had a student with severe learning difficulties. Black notes on a page were perplexing to her, and naming keys using letters didn't connect either. It was only after highlighting each note using consistent colors that she was able to read music. In three months she went from not understanding the staff to being able to play with both hands independently. Since then, advances in color printing and music notation software have enabled me to develop a color-coding system for notes that I use in my entire studio.
A brief history of color-coded music
Today, advances in color printing technology, combined with a better understanding of the brain's visual and color processing, have raised interest in using color as a viable option for learning to read music.
A little bit about the eyes
To understand why color is such an effective tool for reading music, one must first have a basic understanding of how the eye works. When light enters the eye, it is focused by the lens onto the retina, which contains the photoreceptors. There are two types of photoreceptor cells: rods and cones. Rods are located throughout the retina and are responsible for peripheral vision and low light vision. Rods are monochromatic and not very good at resolving fine detail. The cones are responsible for colored vision, are very good at resolving fine detail, and are primarily located in the fovea. Cones work well in bright light and are crucial for reading.
Stimulating the cones with colored images causes more information to be received by the brain. Because of this, colored music is more visually stimulating than music in black and white. Color blindness, known commonly as color deficiency, genetically occurs due to abnormalities in one or more of the types of cones. Research on the effects of brain injuries shows that damage to certain parts of the brain affect color vision. This research led scientists to discover that the areas of the brain that process colors are separate from those that process black and white.
Presenting material in color to students with learning disabilities has been found to make learning easier and more fun. One study completed in 1991 indicated that colored-coded music helped students with learning disabilities read up to, and in some cases above, the level of their peers.
Whether a student is reading in color or black, good vision is crucial. Twenty to twenty-five percent of school-aged children have vision problems that are missed in school screenings. Many vision problems are not related to the difficulties in focusing clearly (acuity), but are additional challenges faced by students. Reading music is a complex eye-brain processing task with many components. To make sure that your student is not struggling with a vision problem, it is useful to watch the eyes of a student as he reads. If a student's eyes are jerky in their movements, or the head moves when reading, there could be a problem. Eyes should track smoothly and remain focused on the page as much as possible. Counting how many times a student's eyes move from a page of music to the keyboard and back during the playing of a piece can be quite revealing. For a student who does exhibit difficulties in reading music, consulting a developmental optometrist could help significantly.
Learning in color
The easiest and most obvious ways to use color to help students read involve highlighter pens. Color attracts the attention of the eye. Traditionally music is black, so areas of the page that are highlighted will be more visible than areas that are left unmarked.
Highlighters can be a useful tool for:
- Identifying difficult notes or passages
- Identifying repeating sections
- Color coding dynamic markings, cadences, and accidentals
- Changes in tempo, key, and time signatures
- Connecting the notes of the melody in elementary pieces to help the eye follow the melodic line
- Coloring the subjects of fugues as keys and hands change
While Grieg's "Puck," Op. 71, No. 3, may fit easily under the fingers, the note reading can be difficult. Excerpt 4 demonstrates the benefits of color. For inexperienced readers, the clef changes and ledger lines can be daunting. In color-coded music a G is always red, regardless of which octave or whether it has an accidental. The accidentals are also color-coded to the notes, so it is always clear which note they alter. Each triad and key presents a unique color signature, making key changes in the music more obvious. Pattern recognition is quickened, and a pianist can scan ahead to see what is coming without losing track of where he is.
In mm. 16-18, while both hands are in the bass staff, the colored notation enables a student to see immediately that not only are the notes parallel, but they are also exactly the same keys separated by an octave. Although there are clef changes in both staves in mm. 19-20, the colored score shows the pattern of F and B continuing in both hands.
Mm. 21-24 can be particularly challenging to read. However, in this version the ledger lines in the left hand are instantly readable. The three colors, orange (A), brown (B), and black (C), that make up the left hand melody are also featured in the descending line in the right hand, making the connection between the two hands easy to describe to a student. The repeated thirds (D and F), with just the top notes changing, are easy to see in mm. 22-24. In m. 25, as with other notes in this example, accidentals are in the same color as the notes that they define. This is particularly useful when more than one accidental is present, as in m. 30, or if the notes are part of a melodic second.
Colored notes for students with learning disabilities and visual impairments
Research shows that as much as twenty- five percent of school-aged children have undiagnosed visual problems that affect learning in school. Additional studies show that many learning disabilities are tied to vision. When a student has difficulty with eye teaming, which is getting both eyes to work together, lines can appear blurry and notes can move around on the page. His eyes can have jerky movements, and he may have difficulty in tracking a line of music smoothly. Colored notes appear to be easier to differentiate from each other even if the lines and spaces they are on are blurry.
Research indicates students with learning disabilities are able to read music in colored notation even when they cannot read the black notes. The Journal of Research in Music Education reports that teachers working with colored notes have found that students with learning disabilities are able, when reading in color, to do as well as their non-challenged peers.1
Color usage guidelinesColor can be used to enhance learning in many ways. Whether working with color-coded notes or just highlighting certain sections, it is important to keep a few things in mind:
- A well-lit teaching environment is crucial. Color vision works best with high light levels.
- Color should be used consistently to be most effective.
- Use standard colors. The eleven colors that have word sin most modern languages are yellow, purple, green, blue, red, orange, brown, black. white, grey, and pink. Colors with names like aqua, taupe, and mauve are confusing to children.
- A cluttered page is still a cluttered page, even if it is colorful.