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14 minutes reading time (2783 words)

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.

Over the years I have found great success with even simple uses of color. I have a well-worn set of colored pencils that testify to this. When the elementary student is first reading both hands on the same staff, the confusion of left and right can get intensified. I have found that highlighting the stems of each hand in a different color immediately solves a visual problem. When a student is missing dynamic contrasts it is often because they are distracted by other visual data on the page. In these situations ask the student to pick a color that goes well with f and another color that could represent p and so forth. Then have the student highlight the dynamics with those colors. In these two simple scenarios, color is used to clarify by bringing symbols out of the field of black and white.

If you have a student who really struggles with reading, I encourage you to try this experiment: cover the printed page with a color-tinted transparency. I have had experiences in which a stumbling, halting reader suddenly plays fluently and with ease when this was done. These cases often involve students with learning differ- ences in which the eyes have difficulty processing black and white information. If this experiment proves helpful with students I will often send them home with the transparency to use in their practice.

It is my hope that, after reading Sarah's article, we will all begin to think outside of the box of "black and white" and explore the many advantages of color usage in the reading of music notation.

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 

Approximately a thousand years ago, Father Guido of Arezzo, a Benedictine monk from the Italian city-state of Arezzo, applied the idea of reading notes with a fixed location on a staff using colored lines to represent specific tones. He started with a red line for F, a yellow line for C, and a green line for E. It was common practice to use colored lines in music up until the 1600s. These advances and other innovations in notation reduced the time it took novices to learn their music from fourteen years to one.

Advances in printing in the 1400s made music more accessible to the masses. By 1500, most European cities had modern presses, but the expense of printing in more than one color discouraged the use of the colored lines in music.

In 1666, Sir Isaac Newton used a prism to split white sunlight into red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, and blue beams. Looping the spectrum together showed a natural progression of colors. Later, he associated each color with a note of a musical scale. Example 1 shows this association.

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 
Taking color to the next level: color-coding the notes
Starting with young beginners, colored music enables a student to play a larger range of the keyboard from the first few lessons. Most young children know their colors by the age of five. Remembering what the colors are and what they stand for is fairly easy. Reading music is dependent upon a student's ability to track a line. A colored note is unambiguous; students are more able to follow the musical line and move to the next note without pausing. Because color is more memorable, beginning students are much less likely to forget the notes when they are practicing at home. Students as young as three and four years old have been able to play the piece shown in Example 2 accurately after the first lesson.

Music in the beginning books of most piano methods is limited in range due to a specific hand position, particularly the middle C position, or to pitches that have been introduced one at a time. Both of these approaches limit the number of keys a student plays. Color-coded notes enable a student to play using a larger range of the keyboard and a greater vertical range of the staff.

Parents with limited musical background often say they are unable to help their kids because they don't know anything about music. Color-coded notes help them in several ways. First, the student is more likely to remember what the notes are, so they need less help from the parent. The second advantage is that parents don't have to be able to read music in order to support the learning process. If they can help the child match the colors to the right keys and maneuver basic up/down and right/left movements, they truly will help their child to progress. Furthermore, the color system is less daunting than having to tackle the process of learning to read music, and the whole family is in a better position to focus on the other aspects of the music including rhythm and dynamics.

Beyond beginning students 

As the student continues with piano lessons, the visual load of reading piano music increases: rhythms become more complicated, more information about how to play the notes is notated, more notes are played at the same time, the length of the music increases, the print often becomes smaller, and there is less white space. Each note in a piece of music carries many different pieces of information that must be interpreted quickly.

Color-coded music can help simplify the challenge of reading. In Example 3, it is easy to see the migration of the root of the triads as the chords invert. The student can easily see that all of these chords share the same three pitches—E, G-Sharp and B— and recognizes this particular color combination as a "color signature" for this triad.

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 guidelines 

Color 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.
Color and learning

There is a considerable volume of published research focusing on the use of color as a variable in learning. Color-coded materials have been shown to be more effective than black and white materials in self-instruction, even at the college level. As this research indicates, color-coded music should be a considerable advantage to students during home practice, when away from the helpful eye of a teacher.

Color-coding has been shown to be an effective tool in other academic subjects as varied as math, vocabulary, comprehension, and science.

Conclusion

Last November, I was able to get a plug- in for Sibelius, which enabled me to color-code advanced repertoire more easily. Because of this, I switched my whole piano studio to colored notation. When I reviewed my students' repertoire and progress after the June 2010 recitals, I saw a huge improvement in my advancing students. This was the first year I was able to teach Bach Inventions, Burgmüller Op. 100 pieces, Rachmaninoff pieces, and Beethoven sonata movements, to name just a few examples. Over the course of the last year, I have seen the time it takes a student to learn a new piece cut in half. The number of pitch mistakes has gone down significantly as well. Students learn their pieces both faster and better. These students didn't have fewer activities, nor did they suddenly start practicing more hours each day. I believe it was because their practice time was more productive and had fewer mistakes. My adult students are also thriving and playing pieces that they never dreamed they could.

Color-coding notes is now much easier than it was a few years ago. Music Notation software such as Sibelius and Finale both have plug-ins or functions that enable users to color various parts of a musical score, including notes. The only limitation now is repertoire. When working on new pieces, I often have my teenaged students input and color-code their own scores. This has been effective on two fronts. By inputting the score, they are experiencing every note before they have taken the score to the piano, and they are analyzing the score so that when they practice the piece they already can spot key changes, sequences, subjects, and repeated sections. All of the music that my students and I work with eventually makes it to Yellow Cat Music Community (ycmused.com) where editions of standard classical repertoire notated in color have been steadily increasing.


1 Rogers, George L. (1991). Effect of Color-Coded Notation on Music Achievement of Elementary Instrumental Students. Journal of Research in Music Education, 39 (1), pp. 64- 73.

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