Music Notation and Music Education Part 3 - New Notation for Music Education

Animated Notation For Music Education 

The most recent reforms in musical notation have open up possibilities for musicians and composers in many ways; the changing of the composer/performer relationship, the role of indeterminacy to remove personal  choice and the use of notation to challenge the concept of musicality. After four years of working with hundreds of musicians of all ages and all levels of musical experience, the most striking thing about animated notation is its effectiveness in allowing large groups of individuals to have meaningful, engaging and creative musical experiences. 

The animated graphic scores, performances and experiments, inspired a new system of music education called DabbledooMusic. This is a system that not only allows teachers and students to perform, compose and listen in every class, but it lets them work in a more creative, imaginative and educationally rewarding way. The system exists as a free online resource, which uses animated music notation not just in video form but as fully interactive scores. This new step makes the scores more adaptable, engaging and creative.

Redesigning The Notation

In the early experiments the effectiveness of animated symbols to communicate musical concepts was assessed. This began with the symbol itself and then extended to how it was animated. The analysis revealed that certain symbols and certain visual parameters were commonly link to particular sounds or musical gestures. For the purposes of education it was important to identify this style of animated notation. If a particular musical concept was being taught in class, the notation would have to be able to represent this in some way.  

As discussed earlier, it is not enough to create a new notation for education and expect it to be used without explanation. It was decided that the notation would have to be presented in a way that was appealing to teachers and students in terms of design and usability. Visual artist Killian Redmond collaborated from an early stage with the new developments for education. A range of  characters were created to accompany the animated notation with each character would represent a different musical area. 

Developing a Full Curriculum 

Introduction to Graphic Notation

The curriculum begins with an introduction to graphic notation, the connection between symbols and sounds. This is, unsurprisingly, an easy connection for young children to make. Most of their early learning either with language or mathematics is achieved through assigning meaning to symbols. In learning the alphabet the learn twenty-six symbols and associate sounds with each one. They later combine these sounds to make words and words to build sentences. This is the same approach taken in the first stage of the online resources. The user is presented with eight symbols. 

The symbols were chosen to represent different types of graphic notation and to give the students as many examples of alternative notation as possible. The 's' and 't' introduce consonant sounds and the use of previously recognised symbols with associated sounds. The 'ding dong', as well as being the sound of a door bell, and very often sung as a minor third, shows the use of written words in graphic notation. The 'line up' symbol introduces the relationship between visual height and pitch. The three separate dots introduce the idea of three separate sounds grouped together and the pig shows students that they can use representative symbols for sounds inspired by the world around them. 

In each new section of the online resources there is a combination of interactive activities, allowing the students to process this new information through composition and performance. It is in these activities, at this early stage, that the concept of colour coding different groups of performers and instruments is introduced; red, green, blue and yellow. It is encouraged that each colour group use similar sounding instruments or sounds, depending on the available resources. This division of colours and sound types is reinforced with listening games and performances and remains a constant for the rest of the online resources. 

Animated Notation

Once the concept of graphic notation has been introduced and the idea of dividing the class into different colour groups, animated notation can be introduced. 'The clock' is a simple way of arranging a class into different sounds and getting them to perform simple sound pieces together. As with each section of resources, a step by step approach is taken. The animated score begins with only two colours and only one sound at a time. As the class become comfortable with this process more colours are added until all four colours are represented with two sound playing simultaneously. 'The clock' is the most indeterminate section of the online resources. The animated score only serves to assign a duration to each sound, without dictating the content. This resource is of great use in a classroom setting as it is open to any kind of performance or composition class. Imagination is the key in this first section and this is an area where primary level student are at a great advantage.


The next step in the online resources was to introduce the concept of rhythm. The class have been introduced to sequences of sound using graphic notation, now they will learn how consistently repeated sequences become rhythms. This is where we introduce our first character to the online resource to help the class understand and interact with rhythm. 'Igor the Great' is an expert percussionist, the inspiration for the rhythm resources and a giant octopus. In the resources, Igor acts as conductor, band leader and metronome for the users performances and compositions. As in the 'Front Door' section, each  sound is in a separate box and the score is read from right to left. New symbols are used here to deal with percussive sounds.

Try Igor Here

In this particular example Igor's tentacles are animated to play on each crotchet beat. The groups, as before, are divided into four colours with different sets of instruments each with responsibility for their own rhythm. 


Another character accompanies the melody section. A drumming octopus can only really be followed by a piano playing cat. In this section, the same stave-like notation from Moving Shapes Colours is used to communicate relative pitch to the user. We have already established in the 'Front Door' section that  height and pitch are related but in this section we add the rhythmic element and the tonic solfa. The decision to include the tonic solfa came after a survey of different primary level music curricula from europe and in particular, the Irish model. It was clear that adding tonic solfa would not only give teachers more confidence but allow the students to gain valuable understanding of scales through singing. As in the other sections of resources the idea of melody is introduced gradually with only three notes. The next stage adds two more notes to make a pentatonic scale and the final adds another three to make a full major scale.

Listen to Jazz Cat Here

Making it Interactive

Although animated notation offers many advantages to conventional notation in a classroom setting, it soon appeared that it was not enough to have fixed video scores for classroom use. Firstly, it would require a huge number of scores, each covering different lessons, and secondly, the fixed nature of the scores didn't allow any flexibility for interaction. As discusses above, the importance of composition is equal to performance and listening, so allowing the user to create their own animated graphic score was the obvious next step. This was accomplished with help from a software developer mainly working in html 5. These interactive scores allow users to create their own arrangement of sounds through the established colour scheme, change the speed of the animation and control the number of repetitions for the overall structure. This level of interactivity also means that teachers have access to a huge range of possibilities within each interactive resource. 

Try the clock here

In 'the clock' section the user is able to select any of the four colours and fill any of the twelve segments of the clock. There is also a white selection to erase the colour. There is a button to change the speed of the hand rotation and one to change the number of full rotations, between one and four. Both the colour selection and the speed controls remain active as the score is animated so that changes can be made in real time. The melody section works in a similar way, with users able to create their own melody parts before animating the bouncing ball and moving line to start the performance. 

Making it Accessible

The use of animated graphic notation to make music accessible is the most important consideration across all the works discussed in this paper. From the earliest experiments to the most recent developments in interactive technology, the key has been to make notation that invites music making, regardless of age, training or experience. Similarly, with the presentation of the online material, it was important to design the website to the highest standards of usability. For teachers, the site is designed to be functional, clear and present ideas in a logical and structured way, with a step by step introduction to new areas of activities. For the students, who in the modern age are accustomed to the most advanced level of user experience, it is important that the website meets their high standards and proves to be engaging and fun as well as educational. The idea of gamification is used throughout, not in terms of high scores or lives lost, but in a constant sense of achievement and progression.   The decision to make it available as a free online resource was also to do with accessibility, as was the decision to optimize for interactive whiteboards. Internet accessibility and access to interactive white boards are the two most common forms of classroom technology today. The website with the full compliment of interactive resources was completed in March 2015. In 2016, with the help of an award from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland we were able to alunch a full curriculum programme for schools covering all areas of the curriculum.At the time of writing there are almost 5,000 online users with an estimated reach to over 20,000 children who now have access to creative music making in the classroom.

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