Thursday, October 23, 2014

Effect of Color-Coded Notation on Music Achievement of Elementary Instrumental Students

Effect of Color-Coded Notation on Music Achievement of Elementary Instrumental Students
George Rogers, Journal of Research in Music Education, January 1991, Volume 39, Issue 1, p. 64 - 73

This research study examined the use of color-coded notation on 92 grade five and six beginning band students. The goal of the study was to determine if using color-coded music would have any effect on the students’ ability to memorize music, sight-read or identify letter name notes. Divided into two groups from two different schools, the experimental group was given color-coded materials and traditional method books where the notes had been highlighted in different colors. The control group used the same curriculum, but non-colored. The results were interesting. Color-coding seemed to have no effect on the students’ ability to memorize music, but for sight reading, and in particular note naming, the research study did show that color-coding had an effect on a higher degree of test score accuracy. In addition to those results, the study highlighted the effect of color-coding on a special needs class and showed that it played a significant role in note identification. The study also revealed that 65% of students said that using color-coded notation made it easier for them to play. At the time this research study was undertaken, there had been no research done in color-coding in music education.

Color-coding as an educational tool has been well documented. The paper cites several research studies that showed using color-codes in numeracy and literacy materials improved performance results and test scores. According to Rogers, the brain responds well to color as a learning tool because “stimuli received through several senses excites more neurons in several localized areas of the cortex, thereby reinforcing the learning process and improving retention”. In other words, the brain gets excited by colors and this results in better learning.

In the beginning band classroom the ability to read simple notation and letter name notes is often challenging; especially for the special needs child. The black and white language of sticks and circles squeezed into a five line staff can be overwhelming to students who don’t process information as quickly and efficiently as others. Color-coding, as the study reveals, has been used over the years in various subject areas.  Students take for granted the colorful Venn diagrams and graphs of math and science text books.   I remember being engaged by colorful math textbooks from the 70’s and the colored letters of the alphabet on Sesame Street.  It seems logical that colors applied to numbers or letters could also be a beneficial pedagogical aid in music and score reading.  If B on the third line of the staff is pink but A on the space below is orange, one would think that at the very least, students would be able to identify and understand that these are two different notes, and therefore, two different sounds.

In my own work with learning differentiated students, I am using numbers to identify the notes of the B flat scale. I am intrigued by the possibility that using colors has the potential to reinforce the different notes, particularly if I use color in the early stages and continue to use color as I transition to the actual note names. In the study, special needs students did well when they were tested with color-coded notes, and became highly dependent on this system. However, they resisted being tested with non-colored notation, some refusing to even try. This raises concerns that color coding and in extension, non-traditional score curriculum could have a negative impact that might restrict or impair score reading as students advance to higher grades in music education. 

Questions that were raised for me after reading the study include;  What influence did using two different teachers for each group of students have on the final results? How did the application of “coloring in” the notes in a regular method book influence the learning? Would color-coding work more effectively on curriculum if it were designed specifically to be used in this way?

The final summary of the study reveals that no significant benefit was found in using color-coded notation. However, recommendations do include the potential of using color-coded materials with special needs students. It does highlight the result that 65% of students believed color-coded notation helped them play better compared to non-colored. I think this shows potential and leaves me wondering if there is value in taking another look at using color-coding in music education under different research parameters.


angie said...

Susan, you presented a very fascinating blog. It definitely reminds me of Scriabin’s “Coloured Bearing” method, where he assigned colours to other keys, for sensory blending and synesthesia. I wonder if Rogers (1991) got the concept partially from him! Nonetheless, some of the colours were: C = Red; D = Yellow; E = Light blue; F = Maroon; etc.
As you mentioned that colour-coding has been used over the years in various subject area, it brought me back to my students with dyslexia or certain LDs who cannot read small print. Instead, our learning resource teacher suggest that I print out his vocal music in large print, and simply, type out the lyrics for him and teach him by rote. She’s not a music specialist, hence her suggesting not reading the actual score. But printing out the sight reading exercises in large print, or notating music (writing out letter names in larger font for him to play in band on the trombone) has benefitted. I wonder if colour-coding would also be beneficial for him!
I also wonder, what about students who are colour-blind? Do we make sure the reds are not beside the green, for example? Thank you for sharing!

Mark Sandborn said...

My name is Mark Sandborn and I am the CEO of Virtuoso Music International. I just wanted to inform you of the Virtuoso Music Education System. On average, students who study music with this methodology complete the coursework in 18 months (approximately 250 total hours of experience) achieving an advanced level of competency in sight-reading, music structure analysis, and performance technique. Upon completion of the Virtuoso methodology, students can read and play virtually anything they desire. Even individuals with autism, dyslexia, ADHD, and dyscalculia have been shown to advance at nearly the same rate as traditional learners. This instruction method can be evaluated by viewing video recorded Virtuoso Method lessons listed below (if Lesson 151 is viewed, that means that the student has had a total of 151 hours of musical training demonstrating how far a student can advance in only 151 hours).

I encourage you to review the following links regarding this methodology as I think you will find it quite intriguing. Thanks for your time and feel free to ask as many questions as you like.

Mark Sandborn

Virtuoso Music
San Diego, California
United States

Facebook: Color Music Theory:

YouTube link to the introductory aspects of the Virtuoso Music Education System:

YouTube video recorded Virtuoso Piano Lessons Playlist:

Blog titled ‘The Cost of Piano Lessons for 4 Years’:"

YouTube link to Beethoven's Fur Elise within the Spectrum Color format:

YouTube link to Coldplay's Viva La Vida within the Spectrum Color format: