Teaching the Treble Clef: Beyond Every Good Boy Does Fine

“Every Good Boy Does Fine”
“Good Boys Do Fine Always”
“FACE”
“All Cows Eat Grass” 
“Elvis’ Guitar Broke Down Friday”
Notation Mnemonics

I learned to read the notes on the staff using these mnemonics, and chances are you did, too. It’s a convenient shorthand, and it gives us an opportunity to make the abstract note names seem more real for our students. But at Edify, we think there is a better way. We can go beyond memorizing mnemonics, and help our students understand how notation really works. It’s easier than they (and you) might think.

We have just released the first of a set of lessons in our app MusiQuest that take a different approach to reading notes on the treble clef staff. Rather than focusing on mnemonics that help kids memorize the names of notes, our approach emphasizes learning the names of notes relative to one another.

Professional musicians don’t have time to think about “Every Good Boy Does Fine” when they’re sight reading. They likely don’t even have time to think about the name of the note. The relationship between a position on the staff and a fingering on their instrument or a sound in their mind’s ear has to be immediate and reflexive.

High and Low

We believe the best way to start building this kind of instinctive sense of notation is to think in shapes and distances before thinking in absolutes. Instead of starting by memorizing “Every Good Boy Does Fine” and “FACE,” our lesson pack starts by establishing the difference between high and low notes. Once students understand high and low, thinking about pitches relative to one another (this note is higher than that one) is a logical transition, one we think most kids will make without difficulty. We then cover lines and spaces without using note names. Once students understand where notes can be and what high and low look and sound like, we’re ready to introduce the musical alphabet.

The Musical Alphabet

In our second lesson, we introduce the musical alphabet by likening it to the English alphabet. It starts on A and goes up from there. Kids already know the alphabet, so finding the letter after A or the letter before C is a relatively easy task. By going through the process of figuring out the next note, we think this process will encourage kids to think in a relative sense: “This note is above C, so it must be D” rather than “Every Good Boy Does Fine, so this note must be D for does.”

Probably the least intuitive part of learning the note names is when and why the names repeat after G. This breaks our expectations based on the English alphabet. Our third lesson focuses on finding letters in both directions, wrapping around G.

The Treble Clef

Only at the point where students are confident with finding notes based on the locations of others do we introduce the treble clef. At this point, it’s not difficult to explain: clefs tell us where one starting note is, and the treble clef tells us about G.

Octaves

We end our first set of lessons on the treble clef staff by discussing octaves. Rather than presenting octaves as an innate rule of music, we find them organically by identifying pitches relative to one another, a process which students are by now comfortable with. Once we find a second note with the same name, we define an octave in a few ways. The simplest is to say octaves are two notes with the same name. Less obvious but just as important is the sound: octaves sound so similar, they’re almost the same note. (We don’t talk about the harmonic series, but a class that emphasized the science of sound might take this opportunity). Finally, we define octaves as an interval: two notes that are 8 lines and spaces away from one another.

A New Approach

This approach is experimental—we don’t know yet whether it will see results as quickly as “Every Good Boy Does Fine.” But we believe that it sets students up better for long-term understanding of notation to think in relative rather than absolute terms. It helps them see that notation isn’t an arbitrary system of symbols. It’s a precise and well-thought-out system that can help us organize sound. As students continue their music education and need to find ledger line notes, learn other clefs, or apply their learning to an instrument, we think a student who is comfortable finding notes relative to starting points will be better equipped.


ZackSulsky-Edify

Zack Sulsky is a musician, composer, and co-founder of Edify. As Director of Product, Zack drives Edify's product strategy, curriculum design, and agile processes. Making music is his favorite thing to do, and helping other people make music is a close second.