David Sell

The supposition that children cannot be expected to sight-read music unless they have a modicum of music-reading skill was put to the test in this study of children’s sight-reading of music. The study focused in particular on Year 4 and Year 8 children’s accuracy in pitch and rhythm while performing sight-singing tasks from the 1996 NEMP music assessment.

Ten percent of the total relevant video-taped performances were selected for analysis, and the original broad NEMP categories used to assess these performances of mostly/always accurate, moderately accurate, and inaccurate/not attempted were further broken down in this study, to make them more specific. For example, in ‘Sing Song’, the pitch element was broken down into pitch correct; pitch sharp; pitch flat; pitch correct, but with some wrong notes; and pitch unrecognisable, or spoken.  
• A large number of children ‘spoke’ the melody or, if they sang it, did so at a pitch that was almost unrecognisable. These children were usually from the same schools, suggesting a paucity of singing experience/models at home or school.

• Where a melody was recognisable, it was invariably sung flat. Sharp singing was virtually absent.

• Most of the sight-singing tasks were of melodies set to words. A majority of children could not cope with both reading the words and singing the tune, so abandoned one and tried to do the other, haltingly mumbling the words in a monotone and often eventually giving up altogether.

  • Children were more likely to read rhythm accurately than pitch. However, it was the rhythm of the words rather than of the melody that led to these accurate readings.

• Those children who were accurate or near accurate in pitch were generally also accurate or near accurate in rhythm, suggesting that accuracy in one generates accuracy in the other.

• Many children settled on a pitch and/or rhythm pattern, though not necessarily the correct one, and repeated it throughout the melody.

The study confirmed that most children cannot readily sight-read music. Consequently, they do what they can and intone the words. Music sight-reading must be taught systematically, with music notation always taught in relation to the sound that it represents, and not as a musically barren theory. Thus:

• Words and music should initially be kept separate by focusing on practising sight-reading wordless melodies. Words have their own rhythm, and if children learn this type of rhythm first, they find it difficult to ‘undo’ when the rhythm of the tune and of the words differ.

• Given that most children have difficulty sight-reading rhythm and pitch at the same time, it is important to get the rhythm right first, by clapping, or singing on a single note, and then adding pitch to make the complete melody.

• A correct sight-read rhythm generates confidence, and is more likely to lead to a correctly sung pitch melody.

  • Melody must be set at a reasonable (and not necessarily low) pitch level.

• Singing flat in most cases indicates feeling flat. A buoyant, positive atmosphere is more likely to facilitate in-tune sight-singing.

• Sight-singing should not be treated as a right or wrong task. Children given two or three tries on a task nearly always improved, and their confidence grew with each improved attempt.
top of page    |    return to Contents    |    return to Probe Studies menu                                to FULL REPORT
The full report of this probe study will be available on this website by Jan 2004 or can be obtained from USEE.