The Ups, Downs, Ins and Outs of Color-Coded Music

It’s no mystery that everything here at Preschool Prodigies is color-coded! Very often though, I talk to parents and music teachers who ask “Is color-coded music making it too easy for my child?”

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Today we’re pulling back the curtain on color-coded notation, so you can figure out how to walk the color-coded musical path with confidence!

Just for some background… the note-coloring system we used is called Chromanotes (TM) and it is arguably the most widespread note-coloring system in the world, thanks largely to the massive popularity of Boomwhackers.

Boomwhacker Xylophone

Boomwhackers are the colorful musical tubes pictured above, and they are distributed and owned by Rhythm Band Instruments. RBI is the biggest distributor of color-coded instrument in the U.S., their new website kicks butt and their team is super professional and super personable. They’ve also got some sick drummers on staff! I think I speak for music educators everywhere when I say “we love you RBI!”

The Pros of Color Coded Music

There are two main advantages to using the color-coded music. For starters, the colors make it obvious which note is which. Half the battle of initially playing the piano is figuring out which note is which. Problem solved!

Even once you’ve learned the notes on a piano, it can take a split second to make sure you’re about to play the right one. The colors help reduce that split second time even further, and you’re intermediate students will still notice that the stickers feel comfortable. There is a disadvantage lurking here though which I will get to in the next section!

Farmer in the Dell Book Mockup copy for web

The second advantage stems from the first, but not in a way most people realize.

When you’re a young kid playing an instrument, your brain is making a lot of strong musical connections for the first time.

If your teacher asks you to play a note B, and you play a note A, you’re forcing a connection between the idea of B and the sound of A. No bueno.

In Education for Absolute Pitch, Naoyuki and Ruth Taneda explain that by introducing individual notes to children slowly, one at a time, you can develop the connections needed for memorized pitch. They color-code the notes and use painted fingernails to make sure the kids connect the right finger to the right note. 

Personally, I use a white glove with color-coded fingers, mainly cause I’m squeamish about finger painting my students finger nails! Also, some of the boys wouldn’t appreciate it.

But back to Taneda… A large part of their process for giving kids absolute pitch is keeping kids from making bad connections, ie playing the wrong note. If you were asked to play a B, and both your mind and your ear is ready for a B, then a B better come next, otherwise you’re creating an untrue connection between the idea of B and whatever sound you just played.

In the Taneda method, a teacher or parent is always present to guide the child, essentially creating an errorless learning environment to classically condition the child’s developing musical ear.

This is why I love the bells so much – by limiting the child’s musical options and color coding the instrument, you create a more error-free environment.

Chromanotes C Major Deskbells - Absolute Pitch and Perfect Pitch Training for Kids

This helps children develop a stronger sense of pitch. Indeed with the individual musical bells ringing individual musical notes, you eventually get to know the bell as a tangible object that makes one specific sound. Even as an adult, this improved my sense for memorized pitch and for many of my students, it’s the foundation of their musical ear.

The Cons of Color-Coded Music

Learn Piano

The main argument against color-coded music is that it’s too easy.

This manifests in two ways:

  1. Kids don’t learn how to read the Grand Staff without colors
  2. Kids don’t really learn where to find the notes of the piano without the stickers.

Learning to read the Grand Staff can be hard. I still hesitate with ledger lines and I read music everyday.

There are a lot of questions and personal preference that came into play here.

If you want your kids to be a professional 1st Chair Violinist, then making sure they are musically literate is a good idea. To do this, you would want to progress away from color-coded notes or labeling the notes as fast possible and play lots of note guessing, flash card kind of games.

There are several music literacy programs out there that largely on teaching kids how to read the grand staff.

While musical literacy is great, I personally believe that for young kids who are in the critical years for auditory development, should focus on developing their sense of memorized pitch more than they should focus on developing their ability to read the staff.

You can obviously do both at the same time, BUT without color-coding the note or constant supervision and guidance, kids will make mistakes and start to force untrue connections between what they’re supposed to be playing and what they end up playing.

The solution is to take certain stickers off the piano and to not put the same stickers in every octave. This way, there are gaps in the stickers BUT there are always some nearby references to guide and help curb mistakes. This sort of guides kids to seeing the whole pattern without making it too easy.

Another good way to get your kids playing the piano by feel and by memory instead of by color is to blindfold them (or if they’re not a little kid, just ask them to close their eyes).

This is how I try to practice most of the time these days and it’s definitely a fun and beneficial (and in many ways freeing) experience.

2 thoughts on “The Ups, Downs, Ins and Outs of Color-Coded Music”

  1. We have the bells from Prodigies but is there a xylophone you would recommend for my other child to practice on as they take turns on the bells? Thanks!

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