On “Every Good Boy Does Fine”

First of all, it isn’t true. All of us are are good, but everyone makes mistakes sometimes so every good boy does not do fine always.

I prefer asking my students to invent their own EGBDF silly sentences, such as “Every Good Banana Deserves Fudge” or “Even Ghosts Burp Disgusting Food”. (To the long ago students who composed those mnemonics, thanks!)

Every Good Boy Does Fine is a mnemonic–dating back at least to my grandmother’s childhood–used to teach note reading by rote. “Rote” (defined as the “mechanical or habitual repetition of something”) learning certainly has its place in music learning. A musician really does have to repeat musical problems several times as they imprint kinesthetic knowledge. That’s called practicing. But learning how to read by rote is problematic for many students.

While EGBDF mnemonics help us to recognize the letter names of notes on the staff, musicians who can sight read do not think of individual notes as separate entities. Instead, they read by “chunking” patterns of notes visually, thereby eliciting the muscle  and auditory memory of a melodic shape. This is similar to the way we learn how to be fluent readers: as you read this sentence, you probably aren’t sounding out each individual letter. Instead, you see chunks of alphabetic patterns that you recognize from past experiences. In an awesome way, your brain is interpreting both sound and meaning as you visually decode these patterns.

Music is sound, not a visual symbol. EGBDF music readers play the same way that a new reader recites a sentence, in starts and stops, without rhythm. Drilled EGBDF can turn into a difficult habit to break, especially if a young student internalizes the message that note reading equals music making.

If a child can speak in full sentences with punctuation long before she learns how to read, the same is true for an instrument learner. Music is sound made by a physical action, not the decoding of visual representations of pitch and rhythm. Some of the best musicians that I have worked with don’t read notation at all. To make fluid, beautiful music is the first priority in music lessons.

Traditional classical training assumes that students learn how to play music at the same pace as they learn how to decode Western notation. The symbol itself is emphasized in the absence of meaning. In Teaching for Musical Understanding (2001), Jackie Wiggins states, “Students need to understand that there is a logic behind a notation system, a logic that is based on the way the music sounds (and not on “Every Good Boy Does Fine.”) [Music notation] systems will only make sense to students after they have established a strong base of prior experience with the concepts behind the ways in which we write down musical ideas.”

Staff decoding can be an easy achievement for many learners, but for others, this skill takes time to learn. Classical piano playing requires a choreography of mental and physical skills, and the age of the student who finally takes that developmental leap into decoding does not predicate their ability to play or read fluently.

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