The Vertical-Orientation Method to
Learning to Sight Read Music for the Keyboard

A Proposal by Jacques du Plessis

"Thus, the task is not so much to see what no one yet has seen,
but to think what nobody yet has thought about
that which everybody sees."

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)


Note: The idea behind this research comes from personal reflection. To date I have not heard of or seen any literature that has considered this approach to teaching sight reading of music.


Does an initial introduction of vertical notation if standard sight reading instruction improve the eventual sight-reading ability of the standard horizontal notation of beginner students of keyboard musical instruments?

     As you read the research question the first time, it might not make much sense at all. What is vertical notation? Regular sheet music runs from left to right on horizontal bars. That is horizontal notation. If you turn the sheet music 90 in a clockwise direction, you have vertical notation-nothing else changes.

The image below illustrates today's norm for page orientation for beginners students of music.

The next image illustrates the proposed change to the current horizontal notation.

Why this research?
     The difficulty with efficient skill acquisition of sight-reading music for the keyboard is that the variables are stacked too high for the beginner. The different issues that might be included as distinct variables could include: interpreting the two bars (treble and base or right hand and left hand) simultaneously and rendering the result on the keyboard, interpreting the black and white keys as it is reflected in notation, and interpreting the key (sharp or flat) in which a piece is written and how that is played. There is another variable that is transparent to most. On the sheet, the transcription moves up and down depending if the note is higher or lower, but on the keyboard, your fingers move right for higher notes and left for lower notes. The paper thus has a vertical (up-down) orientation in contrast to the horizontal (left-right) orientation on the keyboard. The students thus do not only have to identify the position of the note(s) on the notation and translate that to the keyboard, but in the middle of that they have to switch the notation form the vertical to the horizontal orientation--as the notation moves up, your hand moves to the right. With the rotated notation as the notation moves to the right, your hand moves to the right.
     Sight reading is a slow process for most and there are many degrees of mastery that can be observed. The central question is: does the rotation of sheet music make any difference in the time required to master the same intermediate pieces for sight reading? Will the page orientation make the process of sight-reading acquisition any easier?


- What population are you interested in generalizing to?
- How will you sample from that population?
- How will you assign subjects to conditions?
- What procedures and/or documentation will assure that subjects in each condition are comparable before application of the Independent Variable?

The population at which this study will be directed.
Should the experimental method prove to enable learners to sight read the same pieces within a shorter period of time, this would be applicable to the population of first-time learners of music, which would traditionally include learners (male and female) of the ages between four and about eight years of age. It is possible that even older learners might benefit from this method, but the older the learner is, the greater the chances will be that the older learner has been exposed to the traditional sheet orientation, and that might be a strong intervening variable. For this reason a younger population is projected to be the population towards whom this research is directed.
     Subjects will be beginner students of music on a keyboard instrument.
     Only young children ranging from 6-8 years of age with no prior exposure to sheet music will be included in the study. The reason being that varying abilities in reading sheet music will confound the study. In order to verify the selection of future music students that meet this criteria there will be two checks. (a) Parents of subjects will be asked about their children's exposure to sheet music with questionnaire, and (b) once the subjects have been selected to either treatment groups, the teachers will probe each subject to verify that all subjects have no sight reading ability. Once possible candidates as subjects have been screened out, their parents will be fully informed about the research and they will be asked to either withdraw from the study or to sign a written commitment that they are wiling for their child to potentially land up in the treatment group.
     Prior to selecting the participating music teachers, the following environments will be sought. All the teachers will have to follow the same program, i.e. using the same instructional materials and providing similar instruction. Teachers with comparable results with their respective students will be selected. Therefore, in addition to using the same instructional materials, it is essential that the different teachers achieve comparable results as further proof that their methods are comparable. In order to counter-balance teacher variables the following will happen: A method to control for this possible threat would be to continue the study past the two initial control and treatment groups. With the second generation of beginner students, the teachers would switch groups. Those who taught horizontal page orientation will now do the vertical orientation and vice versa.
     Once four teachers have been identified, they will have to express their willingness to implement the experimental treatment on the same instructional model. The subjects who qualify (those within the right age group and not having any prior ability with sight reading) will be randomly assigned to the new or standard treatments. Their names will be written on separate pieces of paper and thrown in a bag and shuffled. The names will be pulled out of the bag and every other name will be assigned to the experimental group. Then the names of two teachers will be randomly drawn from a bag of four teachers to be assigned as the experimental teachers.


     Describe each measure and when it will be given AND describe how each measure relates to the research question.

Progression of Mastering Fundamental Notation
     Presently beginners start with simple pieces (a) written in the C-major key. (b) The notes all have the same value (usually half or quarter notes) (c) with only one note played at a time. The music increases gradually in technical difficulty.
     (i) Single notes are first played on the treble bar, (ii) then on the base bar, (iii) and then with one or two notes on each bar simultaneously, (iv) and then more than two notes are played simultaneously. (v) Then the learner is introduced to playing in a different key, where the learner has to cope with sharps and flats. The measures will be administered after specific pieces have been mastered according to commonly agreed upon criteria that are documented. Thus, once any student has mastered a set piece, which would reflect the student's ability to read and interpret music at a certain level of difficulty, the student would be given predetermined pieces of equivalent difficulty to sight read cold. The teacher would then document the ability of the student with each of these pieces to determine how well the student has mastered cold sight reading. The criterium of importance at each such measure would be how long it has taken the student to reach this level. The student would have to meet all the stipulated criteria to be given a pass rating for sight reading music cold. A recording of these cold sight reading performances will be given to the third party evaluator. This will be a blind test, i.e. the evaluator would have no idea who is playing and from which group the student is coming.. This evaluator would then listen to the piece(s), which would be the same for all students and this rater would score the performance as being proficient enough for advancement or not. This evaluator would be bound to same criteria that the teachers used. Since the process is documented it would be much less subjective. Any judgment of a mistake or lack of ability could be linked back to the specific performance by a student to substantiate the judgment.

Sameness in Treatment
     The teachers will coordinate their teaching strategies before they are assigned to either the traditional or the experimental group to ensure not only a sameness in the music the students use, but also a sameness in the way in which this material is instructed. The same music will be presented to all students during instruction. The teachers will present both groups with the same treatment up to an advanced beginner's level at which point a measure would be taken as described in the paragraph above to measure if there is a difference in the sight reading ability of the same pieces between the two groups and in the time it took them to achieve this performance ability. Then at the intermediate level this same measurement is repeated. At the intermediate level students will be able to sight read pieces cold, playing with both hands in several keys, including a variation of note values.
     As mentioned earlier, a common standard of assessment at each incremental level will be mutually determined and documented by all four teachers by which learners will be advanced, so that learners are not held back or advanced too rapidly, without having proven adequate ability. This will include tolerance of mistakes and number of mistakes allowed. Thus each learner will advance at an independent pace, with the crowning moment being when they are able to master a specific piece, and sight read any piece at the same level based on a common level of achievement. The only difference is that the experimental group will play the piece from vertical notation. To ensure that some teachers are not more perfectionist than the others and thus holding students back that would have been advanced by other teachers, a third party will evaluate the pieces as mentioned earlier.
     This research design will conclude at the intermediate level, yet it should to be mentioned that one additional step has to be performed outside of the scope of this study to fully conclude the objective, and that is the time it takes experimental subjects to readjust to standard horizontal-orientation notation. It is assumed that the experimental group would achieve full mastery more quickly.


A -- Describe the Independent Variable. What is the specific thing (cause) about which you wish to conclude?
     Orientation of the music notation will be the independent variable. It is hypothesized that the orientation will make a difference in how quickly new learners of music will acquire sight-reading skills.

B -- Diagram of treatments:

Features Common to All Treatments and Groups
1. One hour per week instruction per subject.
2. Contents and methodology applies to all learners. Same instructional materials and an agreed-upon instructional methodology followed by all teachers.
3. Evaluation methods.
4. Treatment groups will all have the same age group and they all will have the same lack of exposure to musical notation.
5. Teachers will be selected because of their similarities in the materials they like to use and in the way they teach.

Features Unique to Group 1 -- Vertical Orientation of music notation.
Features Unique to Group 2 - Horizontal Orientation of music notation.

C - Describe specific similarities between conditions. What factors have been controlled and how have they been controlled?
     The teacher's instruction to either group will be very similar based on consensus prior to the commencement of the treatment. Teachers will receive preservice training to ensure their teaching strategies are alike and that the way in which they treat the subjects will be very similar. The issue here is not to indoctrinate the teacher with how to teach, but this will rather create a forum for the teachers to exchange the ways in which they teach and to achieve a consensus of what will be done and what not. Examples might be as follows: One teacher might always play the pieces to create an exemplary environment for the students to work towards, whereas other teachers might not do that but they might just be there in a coaching role. These issues need to be addressed so that all the teachers can agree upon the same procedures and activities for their students. The consensus will be documented and no other instructional activities other than those outlined in the documented consensus will be allowed.
     Both groups will receive the same amount of instruction (time). Both groups will be evaluated in the same way. The teachers were preselected because they already use the same teaching materials and that their students perform in a comparable way.

D - How will you assure and document that the features of each condition was implemented properly?
     It is just the page orientation that will be different. The teachers will have a documented consensus of instructional activities they agree to stick to. This will be the control to ensure they all receive the same treatment. At the end of each instructional session, each teacher will fill out a report of exactly which instructional strategies they used and for how long the instruction lasted. Their evaluations will be conducted in a fashion as described earlier where the assessment will be documented and where will be a third party evaluation to ensure consistency in evaluation.
     The parents will be involved to ensure that the experimental groups do not get exposed to the traditional notation or that they do not experience social pressures in this regard. The experimental subjects have to be made to feel as normal as the traditional group about their instruction. The teachers will document the progress of each student, detailing the sight-reading skills according to the predetermined conventions (what would constitute a minor or major error, and how many errors of each type would be allowed). Parents will also be required to record within a 15-minute range how much time their child spend practicing.

Describe each threat of internal validity and address the following: (a) the threat in general, (b) Why is it/not a threat to your conclusions, (c) if the threat is plausible, why were other measures not taken to rule out this threat?

Threat 1: Rivalry or demoralization of the control or experimental group
     Pupils from both groups talking to each other and demoralizing one of the two groups.
     If this actually happens, this might cause trouble with the motivation of the subjects of either group to continue and cause subjects to withdraw or insist on being taught the other way. The method of controlling this threat to internal validity would be to have each teacher only provide either experimental or standard treatment. Although a music teacher instructs one pupil at a time, it is possible for pupils to be associated through school or church or scouts or other social interaction. It is thus the fact that they are in close proximity that might cause them to talk and influence each other one way or the other about their perceptions of either treatment.
     A method to control for this threat would be to continue the study past the two initial control and treatment groups. With the new group of beginner students, the teachers would switch groups. Those who taught horizontal page orientation will now do the vertical orientation and vice versa.

Threat 2a: Attrition--Common factors
     Finding out what the affect of attrition is in general on young students of music in the setting described in this research should be considered. Regular factors that could contribute to attrition would be the level of transiency in the community, and the lack of interest by the subjects. A large enough number of students should be used to start up the research so that attrition will not invalidate the findings. Should the experimental group experience phenomenal success it would be indicative that the method is working and this fact could be used to support the statistical claims.

Threat 2b: Attrition--Parental Support of the experimental treatment
     Should the experimental group fail to achieve the expected results and should they become frustrated with the method, untrusting or dissatisfied parents could demand that the teacher change to the standard instructional methods or they could threaten to withdraw their kids from the experiment. This would harm the results severely, depending on how many parents were to behave in this manner an if the word was to get out.

This threat is addressed by informing parents of the research up front and to have them consent in writing.

Threat 3: Demoralization--Events from outside the experiment
     An example might be that the word gets around about the experimental treatment. It is very possible that something so radically different might get out and do the rounds. This could take any number of turns, ranging from 'experts' strongly supporting or rejecting the reasoning behind this treatment and the consequential feedback to parents and children- which in turn could feed into either threat one or threat two (or both). To control for this reality, it might be advisable to spread the teachers over several communities, e.g. if we were to do it in Northern Utah, we could do one teacher in Preston, Idaho, another in Logan and another in Brigham City, and another in North Ogden. All these communities are fairly similar in income and social stratification.

Threat 4: Lack of treatment fidelity/diffusion (leakage of instruction)
     The remedy for coincidental events from outside the experiment will be equally applicable to this threat. With the treatments done in different communities, this threat will be attenuated. The main threats here are that the teachers might not do exactly what they all have agreed to with respect to (1) orientation of the music and (2) general sequence contained in the documentation they developed as teachers related to content, and style of instruction. This will be controlled as described earlier where each teacher will have to document the proceedings of each instructional session to document how they instructed, what events they engaged in, and how much time was spent in instruction.

Threat 5: Differences in how the groups are treated
     Treatment would be the same, save the independent variable. Teacher treatment should be the same because they have formally reached a documented consensus of how to teach and what to teach and what materials they will be using and teachers will document each instructional session to verify that this is happening. Should a teacher not comply or misunderstand the agreement, it could cause differences in treatment. If the teacher documentation of each instructional event is monitored, this threat could be eliminated.

Threat 6: Selection Process resulting in unequal groups
     The selection will be equal. Since every second name from the hat will be assigned to the experimental group, the size would be the same. It is intended to have 20 subjects in each group, yet attrition that might be a threat.

Threat 7: Random variability in Samples
     This threat will be addressed with sample size. This should even out variability in each group and eliminate the threat.

Threat 8: Maturation across the course of the study
     In a general sense and excluding minor personal differences that might inadvertently slip into the equation, both groups receive the same instruction. As far as that is concerned maturation will affect all equally, but the difference between the two groups, i.e. the page orientation will not be influenced by maturation and the experimental design should thus be able to discriminate if the page orientation will make the crucial difference, given the same instruction.

Threat 8: Testing caused changes in the participant
     This is not a threat since the instruction and the integrated measurement will be the same for all subjects. The effects of testing is not expected to be significant at all and all subjects will be treated the same.

Threat 9: Instrumentation Changes
     This is not a threat since the instruction and the integrated measurement will be the same for all subjects. All teachers will be bound to comply with the agreed-upon method of instruction and assessment.

Threat 10: Regression toward the mean
     The preselection process will qualify or disqualify participants to the study, based on their knowledge of music. This will be placing all participants on an equal footing as true beginners. The randomization of subjects and the randomization of teachers and the design to do the study with two generations of subjects so that each teacher will do one group (generation) with the traditional method and the next group with the experimental method) will eliminate this threat.

     The instruction and the assessment is designed to be the same. This is rather an unusual setup since the instruction is designed to differ in many experimental designs. The independent variable, the page orientation, is the focus of this study. Does it make a difference in how fast a learner can achieve a given level of mastery in sight reading with this experimental method? For someone in a observer status, the 'treatment' might be transparent, since the instruction is the same. Thus, the experience should be very much the same for control and experimental groups, and the accomplishments of the learners will indicate if there is any value to present sheet music in a vertical fashion from the outset and then turn it back to horizontal once sight reading has been mastered.

Non-related references to music instruction with CAI

Fenton, K. (1998). Using Multimedia To Develop Musicianship. Music Educators Journal, 85(2), 27-32.

Parrish, R. T. (1997). Development and Testing of a Computer-Assisted Instructional Program to Teach Music to Adult Nonmusicians. Journal of Research in Music Education, 45(1), 90-102.

Chen, S. S. & Dennis, J. R. (1992-1993). Linking Different Cultures by Computers: A Study of Computer-Assisted Music Notation Instruction. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 21(3), 207-224.

Willard, J. B. (1992). Exploring Music through Technology. TechTrends, 37(3), 23-24.

Copyright, 2000, Jacques du Plessis -- Last Edit: April 2001