Iconic Notation

A Pathway to Music Literacy

By Brittany Bauman, sponsored by NUVO Instrumental, LLC

Iconic notation is defined as graphical representations of music that can include rhythm and melody. Iconic notation, when used to support previous aural learning, is an important transitional step between sound and reading music. When learning a language, humans hear various sounds, repeat sounds and words, then start to string together words into sentences. Effective music education with young beginners follows a similar structure (sound before sight). Students first experience music through listening and movement, echo sounds they hear, then begin to create their own original ideas. Iconic notation is a tool to help easily connect sound experiences with a quickly digestible written system that will later be connected to standard music notation. Through my own teaching experiences, I have found that a well thought out iconic notation system can also open more opportunities for student creativity through composition and arranging.

What makes a well thought out iconic notation system, and how do you make the transition to standard notation? After more than two years of intensive research of what iconic notation systems currently exist and field testing new ideas with my students, I have summarized a few easy steps you can follow to help make the process from iconic to standard notation cohesive.

students learning notation

1. Importance of additional experiences coupled with iconic notation

Before using any iconic notation system, students need early experiences with music in a variety of different styles, meters, and tempos. When later reading iconic notation, it is most effective when coupled with diverse activities involving the four learning modalities: visual (seeing), kinesthetic (moving), auditory (hearing), and tactile (touching). Even when students are starting to read iconic notation, don’t stop providing opportunities for them to continue experiencing the music through their whole bodies. For example, students show pitch relations through full body movement while learning a tune by ear so they kinesthetically experience high and low pitches. Later, repeat this movement experience while adding the visual experience of reading iconic notation.

students with teacher at keyboard

2. Choose an iconic notation system   

There are many different iconic notation systems available, but they fall into three main categories:

    1. Rhythm
      • Example: Body percussion cards
    2. Melody
      • Example: Colored dots showing relative pitches (dots are higher/lower than each other) but no staff
    3. Rhythm and Melody
      • Wide variety of systems from simple to more complex
      • May or may not include the staff (some include a partial staff of just a few lines instead of five)

When choosing an iconic notation system, I believe simpler is better. You may not need to use one iconic notation system for each of the three categories listed above; choose what fits with your available time and current curriculum structure. As you choose an iconic notation system, don’t forget to think about how you are going to transition students OUT of the iconic notation. Essentially, how is what they are seeing now in iconic notation going to directly translate to standard notation later?

Everything I have shared up until this point reflects years of research that I have done comparing popular iconic notation systems and field testing them with my own students to find what works most easily in the transition to standard notation. I was unable to find one “perfect” iconic notation system (in my opinion) that transitioned easily to standard notation. The biggest obstacle seemed to be that I couldn’t find a system that clearly showed the beat, rhythm, and pitch relation simultaneously. Many systems show one or two of these elements very well but commonly not all three.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a colleague to develop a new iconic notation system designed for elementary students playing pre-band instruments. Dr. Cassandra Eisenreich and I developed a system that shows the beat clearly and is both rhythmic and melodic; specifically designed to help students more easily transition to standard notation. Each beat is given one box so students can easily follow the beat and see longer notes reflected through arrows across the beats. The pitch relation is clearly seen through notes positioned higher and lower and also correspond with the Boomwhacker colors. A gender-neutral character named Windy helps track the beats of rest by showing a number. This iconic notation system is part of the WindStars 1 pre-band curriculum but can be used in any teaching situation. If you want to give it a try, there are free printable cards in simple and complex meter available through the WindStars website.

Au Clair de la Lune title Au Clair de la Lune lyrics notation

3. Transition to standard notation

Commonly, the ultimate goal of using iconic notation is to eventually transition students to standard notation. It is important to have a plan in place to help students transition as effectively as possible. The simple explanation here is to go from the known to the unknown.

Here is a sample breakdown of how I bring students from iconic to standard notation over several different classes throughout the year.

  • Students learn a song by rote (aurally) and sing/move/play without looking at any notation.
  • Students are able to break the tune down into rhythm syllables and can demonstrate pitch relation through singing and movement.
  • Students read the tune in iconic notation while singing/moving/playing an instrument.
    • Students also have multiple opportunities to create their own music using the iconic notation system.
  • When transitioning to standard notation, students are shown both the iconic and standard versions together for comparison and to help directly link the known to the unknown.
    • Ask lots of questions about what students see and highlight symbols they already know.
    • Start with one-note tunes. Tunes they read will become more complex over time with additional notes.
    • With time and practice, students can start exploring sight-reading of new tunes that they haven’t heard before. This is a good opportunity for you to see what gaps students have in their understanding of rhythm and pitch relation. Outside of these specific experiences, I otherwise lay a foundation that students hear/sing/play a tune before they see any notation.

I don’t expect my students to transition to standard notation in one class, or even in several classes! The transition is a process built upon repeating the above sequence over and over with different tunes. Let’s be honest: Learning standard music notation is difficult. Iconic notation can help support students and open more opportunities to explore their own musical ideas.

To learn more about the WindStars pre-band curriculum and find free printable/downloadable iconic notation cards (and body percussion cards), visit https://nuvo-windstars.com/introduction.

If you have questions about getting started with iconic notation or pre-band, please email Brittany directly at brittany@nuvo-instrumental.com.

About the author:  

Brittany BaumanBrittany Bauman is the Music Education Director for Nuvo Instrumental. She is the co-author of the WindStars pre-band curriculum focused on bridging the instrumental gap between recorder and beginning band (Winner of NAMM: “Best Tools for Schools” and “Best in Show”). Through her own pre-band teaching experiences and numerous consultations with current music educators, Brittany is a pioneer in this newly emerging area of music education. Brittany guides new pre-band educators in interactive workshops demonstrating activities that fuse general music with beginning instrumental instruction while addressing all learning modalities. You can find Brittany sharing her enthusiasm and knowledge internationally at teacher training workshops and music education conferences.

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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.  

December 13, 2022. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

April 2024 Teaching Music

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December 13, 2022


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December 13, 2022. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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