Musical Symbols for Representing Sound Pitch and Value: Creative Aspects


Skaidrite Erliha, as.Prof., Dr.Paed.

Department of Art, Daugavpils University, Daugavpils, Latvia






The existence of the culture of music is connected with musical education – forwarding of musical experience, knowledge, skills and social relations.

Mastering music is based mainly on different kinds of musical activity.

Musical education – either it is to be realized on professional or amateur level – is essential to a person's motivation for independent, aesthetic, creative, and artistic activity.

Therefore, especially in the initial stage of training, the development of teaching materials, choice of methods and teaching itself should be based on games, which will ease the learners' perception and understanding of the means of expression of the language of music.

Thus the learners would be able to study and understand the connections existing between sounds, the rhythm and the ways of its expression (graphic, gestures, electromechanical, etc.), to learn the symbols of notation; they could sing simple melodies in the relative or absolute system of the sound pitch designation, and emotionally fix their singing in different ways (to express their emotions in gestures and movements while singing).

The paper presents the approbated symbols of sound pitch and value that are connected with concretization of musical images while learning different songs and intonations.

Key words: sound; musical sound; symbols; elements of the language of music; pictures of animals and things; graphic pictures; perception; aural concepts.




It is generally known that nowadays rapid changes take place in the culture of music, musical education, education, society, technology, etc. In the sphere of education both methods and forms of instruction are undergoing change. Great attention is being paid to revelation studies, and to the use of new technical means in the study process (computers, etc.).

We are trying to find fundamentally new ways of education. The study process is being modernized using new effective ways of information gathering and processing. But, it might be that sometimes these ways are too complicated and are not available for all the children. Therefore they might face some problems in acquiring the subject. Here the question arises: “Do children develop aural and visual concepts and their coordination when learning the elements of the language of music, if these new and complicated technologies are used to represent symbols of different sounds?” Are children able to reproduce these concepts with their voices?

Thus the aim of our research is the following: to characterize the symbols used for representing sound pitch and value in music, to acknowledge their effectiveness in pupils’ acquiring of musical elements, as well as in development of their organs of sight and hearing.


1. Nature of Sounds and Symbols


The question of our research is connected with the symbols used for representation of sound pitch and value in music. Therefore, at first we will consider how the concept of sound is interpreted by scientists.

Deep and thorough characteristic of musical material and language is given by the music philosopher A.Sohors. He studies how sounds obtain meanings and become containments of figurative content. What are the depiction, expressive and aesthetic possibilities of the sounds encountered in our life? What can intensity and quality of a music sound (a tone) depict and express? Melody, harmony, rhythm and sources of their figurative interaction. A.Sohors gives answers to all these questions. [1]

He writes that musical material mainly is sounds of definite pitch (i.e., sounds of music or tones). The term “sound” denotes both a material phenomenon (vibrations of an elastic body) and a result it produces on the organ of hearing.

Every sound, if it is considered as a material phenomenon, is characterized by outer physical features: intensity (amplitude of vibrations), acoustic composition, frequency and length of vibrations. These features are reflected in our subjective senses as intensity, quality, pitch and value of a sound.

In music sounds join together and acquire definite meaning which is perceived by a hearer as a figurative “language” that has some content. The author uses this term “language” both in this and other cases. He emphasizes that in art we use this term as a metaphor to denote a system of figurative means of a corresponding art. [1]

In his book “A Basis for Music Education” K.Swanwick (Great Britain) writes that sound material is transformed into musical reality and “tones” are perceived as “melodies” that were created some time before. [2]

We agree with K.Swanwick and A.Sohors that it is possible to realize it also in musical education. We have to admit that musical education does not imply only teaching music, but also promoting a personality’s mental age, creative, aesthetic and artistic development. This is stated also by S.Erliha. She writes that the subject of music is very specific – it is an artistic formation, which is connected with teacher and pupil’s creative artistic activity. It involves artistic and figurative illustration of life, it is characterized by aesthetically cognitive attitude towards the reality .. etc. [7] Therefore it is important how pupils acquire the elements of the language of music. Acquiring of musical and theoretical knowledge is closely connected with musical activity (singing, playing musical instruments, perception of music). Wholesome children’s musical development is impossible without mastering notation and skills to use in the process of playing music, without the skills of sol-fa, etc. Therefore for pupils and other interested people to understand and acquire these skills quicker the symbols of sound pitch and value are used. But what does the term “symbol” mean?

The explanation given in the Great Encyclopedia of Symbols is as follows: people need symbols because they bear some meaning. A symbol can also be called “a sign”. It helps to understand incomprehensible concepts. [3]

For instance, L.Davidson and L.Scripp’s theory of symbolic system is centered at the use of symbols in a child’s development. Their conception is based on Harward Gardner’s multi-intellect theory, in the centre of which was the concept of the systems of symbols. In the book “The Arts and Human Development” H.Gardner writes that music and other arts are different types of symbolic communication. Thus the use of symbols is viewed as a central element in children’s artistic development. He emphasizes that symbolization requires evaluation of an object and ability to connect this object with a picture or any other element denoting it. [4; 90]

L.Davidson and L.Scripp made a conclusion that a child’s development is to be studied through symbolic environment. The authors of the theory of symbols note also the influence of movements, knowledge and skills, which give pupils an opportunity to connect performance, concept (idea), and perception.

In musical pedagogy J.Paukste mentions also the perception of music in connection with importance of the sound perception in musical activity [6]. The author stresses that in this way it is possible to facilitate conscious understanding of different concepts of the elementary theory of music, as well as to develop abstract theoretical views about them. Understanding, in its turn, is closely connected with intentional musical activity [6].

In this connection it is to be noted that in Latvian comprehensive schools the curriculum for the subject of music emphasizes the main task: the aim in acquiring music theory is to teach pupils to sing a simple diatonic melody using the notation. For children to be able to do this task it is necessary to teach them at first to perceive music sounds, and then to sing them, so that they would develop stable aural concepts.

J.Paukste writes that singing by notes is a complicated process, as the sign of a note having effect on the sight, causes reaction of the optic centres and then this reaction moves to aural centres thus establishing sound concepts. This process gives impulse to another reaction, which, passing through certain nerve channels, influences vocal apparatus and makes it work – to create a sound that corresponds to the aural concept. Thus we can conclude that singing by notes is based on the conditioned reflex, which, in its turn, is based on the second signal system, i.e., thinking. Establishing concepts is to be started when this second signal system begins to develop – at younger school age (beginning with the age of six). In order to accomplish this task successfully it is necessary to observe strict gradualness and succession. The concrete thinking should be directed towards the abstract one: from a concrete word, sound to an abstract image of sound – a note [6].


2. Creative and Methodological Aspects of Musical Symbols for Representing Sound Pitch and Value


On the basis of personal experience we can conclude that definite images are the main source of the world cognition of children of younger school age. Comparing and evaluating them a child acquires knowledge, develops thinking and understanding of things, events and phenomena. The world of sounds is something new; for many children of this age it is the first time when they encounter it. For preschoolers, who have not been taught singing, and thus they have no vocal experience, it is very difficult to comprehend interrelations of sounds and their sequence. Although the hearing is the most important precondition for development of sound perception, children of this age need some supplementary aids, which could demonstrate the place of one or another note in the melody of a song or its fragment. In this way it is possible both to teach children to sing by ear and gradually prepare them for singing by notes. It is beyond doubt that in this case a teacher has to use creative approaches. In this process the transformation of a pupil’s cognitive principle into the emotional one takes place.

Now we will proceed and consider schematic pictures of animals and things.

1. Schematic pictures of things or animals which are drawn higher or lower, or on a level.

The scholar of music pedagogy A.Eidins (Latvia) explains that these drawings show places of sounds in a melody of a song (see Figure 2.1.) [8].

The drawings of things, in which one can see the place of sounds in a melody, are necessary for the songs that should be taught to sing by ear in the initial stage (especially teaching the first phrase). This drawing contains four similar sounds of high pitch and four similar sounds of low pitch. This develops children’s understanding of “higher” and “lower” sounds.

Direction, length and figurativeness of a sound in a melody are determined also by the size of a drawing. For example, in our drawing there are ducks: a smaller duck – a shorter note (♪), but a bigger duck – a longer note. Thus children already develop their aural concepts of sound pitch and length [8].




Figure 2.1.1.


2. Then it is possible to proceed with sound picture of a melody in the form of graphic drawing. In these drawings every sound is depicted as a geometric figure (a square, a circle, a dash, or a dot), which is drawn higher, lower or on a level according to the place of every sound in a melody [8].

Musician and educationalist prof. J.Medins (Latvia) recommended depicting sounds using squares. A longer sound – a longer square, a shorter sound – a shorter square (see Figure 2.1.2.) [9].

Nowadays, at music classes at school teachers mostly use circles when depicting sounds, because they correspond to the form of notes more than squares. A circle is the main shape of a note. Circles should be drawn as if they were on staves, i.e., intervals between notes should correspond to relations between notes in a melody (see Figure 2.1.3. and 2.1.4.) [9].

J.Medins did not recommend to draw a bigger circle for a longer note, because in the notation both longer and shorter notes are depicted by similar note heads. To show the length of sounds in such graphic drawing, the circles, which correspond to shorter sounds (♪), are drawn closer to each other.


Figure 2.1.2. Figure 2.1.3.                                                    


Figure 2.1.4.   

The use of circles of different colours facilitates children’s understanding of melody and phrase structure of a song.

Our extended work experience proves that the use of animal pictures to denote the sounds of music also facilitates children’s perception and understanding of songs. In this way children learn songs much quicker. Various kinds of animals are offered in order to use them to denote sounds according to the contents of songs. (See Figure 2.1.5.)


Figure 2.1.5.


In some books on methodology of teaching music, which have been published in Germany and other countries, it is recommended to use dots to denote short sounds, and dashes – to denote long sounds. (See Figure 2.1.6.) [10] [8]




Figure 2.1.6.


3. A.Eidins writes that one of important supplementary aids of sound representation is writing in the air. The author especially recommends to use this technique when teaching a song by ear. A teacher stretches a hand in front of him/herself, with the palm down and moves it up an down, not changing the position of the palm. With such movements of the hand he shows the place of every sound of a melody. So the hand moves up and down depending on the place of every sound. A teacher here has to write in the air in strict and precise rhythm of a song [8].

In connection with writing in the air it is essential to note that hand signs were introduced in music pedagogy by British scholar J.Kerwin. He introduced them in order to establish the theory of relations of stable and unstable pitches of the key. Hand signs create connection between visual perception and aural conception. Hand signs form a visible picture of every key, they are symbols, and they show the place and function of every sound in the pitch system of the key. [8]

We will illustrate some of them. For instance, how children use hand signs to render the descending major triad according to the method of relative solmization (so – mi – jo), (see Figure 2.1.7.) [6], [8].



Figure 2.1.7.

Further we will consider how the pitches so – mi (according to the method of relative solmization) are transformed into notation with the help of the drawing of a house, thus also clarifying the number of lines in the staves. This can take place only when the aural concepts of a motif have been established (see Figure 2.1.8.)



Figure 2.1.8.


According to J.Pauchte, transformation of sounds into notation occurs in the following way:



Figure 2.1.9.


For children to better understand the sequence of tone-row, we can use the names of pitches: jo, le, mi, na, so, ra, ti, jo (according to the method of relative solmization). We can render this tone-row in the form of a table (from below upward), giving every pitch a corresponding colour. We can make it in the form of a keyboard (see Figure 2.1.10.) thus establishing aural and visual concepts. Thus we ease and facilitate learning of scales.



  Figure 2.1.10.



1. Musical material is sounds of definite pitch (music sounds or tones).

·                    In a person’s subjective feelings sound features reflect as sound intensity, quality, pitch and value.

·                    In music, sounds form connections, which acquire meaning and which are perceived by a hearer as a figurative “language” that has certain content.

2. The term “symbols” disclose some meanings. They may also be called “signs”. They attach importance to incomprehensible notions.

·                    The use of symbols is viewed as a central element in children’s artistic development.

3. For children of younger school age the main source of the world cognition is concrete images.

4. The main symbols for sound pitch and value representation are the following:

·                    Direct or schematic drawings of things and animals, which are drawn higher or lower or on a level and illustrate the place of a sound and the musical image.

·                    The sound picture in form of a graphic drawing (a square, a circle, a dash or a dot, which show the length of sounds and their relations in a melody).

·                    Supplementary aids for sound representation: writing in the air and hand signs that make connection between a person’s visual perception and aural conceptions.

5. Our experience in work with children has proved that these symbols for representing sound pitch and value promote the development of children’s musical abilities, their visual and aural conceptions, thus facilitating their acquiring of study material. Children develop their vocal skills, imagination, figurative, creative and artistic thinking.




[1]Sohors A. (1962) Mūzika kā mākslas veids [Music as a Kind of Art]. Rīga: Latvijas Valsts izdevniecība.- p.121.

Kārkliņš L. (1990) Mūzikas leksikons [Musical Lexicon]. Rīga: Zvaigzne.- p. 325.

[2]Swanwick K. (1979) A Basis for Music Education. London: Routledge.- p.50.

Sohors A. (1962) Mūzika kā mākslas veids [Music as a Kind of Art]. Rīga: Latvijas Valsts izdevniecība.- p.121.

[3]Lielā simbolu enciklopēdija [The Great Encyclopedia of Symbols] (2002). No vācu

 valodas tulkojušas Kalniņa L., Pijola S. Rīga: Jumava – p. 535.

[4]Gardner H. (1973) The Arts and Human Development. New York: Wiley.- p.230 (90).

[5]Davidson L. & Scripp L. (1989) Education and Development in Music from a

 Cognitive Perspective // Hargreaves D.I. (Ed.) Children and the Arts. Milton

Keynes: Open University Press, 1989.

[6]Paukšte J. (1993). Mūzikas mācīšanas metodika [Methodology of Teaching Music].

Rīga: Izglītības attīstības institūts.- p.100.

[7]Erliha S. (2003) Creative Art Activity of Music Teachers-to-Be in the Context of the

 Values Orientating Education. // The 6th International Conference Ga 2003.

Milano: Politecnico di Milano University, Italy.- p.186 -200.

[8]Eidiņš A. (1974). Muzikālās audzināšanas metodika [Methodology of Music Education]. Rīga: Zvaigzne.- p. 249.

[9]Mediņš J. (1935). Dziesmu vācelīte [Song Basket]. Jelgava: pp. 64 – 68.

[10]Reuter F. (1962) Grundlage der Muzikerziehung. Leipzig:- s. 177.