Thursday 8 May 2014


Learning to read notes on the staff is hard work for many students.  There are so many lines and spaces, and they’re so close together.  And it would be so much easier if the notes were in the same places in each clef.  But they’re not.  Our system of music notation may not be the easiest to learn, but it’s what we’re stuck with.

In the springtime, I always do a big flashcard push with my students.  Each child has flashcards that they are supposed to review daily, testing themselves by trying to name the note on the flashcard, and then checking the back of the card to see if they are correct. In class each week, I challenge them with “60 Second Club”; simply, each child has to see how many notes they can name in 60 seconds.  I have them keep track of their scores, and encourage them to try to improve every week.  Almost always, they love this challenge and are proud to be able to tell me how many notes they can name.

Of course, just being able to name the notes is not all that is required for good sight-reading.  But as a teacher, I know that this approach is effective in helping people improve their note-naming.  My students are generally very quick at naming notes, and I see a related improvement in their sight-reading abilities.

As a scientist, I wonder what the research is about flashcards – why do they work and what is the best way to use them?  Here’s what I found out.

Flashcards work because they are a method of testing yourself.  Just studying information, reading it over, whether silently or out loud, does not promote learning as effectively as a test.  Tests work well to promote learning because you have to try to recall the information.  Say you look at the following note:  
   and name it correctly as middle C.  This reinforces the link between the place on the staff and the name of the note.  But what if you don’t know the name?  Does making an error on a test promote learning of the correct answer?  Studies show that it does. In fact, making an error (like naming a note incorrectly) primes the brain to learn better immediately afterwards, even if the new information is completely unrelated to the error. 

Here’s another interesting finding about flashcards:  you shouldn’t remove cards that you can answer correctly.  That doesn’t seem to make sense – we naturally think that taking out the cards you know allows you more study time on the cards you don’t know.  But research has shown that this is not the best way.  A study by Nate Kornell and Robert Bjork showed that dropping flashcards once the material on that card was deemed to be learned led to worse performance on a test, whether the test happened right after studying or a week later. 

The researchers concluded that there were two reasons that dropping flashcards was ineffective.  The first is that the dropping of flashcards relies on students’ judgement of whether an item is really well-learned, and requires a decision about how well-learned something needs to be before it is dropped.  Students don’t usually decide to overlearn something even though there are proven benefits to overlearning.  In other words, people drop flashcards too soon.  Just because you can name a note right now doesn’t mean that you’ll remember it tomorrow.  If you keep practicing naming it, that will help you remember it better in the future.  The second reason that keeping well-learned flashcards in the rotation is best is that it helps to space out our learning.  There is a whole field of research looking at the Spacing Effect, but the main point is that trying to learn something all in a big block doesn’t work as well as when we take little breaks. In the case of flashcards, the flashcards that are already well-learned act as spacers between the flashcards that we are still learning. 

I will confess that I’ve often told my students to drop flashcards once they were well-learned, especially once they get into ledger line notes.  "Just do the hard ones, over and over", I’d tell them.  But no more.  Practice the whole stack, that’s the new way.  And I expect they’ll learn their notes even better.


Karpicke, J.D., and Blunt, J.R. (2011). Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping. Science 331, 772–775.

Karpicke, J.D., and Roediger, H.L. (2008). The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science 319, 966–968.

Kornell, N., and Bjork, R.A. (2008). Optimising self-regulated study: The benefits—and costs—of dropping flashcards. Memory 16, 125–136.

Kornell, N., Hays, M.J., and Bjork, R.A. (2009). Unsuccessful retrieval attempts enhance subsequent learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 35, 989–998.