Using graphic notation is a great way to combine musical literacy, composition and performance in a way that is accessible for all teachers and students, regardless of prior musical experience.

Graphic notation can be used to explore vocal sounds, introduce instruments and to prepare student for more traditional forms of musical notation.

Many teachers have asked us about having individual print outs available of each of the symbols from the Front Door. As a result, we have created printable four colour versions of each symbol used in our online resources. Click this link to download the resource for free:

Graphic Notation Resource Pack

What is Graphic Notation?

From the 1950's composers like John Cage, Earle Brown and Cornelius Cardew began to look for alternatives to traditional forms of music notation.

This happened for a number of reasons, including their interest in extended techniques on instruments (playing instruments in unconventional ways) and the introduction of new instruments including electronic music production. For some of these composers the aim was to create a new relationship between composers and musicians.

This new way of working opened up musical performance to musicians and performers who were not classically trained or musically literate as well as opening up exciting opportunities in music education.

Traditional music notation tells the musician exactly what note to play and how long to play it. The idea with graphic notation is to give the musician freedom to interpret the notation, creating their own version of the music.

This is another benefit of using graphic notation with children, there is no right or wrong answer, it's up to the children to use their creativity and critical faculties to create their own musical outcomes.

Here's a simple example from the DabbledooMusic resources to introduce the concept of graphic notation.

Below you will see a front door with eight different doorbells (yes, they are big but let's pretend!)

Imagine pressing each doorbell and make a vocal sound to represent each symbol.

What does a 't" sounds like?

And a pig?

How about the triangle?

Graphic notation is when we use symbols, outside the traditional system of music notation, to represent sounds. Let's go through each of these 'Front Door' symbols to discover the range of musical ideas we can explore with graphic notation.

The letters of the alphabet are abstract symbols until we start to attach sounds to each one. Once a child has started to learn the alphabet they are ready for work with graphic notation. As soon as a child has started to learn the alphabet they are incredibly attuned to the connection between sounds and symbols. Infant classes may surprise you at their level of competence in this area!

If you sing the words "ding dong" in imitation of a doorbell you will probably sing a minor third interval. That's just what most people sing! This is also to show that we can use words with graphic notation either to be sung, spoken or to give instruction to make a particular sound.

This is an example of representational graphic notation. The symbol is a pig so you make the sound of a pig. This one is a big hit with the children but it also opens the concept of symbols that represent sounds in the world around them.

Now for a more abstract symbol. Can you make this sound with your voice, starting down low and going up high? This is a great way to introduce pitch and to show it visually. It also follows the conventions of traditional musical notation reading from left to right.

This is the opposite, starting the voice high and going down low.

This symbol can be a combination of the two pervious symbols with the voice sliding up and down.

What could a triangle sound like?

Most people make the sound of the instrument......TING! This also introduces the idea of representing instruments using graphic notation.

Most people interpret this as three short sound rising in pitch, blup.. blup.. blup.

These are simple examples to get the children thinking about different types of symbols and sound combinations. The fun part comes when the children start to create their own graphic notation.

Musical Literacy - Reading Music

Developing musical literacy does not mean jumping straight into writing out crotchets and quavers!

The Irish primary music curriculum advises using simplified versions of music notation where possible to develop the connection between sounds and symbols. As we will see, this can also develop into the connection between visual sequences and sequences of sound, all of which builds towards a better understanding of how music notation works.

Through graphic notation we can explore the visual representation of pitch, duration and rhythm, in a creative and engaging way, that will encourage composition and performance in the classroom.

Using Graphic Notation to Compose

All we need to do to create a composition with graphic notation is to create a sequence. This can be as simple as creating a series of four boxes and putting a symbol in each one:

This is a simple version of a composition where we are choosing our sounds, creating a sequence and then deciding how it is performed. You could interpret this sequence with your voice or for a more advanced version, try using instruments.

Here, I have chosen the theme of morning sounds, but you could try winter sounds, summer sounds, sounds at the zoo, sounds in a city or maybe link the composition to a story the class are reading or a theme you are exploring in the classroom.

These examples of graphic notation and simple worksheets are perfect as an introduction to get your class started in composition. The most important thing is to let them use their imagination creativity and enthusiasm to create their graphic score and perform them with their voices or instruments. The results will always produce interesting musical ideas!


Another great aspect of graphic notation is that it creates opportunities for performance and collaboration. Once the children have created their graphic scores the worksheets can be swapped over so they have to interpret each others notation. This is also a great way to get the class working in pairs or small groups, working out ways to perform each others compositions. They can use their voices as a starting point and move on to using instruments.

Graphic notation is an ideal way to combine listening, performing and composition in the classroom.

Give it a go!


Try our graphic notation resources:

We have created a series of free interactive resources to help teachers and students explore graphic notation. Our free trial has 6 weeks of content introducing sounds and symbols for infants through to 6th class:

DabbledooMusic Free Trial