“Notehead Shorthand”: A Rhythmic Shorthand Method for Melodic Dictation Exercises

Jenine L. Brown

Paney and Buonviri report that high school theory teachers struggle to get adequate results on the rhythmic aspect of melodic dictations, quoting one instructor who observes that students “don’t know how to space the notes rhythmically, and they get flustered, and it ends up causing them to mess up some of the pitch parts” (2014, 405). In response to their call for improved pedagogy for rhythm, I summarize previous research on melodic dictation strategies and then introduce a new rhythmic shorthand method (“Notehead Shorthand”). Notehead Shorthand builds upon Karpinski’s protonotation (2017) by asking students to mark note onsets (rather than durations), and it provides an improved way to notate subdivisions of the beat and syncopations. Moreover, compared to the well-known slash system of rhythmic shorthand, the proposed shorthand system looks more like actual notation, making it easier for inexperienced students to use and translate to the musical staff. The system provides a method for writing the rhythm of a melodic dictation in one hearing, minimizing cognitive load for students. While students of all ages and abilities can utilize this new method, it may be especially helpful to students within first-year aural skills courses and for those preparing for the melodic dictation tasks on the College Board’s Advanced Placement Music Theory exam. I then describe pros and cons of the technique after implementing the method with undergraduate music students over the years, and I also share some modifications to the method that can be made depending upon the student’s previous experience with dictation and the level of beat that the student is internally pulsing while taking dictation (i.e., the beat, the division, or the subdivision).