Five Tips on Making Music Literacy Attainable for Students with Disabilities

By Jennifer Nichols

These five tips address teaching music literacy to students with special needs using a tactile approach. For more information on this subject, watch the recording of the VSA Webinar entitled “Can You Feel It?: A Tactile Approach to Music Literacy” from December 1, 2015 (you will be prompted to enter your name and email address before watching).

  1. Choose one concept. Music notation encompasses many concepts including pitch, rhythm, tempo, articulation, and dynamics. Focus on one concept for the student to master at a time.
  1. Use student-friendly notation. Create student-friendly notation using pictures. For example, if you are teaching the rhythm to the traditional song, “Star Light, Star Bright,” replace the note heads with star pictures or three dimensional star stickers for the students to feel and tap as they read the rhythm.
  1. Vary the materials. Using student-friendly tactile notation is key; however, not all materials work for everyone. Try using adhesive Velcro® dots in place of note heads. Some students respond better to glue dots where larger dots represent quarter notes and two smaller dots represent paired eighth notes.
  1. Use music literacy throughout the lesson. Be musical whether you are greeting the students or giving directions by speaking rhythmically and/or singing. If you choose to sing, use only two pitches to demonstrate pitch. Have students tap on a simplified, one-line staff to show when your voice is high, above the line, or low, below the line.
  1. Think of the individual. Create variations of tactile notation in order to find the material and/or method that work best for each student.


Jennifer Nichols is a kindergarten–grade 5 music teacher at Signal Hill Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia for Prince William County Schools. Jennifer teaches approximately 700 students, including students with autism and students with moderate and severe disabilities.


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