Research has continuously upheld the fact that persons with disabilities struggle with reading music, and may be excluded from musical ensembles in school because they struggle with processing music notation. Professor of Music Education Kim McCord is working to change that fact.

A sample of the Figurenotes system with the song "Hey Jude" by The Beatles.

A sample of the Figurenotes system with the song “Hey Jude” by The Beatles.

McCord, along with a team of teachers from Thomas Metcalf School, had the opportunity to visit the Resonaari Special Music Center in Finland and learn first-hand about how to implement a music program for students with disabilities. “What’s unique about this is it’s all based on an adaptive music notation system called Figurenotes,” said McCord. “This is a simplified system that uses colors and shapes instead of traditional notation.” Later, students can be transitioned to actual notation.

The students begin with learning chords on guitar or keyboard, similar to the game “Rock Band.” Stickers on instruments coordinate with colors and shapes on the sheet music. “In my layman’s definition, it’s a system of being able to pick up a musical instrument and play it instantly,” said Metcalf Principal Amy Coffman. “The sheet music, with colors and symbols, are matched with the ones representing the chords on the guitar.” All students have a chance to learn all instruments–drums, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, electric bass, and keyboards–then they eventually gravitate toward one.

In Finland, popular music is present in all school music programs. “Teachers and students call it ‘band,’ but what they mean is Rock Band,” said McCord, who explained students are playing instruments they see on YouTube, and learning music first in Figurenotes, so they can pick it right up and play it easily.

This program is not music therapy, it is true music education. 

Students who have challenges in music ensembles do not show any problems during the “Rock Band” class because there is no frustration involved, noted McCord. “Some of these kids don’t fit in anywhere and they pick up an instrument and feel like they suddenly belong,” she said.

According to McCord, this program is not music therapy, it is true music education. The entire concept was developed 20 years ago by a music therapist and a music educator from the Resonaari Special Music Center in Finland and is open to teachers everywhere to come and observe. The Finnish music school has over 50 “Rock Bands” and prepares adults with disabilities to be professional musicians and teachers–“That is also our goal,” she said. “A secondary goal is self-determination, which is really important in special education.”

An adult class titled “Rock Bands” and based on Figurenotes, is being offered in the evenings at Metcalf School. Some of these adult students struggle with reading music notation due to intellectual disabilities, autism, or attention issues. “They haven’t felt a connection to traditional ensembles–band, orchestra, or choir–because the repertoire doesn’t connect with them,” explained McCord.

The adult evening class is a collaboration on campus between the Special Education Department and the School of Social Work. In addition, the Bloomington and Normal parks and recreation departments provide free transportation for those in need through the SOAR (Special Opportunities Available in Recreation) program.

Another class will be offered beginning in January for the spring 2016 semester. The cost will be $60, and SOAR offers some scholarships and sliding fees for those who need assistance. “I’d like to see more departments and colleges on campus partner with us on this effort,” said McCord, who added that donations for the equipment are also welcome.

“Figurenotes is a unique technique, and we are fortunate to have Dr. McCord bring this to our community” said Coffman. “In Finland, we saw success with middle school students, seniors, and children and adults with special needs. Through this program, people from all walks of life can be connected by their love and passion for music.”

For more information on Figurenotes or Rock Bands, contact McCord at