Roger Maxwell's "14 Weeks to a Better Band"
Learning How to Read Music is Controlled by the Brain

In 1972-73, I conducted a pilot study in Iowa which involved 18 high school bands. The purpose of the study was to see whether bands could improve their reading ability by concentrating their practice to one rhythmic figure per week. The bands used my pre-publication book titled “Fourteen Weeks to a Better Band.” Table 2 below lists information pertaining to each band. Exhibit E below lists the eleven Rhythmic Figures used in the study.

Results of the Pilot Study

The below chart indicates a comparison of reading errors by the nine RAM bands and nine ARM bands during their INITIAL readings of “A JUBILANT OVERTURE.”

RAM Bands ARM Bands Reduction %
36 16 44

This major reduction of reading errors by 44% by the ARM bands occurred when the music was exchanged midway through the study. This means that the reading ability of the ARM bands improved significantly during the first seven weeks of the study. When the music was exchanged midway through the study, the RAM bands averaged four reading errors in contrast to the nine errors made by the ARM bands in their INITIAL reading of “THIRD SET FOR BAND.”

The below chart again shows this comparison of reading errors by both bands during their INITIAL readings of “Third Set for Band.”

RAM Bands ARM Bands Reduction %
4 9 44

Again, this represented an overall reduction of 44 percent.

More Results

Moreover, I find it to be very interesting that the RAM bands in their third and final reading of “A JUBILANT OVERTURE” reduced their overall number of reading errors to 9. The ARM bands in their third and final reading of “A JUBILANT OVERATURE” reduced their reading errors to 8. It is almost unbelievable that both bands came within 1 reading error in their final reading of “A JUBILANT OVERATURE.”

Likewise, in their final readings of “THIRD SET FOR BAND,” the ARM bands reduced their overall reading errors to 1.5 at the end of the 7th week. The RAM bands in their third and final reading of the same work reduced their overall errors to 1 at the end of the 14th week. Again, please refer to Table 2 below.

At the conclusion of the study, I shared the results with the C.L. Barnhouse Music Publishers. The company was so impressed with the results they published “Fourteen Weeks to a Better Band”.

Reflecting on the results for some forty years, I needed a scientific explanation as to what made the pilot study so successful. I found myself asking questions such as:

  1. How was it possible that seven of nine bands did not make a reading error during their 3rd and final reading of “Third Set for Band by Jared Spears?” One band made 2 reading errors and another band made 3 reading errors.
  2. How were bands able to reduce their reading errors by 44 percent overall during the pilot study?
  3. How were small Iowa high school bands able to read music as well as larger high school bands considering that students in small schools were engaged in extra-curricular activities such as basketball, volleyball, track, soccer, golf and drama?

In order to try to answer these questions, I read a number of peer review studies used with the permission of the International Music Products Association (NAMM) formerly known as the American Music Conference. The majority of these studies as generated by universities, colleges and high school association throughout the United States focused on academic excellence and achievement.

As I found nothing comparable to my study, I knew from our study that something happened within the brains of these high school students which allowed each rhythmic figure to become permanently embedded in their brains.

Not being a neurologist, I did read a limited number of papers and studies as they would pertain to music and the brain. I found that a limited number of members in the neurological community differ as to the number of neurons and synapses contained in the human brain. The number ranged from 90 million to 125 trillion.

From these studies, I felt that I had found a scientific explanation as to how neurons and synapses interact in providing music to the brain. This information allowed me to understand why our pilot study was successful. When a student played a single rhythmic figure repeatedly, that figure was received by millions, perhaps billions, of neurons and synapses thereby allowing it to become permanently embedded in the brain. The illustration found on the next page gives a graphic explanation as to the process.

How It All Comes Together

The below illustration shows a student observing two eighth notes. The illustration indicates, in the simplest terms, as to how the two eighth notes become permanently embedded in the brain:

  1. The eyes see two eighth notes on the staff.
  2. This information is sent to a waiting neuron in the brain which comprehends what the eye has sent.
  3. A waiting synapse receives the information from the neuron and transmits the information (two eighth notes) to a receiving synapse via an electrical current.
  4. A receiving neuron accepts this information from the sending synapse.

Now, consider this simple explanation, the interplay between neurons and synapses, to be multiplied by one million (1,000,000) to two hundred million (200,000,000) or more neurons and synapses. This process (the playing/singing of two eighth notes over and over through lessons, practice, rehearsals and concerts) allows the eighth notes to become again, permanently embedded in the brain for the remainder of a person's lifetime.

Closing Comments

The reason why bands, individually and collectively, were able to make major improvements in their reading abilities was because students were able to concentrate their practice to one specific rhythmic figure per week. When all major rhythmic figures become embedded in the brain, each rhythmic figure responds as needed when reading a piece of music.

In bringing this study to a close, I firmly believe that our research is once again supported by indisputable evidence. If students have the opportunity to learn one specific rhythm at a time, they can be assured that music will be permanently embedded in their brains for as long as they shall live.

Table 2

Exhibit E

The Eleven Basic Rhythmic Figures found in
“Fourteen Weeks to a Better Band.”

No. and use of rhythmic figures by week
  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11  
note - develop sight reading 1812 2004 2472 2784 3144 3228 3360 3648 3768 3864 3996 3996
note - develop sight reading   1388 1388 1388 1412 1412 1412 1412 1412 1412 1412 1412
note - develop sight reading     924 1056 1248 1248 1248 1248 1248 1248 1248 1248
note - develop sight reading       936 936 936 936 936 936 936 936 936
note - develop sight reading         864 864 864 864 864 864 864 864
note - develop sight reading           948 948 948 948 948 948 948
note - develop sight reading             840 840 840 840 840 840
              9,608       10,244  
note - develop sight reading               672 672 672 672 672
note - develop sight reading                 852 852 852 852
note - develop sight reading                   636 636 636
note - develop sight reading                     840 840
GRAND TOTAL:   13,244

The above numbers are based upon each exercise and related study being played twice a day to develop sight reading improvements.

Roger Maxwell

Roger Maxwell graduated from the University of Northern Iowa (formerly known as the Iowa State Teachers College) where he was one of the founding fathers of the “Dimensions in Jazz” program. In May 2016, he was inducted into the University's School of Music's Jazz Hall of Fame.

He served as a trombonist, rehearsal conductor and arranger for the U.S. Army Band of the Pacific while stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii.

While teaching in Brooklyn, Iowa, his pep band introduced music to the Iowa High School Girl's State Basketball Tournament in 1966.

Mr. Maxwell is the author of many instructional works, including “14 Weeks to a Better Band” - Books 1 and 2, “14 Weeks to an Improved Band,” “Twelve Weeks to a Better Jazz Ensemble,” “Innovations in Jazz,” and “Sing a New Song.”

In 1982, he conducted “Everyone Sings the Messiah” at the Des Moines Civic Center. This “unrehearsed performance” of “the Messiah” was one of the largest presentations in the U.S. with an estimated 2000 singers participating.

In 1999, he and his wife traveled to Japan where he introduced his instructional book “Innovations in Jazz” to bands in the cities of Kofu, Takasaki, Hammamatsu and Shimizu.