FIGURENOTES: Music by Colours

by Arthur Gumulka and Rob Sheridan, Senior Instructors, Sunbeam House Services


‘Figurenotes’ is a new musical method that Sunbeam House Services, a leading service for adults with intellectual disabilities in Co. Wicklow, has adopted from the Resonaari School of Music in Helsinki. Sunbeam House has introduced this method of teaching, which allows a person to play music even if they cannot read musical notes at all. All they need to do is match identical symbols with a corresponding note, which in this case are colours.

‘Figurenotes’ was adopted as a means to support SHS service users to play musical instruments. We completed the trainers’ course two years ago and now teach music using this method. We are very enthusiastic about the system. Using Figurenotes has helped our service users realise that if you don’t play music and you want to there’s nothing that should stop you from doing so. Personally we find playing our own guitars very therapeutic, and our service users feel the same way about learning music and developing their own skills on their own instruments. Figurenotes has allowed them to do so.

Playing music is a good form of escapism and is very therapeutic for anyone who chooses to play. We have found that teaching music through the method of Figurenotes reaches our service users’ abilities in a very positive way. They reflect this by the smiles on their faces and the confidence they have all found in themselves. You only have to attend one of our classes to see this!

Our service users have reflected on what they and we as instructors have learned since we started Figurenotes in 2008. We all agree that it’s not just about playing music, but finding our own strengths and abilities, working together as a team and (most importantly) having fun while doing so. Playing music is very therapeutic, and how it is delivered and received is very important; it should be seen as a journey rather than a destination that everyone can experience.

Sunbeam has set up an East Regional Music Committee. So far, seven organisations have joined the committee to help inspire service users to develop their skills through the medium of music and dance, allowing them to be their own advocates in music. Figurenotes is the backbone of this project.


Resonaari is a Helsinki music centre established in 1995, where Figurenotes is being researched and developed. It also has a music school for special needs groups with over 150 pupils and is working on a holistic music education model incorporating the rehabilitative objectives for special needs groups. In addition, Resonaari arranges training and provides music therapy using Figurenotes. For more information, see


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