This article is for parents and private music instructors. It's also useful for adults who want a fun and engaging way to read notes. This method may be helpful in group music classes but is intended for use outside of school classroom settings. As this article is geared towards parents and teachers, I switch between "your child" and "your student."
To teach your child to read notes in the most effective and fun manner, you will need to ensure they have some basic skills and teach them a few basics about the musical alphabet and music notation. Then, you should play some simple games to help them understand the fundamental concepts in music notation before reading notes. Finally, introduce them to note reading and rhythms.
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The Problems of Other Methods:
The Acronym Method is the most common method used to teach kids music. This method takes the names of the lines and spaces and creates a backward acronym to help children remember the names of the notes. For example, if you know how to read music (and learned in the USA), you probably remember the acronym you used for EGBDF. The one I learned was "Every Good Boy Does Fine." EGBDF are the names of the lines of the treble clef from the bottom up. The spaces need no acronyms, as they spell a simple word: FACE.
My apologies to those who learned and use fixed-do for note names; I don't know the standard methods of teaching fixed do, but I assume they are similar enough that they have the same problems.
The acronym method is a fantastic way to teach many children to name notes accurately and quickly, without concern about playing those notes musically. Because of this, it's a fantastic method for teaching a classroom of students the names of the notes on the staff.
However, it has many drawbacks. First of all, there's too much calculation involved; before figuring out a note, students must determine whether the note is on a line or a space. Then, they must always begin at the beginning of the acronym and work their way up to their note. This process leads to a very unmusical way of thinking about note reading; too much stopping and starting and no thought about moving from one note to another or the relationship between notes. Additionally, this method requires entirely new acronyms for bass, tenor, and alto clef and has no utility for ledger lines.
I suspect that students who become proficient in reading notes find their own "reference note" eventually, a note that they remember easily. They then use that reference note and quickly figure out the notes above and below it. Eventually, they find another reference note, and after an unguided and haphazard journey through reference notes, they have the whole staff figured out.
It is best to teach children some very, very basic rules about music notation and then have them play some games so that they can integrate that knowledge. After that, before reading proper music notation, children should play games that allow them to discover and integrate how music notation works without the burden of accuracy. Finally, pitch reading can be introduced by skipping acronyms entirely and having children memorize the most-useful reference notes, called the Cardinal Notes (or, sometimes, Landmark Notes). Rhythm games can be introduced along the way that introduce rhythmic concepts and smooth the path to rhythm reading.
Before starting these games, your child must be able to play a scale, both going up and down. It doesn't matter which scale it is. And it doesn't need to be a full scale; just being able to play the first five notes is sufficient. They will also need to understand the musical concepts of "High" and "Low" and the associated ideas of "Up" and "Down."
Note that it will be most helpful if the child can say the names of the notes as they play through their scale.
Teaching a child to play a musical scale is far beyond the purview of this article and requires a competent music teacher.
Jump Down Turn Around
Teaching children the concepts of High and Low can be done with a simple game called Jump Down Turn-Around from Jeffery Agrell's excellent book Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians.
Here is a summary of how it works: Starting with the extremes of the instrument register, the teacher selects and demonstrates a high note, low note, and middle note. The child is instructed that when the high note is played, they jump. When the middle note is played, they sit. And, when the low note is played, they sit down. The teacher proceeds to play the notes and watches as controlled chaos ensues.
- Decrease the range between notes; make them closer together (even micro-tonal!)
- A teacher plays an ascending, descending, or noodling-around scale fragment. Children jump, sit, or spin, respectively.
- There are no pre-determined pitches. If the teacher plays the same note, the child spins. They jump if the teacher's note is higher than the previous one. If it is lower than the previous note, they sit down.
Musical Alphabet Facts
In the USA and many other countries, the musical notes are named using the first seven letters of the alphabet (and, eventually, the addition of the sharp and flat symbols: ♯ and ♭). However, the differences in how the musical and regular alphabet function confuses students. It is best to thoroughly understand how the musical alphabet works independently of the musical staff to avoid confusion. This understanding is reached through explanation and, more importantly, games.
Here are all the facts kids need to know about the Musical Alphabet:
- The Musical Alphabet consists of the letters A B C D E F and G.
- The Musical Alphabet repeats itself; it goes on forever and ever. After G comes A again, like so: A B C D E F G A B C D E F G, ad eternum.
- Because the Musical Alphabet repeats forever, it has no beginning or end. Consequently, it can start with any letter. (For reasons I won't get into here, it is most common at this level to begin on C).
- The Musical Alphabet goes up and down rather than side-to-side.
To teach these pre-reading concepts to kids, you'll need two sets of flashcards with the letters A-G on them. You can make these yourself or purchase them from Music Mind Games (one pack of these flashcards is enough sets for classroom usage).
Musical Alphabet Game
Here is a simple activity to teach the above points. This activity can be broken down into smaller steps across multiple lessons or practice sessions as your child's ability necessitates. If you need to break this down into even smaller steps or would like more games to play, I recommend Music Mind Games curriculum book for an incredibly minute breakdown of games to teach these and other basic music theory skills.
After explaining some or all of the principles above, the teacher lays out the cards from A-G. The student does the same. The teacher then picks up the A card and moves it next to the G card at the end of the line. The student does the same. Repeat this a few times; pick up the card at the front and move it to the end. After a bit, stop and point to the G card and ask the child what note comes after it (the correct answer is A; ensure that these two cards are next to each other when you ask). Do a few more repetitions of moving the front card to the end of the line, then point to the A card and ask what comes before it (the correct answer is G).
- Do this activity in reverse: Move the End card to the beginning of the line.
- When starting the activity, begin on a note other than A, i.e., BCDEFGAB.
- Ask what note is after G or before A when these notes are not next to each other.
After your child has this basic concept down, tell them the musical alphabet goes up and down rather than side-to-side. Repeat this activity, but stack the notes up "on top of" one another so that they read ABCDEFG from closest to furthest away from you. Have the child imitate it and repeat the above variations.
The final step in using these cards to teach note reading is the Pre-reading Exercises. While the above concepts can be taught in a lesson or two with all but the youngest students (note: I do not recommend note reading for students five and younger, but it can be done), the games should be practiced at home with a parent and advance in difficulty over several weeks.
These games teach students to consider the relationship between notes rather than view them as isolated events. This results in a much more musical approach to learning to read music.
These games are intended to be played with the cards stacked vertically rather than horizontally to help reinforce the vertical nature of the musical alphabet.
The teacher places all the cards face-up, in order, except one card. This card is placed face-down. The student's task is to figure out the name of the upside-down note card.
Neighbors (or Seconds)
The teacher puts down three cards in order. The center card is face up; the cards above and below are face down. Finally, a single card face-up, with two cards, one above and one below it, face down. The child's task is again to figure out the names of the upside-down cards.
The teacher puts down five cards in order. The center card is face-up, and all other cards are face-down. The student's task is to figure out the notes further away from the center note.
Note to teachers: Obviously, the names of these games are references to the intervals. And obviously, these games could be used to teach intervals. However, this was just a convenient naming scheme. Students learn two reference notes when using the Cardinal Notes method of note learning. All other notes are within a third of those reference notes. For this reason, I do not continue these exercises beyond thirds.
Lines and Spaces
Lines are crucial a crucial organizing force in every school-aged child's life (except, maybe, home-schoolers). Every school-age child quickly learns the importance of writing their name on the line at the top of their homework, standing in line for recess, or even standing on the line for games during Phys Ed classes. However, on closer inspection, instructing children to "write on the line" results in a very different outcome than "standing on a line"; when standing on the line, one's feet cover the line. However, one's name rests gently above the line when writing on the line. While this may seem like an odd inconsistency, it isn't: both instructions result in students putting things "on top of" the line. The only difference is our shared sense of orientation; up is the top of the page in one example and the sky in another!
This difference is often confusing for music students because notes are written on a page, where they are used to "Up" being the top of the page. However, musical notes that are "on the line" cover the line exactly as someone standing on a line would. Imagine the confusion of a young child who has homework from music class where they must write their name at the top of the page "on the line" (above it) and identify whether notes are "on the line" (covering it) or "in the space" (in between two lines is how music teachers and adults might see it. But a new learner would likely see it as on the line, just like their name is at the top of the page)!
The most astute music teacher may be able to completely side-step this issue by referring to notes as "in the space between lines" or "covering the line." Often, in situations like these, I attempt to conflate simple and specialized vocabulary by presenting them side-by-side; for example, I'll say, "Which note is on the line, covering it up?" (or, in a different context, "What is the dynamics, the volume level here?"). However, in all situations where this approach is taken, it's best to inoculate your student against your moments of forgetfulness and teach them the proper vocabulary from the get-go. Teaching students the musical meaning of "on the line" and "in the space" can be done using the above-given examples:
- Draw a line on the paper and instruct your student to write their name down on the line.
- Drop a piece of rope, tape, cable, whatever, on the floor and as your student to sit or stand on the line.
- Point out to them that, in one instance, they covered the line, and in the other, they didn't.
- ask them why (whether they answer "correctly" isn't too important; the goal is to get them to think about the differences so the fact that there is a difference sticks with them).
- ask them why (whether they answer "correctly" isn't too important; the goal is to get them to think about the differences so the fact that there is a difference sticks with them).
- Tell them that, in music, the term "on the line" means covering it.
- Show them some music; point out the notes on the line.
- Draw two anythings (lines, unicorns, sticks of butter) above and below each other. Ask them to point to the space between the objects. Then, draw something different in the space and say, "The object is in the space!"
- Return to the music and show them the notes "in the space."
These three games teach some fundamentals of music notation without the pressure of reading music. They're also helpful in-and-of themselves; I use them as part of my CIA games to teach my students creativity, musicality, and improvisation. These games make the transition into note-reading obvious rather than confusing.
A note to parents with limited musical training: This article contains my advice for reading notes and rhythms. While basic games can be taught by someone with little-to-no musical training, transitional rhythm games require some musical understanding. You can skip those exercises.
The first thing an aspiring race-car driver learns is to look where they want the car to go. So they're constantly looking ahead to the braking spot, turn-in point, corner apex, and corner-exit. By doing this, they can drive smooth and fast.
Becoming an excellent sight-reading musician requires much the same skill; always looking a few notes ahead to figure out how the notes you're currently playing relate to the notes you've just played. For example, you may be able to "skip" reading many notes if you can quickly recognize that what follows is a scale that starts on A and ends on E.
Unfortunately, conventional teaching methods discourage students from thinking this way and instead force them to find how a note relates to their Acronym rather than how their notes relate to the notes around them.
Fortunately, the game Pitch Map teaches kids the fundamental functions of written musical notation, encourages them to think about the relationship between notes, and allows them an early chance to write music free from the encumbrances of proper notation. It also is close enough to written notation that one can easily transition to an entire musical staff in a way that makes it seem the logical outcome of a historical process rather than a confusing array of dots, lines, and squiggles.
To teach a child to play Pitch Map, first, ask them to play the lowest note in their scale. Draw a dot in the bottom-left corner of a blank paper (or, better yet, dry-erase board) and say, "That's your lowest note." Then, ask them to play the highest note of their scale. Next, draw a dot in the top-middle of the page and tell them that it is the highest note in the scale. Finally, draw a dot in the bottom-right corner of the paper and ask them to play the note (it will be the lowest note in their scale).
This game teaches three basic concepts:
- Music is read left-to-right
- The top of the page is high notes.
- The bottom of the page is low notes.
Once these basic principles are established, create more and more Pitch Maps. Initially, begin with huge leaps; significant differences are easier for beginners to differentiate. Then, as they become comfortable, make the differences smaller. Eventually, step-wise motion can be introduced. After some time, you can even attempt musical sequences.
At some point, you will make a pattern with a clear intent of how it is supposed to be played. However, resist the temptation to correct your student until after you see your student consistently thinking critically about what they played or what will play. Critical assessment signals that they are ready for two things. First, they are ready to create their own Pitch Maps. Turn the paper and pencil over to them and let them write and create their own music. Watch as they consider what sound they want to make and attempt to write it down. Second, it signals they are ready for the Transitional stage of note reading. More on that below.
Pitch maps allow students to figure out how music notation works without the pressure of accurately translating dots on a page into physical instructions, which result in a musical sound. Similarly, the next two games, played with a scale, allow students to figure out and internalize the different rhythms, and their relationship to the pulse, without the pressure of translating empty circles, dots, stems, and flags into time values.
These games are simple and can have further benefits. As a guitar teacher, my students can pluck a note and forget about it. But unfortunately, this makes it challenging to get students to play a long-tone scale. The first of these games solves this. And, for gifted students who struggle to play accurately, it can give them enough of a challenge to increase their focus on playing such a "simple" thing as a scale. And, for all students, these games passively teach harmonic awareness.
While these give the most benefit and musical enjoyment when using a pulsed drone, they can be done using a simple metronome. It's just not as fun.
This game teaches kids quarter notes and longer values.
Roll a dice. The teacher pulses the note Do. The child plays 1 note of the scale for every X amount rolled on the dice. For example, if the dice roll is a 4, the student would play a whole note while the teacher pulses a quarter note. Older kids can usually struggle and figure it out independently after a few tries. Younger students may need a demonstration.
Note to teachers: There is no reason to shy away from 3, 5, or 6. However, don't use one very often; it's easy and doesn't build much skill.
Submarine Drones are the opposite of Pulsed Drones; they teach the child to do subdivisions (hence Submarine Drones). Roll the dice. The teacher again plays a pulsed, quarter-note drone on Do. The student must fit X number of notes between the teacher's drone note. For example, if the dice rolled a 4, the student would play 16th notes to the teacher's quarter note. The teacher's tempo must be much slower in this exercise. Again, there is no need to shy away from 3, 5, or 6.
Tip: Musicians always count the beat starting with "1" on the downbeat (1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4). This method is the best way to learn the placement of the notes and how subdivisions fit together mathematically. However, it is far easier to perform subdivisions when the big number is on the downbeat (4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3). As a bonus, this creates a natural crescendo towards the downbeat, leading to more musical playing. For more on this, see David McGill's Sound in Motion).
Play a note other than Do to help develop greater harmonic awareness.
Next, the same basic games transition students into reading standard notation. This stage begins when children have begun to think critically about pitch maps and write their own and can fairly easily play any dice roll in both the Pulsed Drone and Submarine Drone scales.
Eventually, the student or the teacher will draw a pitch map, where the repetition of a specific note will be "in question." For example, you may have intended for the first and last notes in your pitch map to be the same pitch, but they're not exactly on the same level, and the student reasonably concludes that they're different notes. This confusion is your moment to enlighten. Tell them you want to be more precise and draw a single line across the page. Any note that lands on that line will be the same pitch. Make the line an inch or so from the bottom of the page. Continue like this for a week or more. At some point, clarify that the notes resting in the space above and below the line will also be the same pitch (although they might figure that out themselves).
Note: This article is going to focus on teaching the G clef. However, it should be obvious how to adapt these to whatever clef you use.
After they're comfortable with this idea, tell them that you will draw the letter G on that line to be even more precise. Every note on that line will be a G note. The next step is slowly making the G more "fancy" because you're bored with it and want it to look cool. Go through a few different iterations of your clef, getting fancier each time until you arrive at the modern version. Once you're done, tell them they just went through 400+ years of music history in a few minutes (or lessons); you can even show them the historical examples of the transition to the modern G clef.
Now, you can begin to bring in your work with the Musical Alphabet. For example, if the note on the line is G, what is the note immediately above or below the line (A and F, respectively)? And what are the following notes? (you can keep going up the scale if you'd like, but remember, we only need to know a third when using the cardinal note system).
After this becomes second nature to them, draw another line about 2/3rds of the way up the page; tell them that any note that hangs off the bottom of this line is the note C (do NOT use D on the line!). These two notes will form the basis of the Cardinal Note system. As they get comfortable with C, ask them which notes are immediately above and below that note, as well as the notes a little further out, just as you did with the G note.
Roll the dice two times and have the child cycle between these two durations. For example, if the child rolls a two and a three, they will play their scale alternating using half and dotted half notes.
You could try rolling the dice, but that is far harder with subdivisions. Instead, try the following combinations of subdivisions. 1+2, 1+3, 1+4, 2+4, 1+6, 1+5, 2+6, 3+6. If you had previously used mnemonics to teach children these rhythms, you could point it out to them now.
In The Cracks
The teacher plays a pulsed drone; the student plays a scale playing only "in the cracks" between notes, i.e., on the upbeats.
The teacher plays a pulsed drone quarter notes. Next, the student plays, alternating between playing on the pulse and in the crack. This results in a dotted-quarter, eighth rhythmic pattern.
Students now understand how pitch notation works and solidly understand rhythmic divisions. There are three only three things left to do, and it's all downhill from here:
- Use a staff with all the lines on it.
- Introduce them to the remaining Cardinal Notes, neighbor notes, and thirds in an order that builds on their strengths.
- Introduce them to pitch notation
Steps 1 and 2 can be combined without issue. By this point, students are well-aware that the Pitch Map will end up as a Musical Staff and only need a little coaching to explain the remaining lines. They have a solid enough foundation to begin working with simple flashcards or Apps to learn their notes. However, notes must be introduced in the proper order. First, they learn the cardinal notes, then the neighbor notes. After that, there is only 1 note left to learn, which I call The Loner Note.
What are the Cardinal Notes, and why is it important to learn them first?
C is the most important cardinal note and is a constant across all clefs. G is a cardinal note on the G clef, and F is a cardinal note on an F clef. These notes are the most important to learn because any other note on the clef is only a second or third away from a Cardinal Note. This progression makes figuring out the entire clef incredibly easy.
As an aside for keyboard teachers and advanced musicians: Cardinal Notes also make learning the entire Grand Staff (which combines bass and treble clef and is only used for keyboard instruments) easy due to the Symetricality Principle of C, which states that the notes G and F are symmetrical around middle C. As a bonus, learning alto and tenor clef is incredibly easy if you know this and know that the C clef lands in the middle of the Grand Staff. For keyboard teachers or the curious, I've written on this at length, with animations, in another article)
Once we get to this point, students already "know" G and C on the staff, thanks to pitch mapping games, so these are the first notes I would introduce to the entire staff. The next notes to introduce depend on the range of your instrument and what scale your student is playing. I like to introduce high G, as our scale is a 1-octave G scale. After that, I introduce middle C.
I like using the Anki app to teach my students to read notes. This app sped up my student's note reading-learning by 3-6x over other apps. Once students have mastered a few notes, I'll use the app Note Rush to test them. In both cases, I have them say the note name while they play it or quiz them on the note name using Flashnote Derby.
Middle C introduces a new complexity into note reading: the ledger line. This new symbol can confuse kids, but it can be easily explained. First, point out how using more lines makes it easier to be precise but does make it a bit more complicated to figure out which note you're playing. Next, ask them to imagine how confusing it would be to learn to read notes with even more lines! Then tell them that, since that range is seldom used, publishers don't draw the entire line and only draw a portion of it when needed.
Once the needed cardinal notes are introduced, I add their neighbor notes: Gs neighbors are A and F; Cs neighbors are B and D. Students should be comfortable with all this from the preceding pitch-mapping exercises. And, once that is done, there's only 1 note left to introduce: The Loner Note E.
As your child begins to read notes higher or lower on the staff and ledger lines, you can introduce these extended ranges similarly; first, introduce the appropriate Cardinal Note, then the neighbor notes, then the Loner Note.
Be careful; as they begin to work with flashcards, the "Race Car Driver" vision they developed using the basic Pitch Mapping Exercises will disappear. To counter this tendency, continue to play pitch-mapping exercises. At this point, you can revert to a completely blank page with dots on it. Also, have them continue writing their pitch maps on actual staff paper, using an app, or on a blank sheet (rhythms can be ignored at this point). You can also use the app Monster Musician to help develop Racer Car Driver vision. Read this article to learn more about the apps I use to teach kids to read music.
Once students have a firm grasp of the basics, it's time to pick up a book of note-reading exercises that increase in difficulty. I use Play This First for my students. The pulsed drone exercises have left them well-prepared to quickly integrate the rhythms as they are introduced in this method book.
Let me know what you think of my method in the comments below!