Strategies for Teaching Kids to Read Notes on the Staff

Finding it difficult to read the notes on the staff and translate them to the piano keys is a very common hurdle that must be overcome.  Here are some tried and true methods for helping kids with this.

  1. Ensure the child has a thorough understanding of the letter names of the white keys. If this is not secure, adding the secondary layer of reading notes on the staff is very difficult.
  2. Ensure the child understands what a step and skip are on the white keys and on the staff. (Step: one white key to a neighbor key, space note to line note on staff; Skip: from one white key skip over the neighbor white key to the next white key, on the staff line note to next line note or space note to next space note.)
  3. Play steps on the piano – ask the child to identify if it is a step up or step down. Allow the child to see your hands.
  4. Play skips on the piano – ask the child to identify if it is a skip up or skip down. Allow the child to see your hands.
  5. Play steps and skips on the piano – ask the child to identify whether it is up or down and a step or a skip.
  6. Call out “step” or “skip”; “up” or “down” and have the child play this on the piano.
  7. Use manuscript (i.e. staff) paper to draw out notes that are steps/skips, and or use flashcards with steps/skips, or point to steps/skips in the child’s music. Have the child identify whether it is a step or a skip and whether it goes up or down. (There may also be “repeats” i.e. repeated notes.)
  8. Practice saying the music alphabet forwards and backwards, at least twice in a row so the child becomes accustomed with A following G going up and G following A coming back down. Start on letters other than G and A.  Practicing backwards is very important, as it is likely the child has never practiced thinking the alphabet backwards before.  Practice “skipping through” the music alphabet, for example, speaking: “A, C, E, G, B, D, F, A” and “A, F, D, B, G, E, C, A.”  Lettered flashcards can be used – the child picks a card and then is asked to name the note that is a step/skip, up/down.
  9. Quiz the child first on the guide notes (Middle C, Treble G, Bass F) on the staff and then the other notes learned. It is helpful to start with notes that are either a step or skip from the guide notes.  If the child does not know the note, have the child identify the nearest guide note, and then count up/down by steps to find the note name.  Flash cards can be purchased that have the notes on them.
  10. Before playing a (new) piece, have the child point to each of the notes and identify the letters. DO NOT WRITE ALL OF THE LETTER NAMES in to the music.  You may write in: letter for starting note in each hand and any other notes that the child is especially struggling to read.  DO NOT generally write in letter names of guide notes, unless they are the starting note for either hand.  Guide notes need to be memorized.  (I recommend against mnemonics such as “Every Good Boy Does Fine” – this brings extra things to remember into the process and I’ve seen too many kids struggling to remember the mnemonic, or whether it is supposed to go up or down, or whether it is for the treble or bass clef, etc.  Actual music notation has an internal logic that is based in how it developed over centuries of use.  Once the child understands the internal logic, no mnemonics are needed and the child will always be able to find their way around the grand staff.)
  11. Before playing a (new) piece, have the child point to each note and identify if the subsequent note is “a step up,” “a step down,” “a repeat,” “a skip up,” “a skip down,” or “a LEAP up/down.” (The term “leap” can be used for any interval that is larger than a skip/3rd.)

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