Blog

“But it’s cheating!” – The musical way to read music

I’m sure most music teachers have taught students how to read music using rhymes at some stage. You know, Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit, FACE, Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always, All Cows Eat Grass – or whatever rhymes you have used.

 


This abstract way of thinking about notes is not only the slowest way to get to know musical notation, it is also highly unmusical, with the rhymes having no bearing on musical direction, pitch, or how each note relates to the next. When I first started teaching piano 10 years ago, I too taught note names in this way. I was rather naive and new back then…

I remember having a six year old who was very musical, practiced insane amounts of unnatural hours every day, and could read music exceptionally well. But if I asked her to name a note, or asked her to start from a certain note in the music, she wouldn’t know what I was talking about. I didn’t understand at that stage how she could read music so well without knowing her note names. Of course, she just knew which note corresponded to which key on the piano, without giving them names, and could follow patterns. When we’re teaching music as a language, however, being able to communicate verbally and have the same language is extremely important. And I believe knowing note names by their letter is very important. Otherwise, delving into more complex theoretical concepts and keys and scales becomes exceptionally hard as you can’t communicate verbally and be on the same wave length.

So when it comes to reading music, I teach following intervals and patterns first. I explain the lines and spaces and stepping up goes up the alphabet and coming down goes backwards. Rather than rhymes, becoming so familiar with the alphabet A-G that you can say it just as quickly backwards as forwards is key to getting to know notes. Then, all you need is a base point, say middle C for example, and you can figure any other note out from there, going up and down the alphabet. Every week I will give a student one other note to memorise – middle C first, then the bottom line of treble clef, then the top space of bass clef etc. So over time, they don’t have to work up or down too far from any one note.

Theory sheets such as the one on the right are very useful for students to put their alphabet practice into use. This one was obtained from The Plucky Pianista. Hal Leonard Theory and Notespeller books also have similar activities.

I get students to practice in two ways – one, of course, is saying note names as they play. I don’t think you can bypass this vital stage in getting acquainted with the notes – please, feel free to correct me if you feel this is wrong. Rather than rhymes, however, I get them using the alphabet up and down. The other way is just playing forgetting the note names, and following intervals. In the early stages, this is just steps (2nds) and skips (3rds), but as new intervals are introduced, rather than solely thinking of each note in isolation, trying to figure out its note name, showing shapes and intervals and how that relates to finger patterns and hand shapes on the piano is much more musical and relevant to understanding direction and phrases. This is, of course, how Hal Leonard introduces reading in their children’s method books. I also use this for teaching adults to read.

I have had a few students who have felt that if they don’t know the letter name of the note that they are playing, they think they are “cheating” or not really reading the music, and therefore try to just fumble through unmusically with lots of pauses, disregarding rhythm while they think of each note name in isolation, trying to remember which rhyme it was they needed for which clef. It has taken some effort with a few students to change this old way of approaching reading. Especially those who may have learnt in the past and are trying to remember how to read.

Taking this topic one step further, I then have students who feel if they are getting to know the music well and find that they’re not reading every single note, that again, they are cheating. I then ask them what is the point of the music on the page? The answer that I give them is that it is there to serve the purpose of creating the music. So once the music has served its purpose and you don’t need to read every note, that means that you’ve learned it well and the sheet music is then just a reference point as you need, or to see the bigger picture rather than individual notes. I often use the metaphor of reading. When you first learn to read, it is necessary to sound out each letter as you figure out the word. Now, we don’t even see individual letters, or even words, but read in sentences, unconscious of each letter. This has helped to put this into perspective for a lot of students. And this leads nicely into students starting to memorise. I find that it is when a student reaching a comfortable point in reading that they have this little panic about not actually being aware of the notes anymore. Only certain students have these worries. And it is generally the ones without a great ear or memory and have had to rely on reading heavily in the early days.

I would love to know any experiences other teachers have had with students and their reading ventures, or also any other methods of approaching teaching notation and reading note names. Please feel free to share (or to question my own methods).

About the Author

leahcoutts
Leah Coutts is a private piano teacher in Brisbane, Australia. She completed her Bachelor of Music Studies with First Class Honours in June 2010. She is a member of the Golden Key International Honour Society. Having completed all grades in Electric Organ and moving onto pipe organ at university, under the internationally acclaimed Christopher Wrench’s direction, Leah is now completing the Asso... [Read more]

18 Comments

  1. Janet

    I think it’s erroneous to imagine teachers ONLY presenting mnemonics (not rhymes). It’s probably commonplace to learn the musical alphabet forward & backward as well. Rarely do mnemonics correspond to what they help memorize, so that point isn’t relevant enough to me to criticize ones who use them. Having had fun making up others but finding consistency more memorable, I use the “boys do fine” one on each staff because it’s for lines … line=fine. I use a drawing to distinguish one from the other. I actually think it’s very smart to see the common pattern between staves (both w GBDF and ACE). F ACE and ACE G are in spACE s … even with crude drawings, it makes sense and is relevant.

    Sp, yes to A-G to and fro

  2. Janet

    Ooops, that sent before ready …

    So, for me, it’s yes to A-G to and fro, yes to naming notes, and yes to intelligently presented mnemonics.

  3. Richard Kant

    Treble/Bass Lines: EGBDFA
    Treble/Bass Spaces: FACEG

    Don’t use any mnemonics or rhymes.
    I just get the kids to say EGBDFA very fast like a tongue twister.

    I get kids to recognize EGBDFA in the treble clef starting on the first line in the treble clef and finishing on A (leger line) above the treble staff.

    EGBDFA in the bass clef starts on the E (leger line) below the first line and finishes on A (fifth line in bass).

    I have not had any problems with kids getting confused with A,E with middle C.

    A fun way to drill the students is to use iPad app called Flashnotes. You can choose the notes you want to drill. I do:
    treble/bass lines in week 1
    treble/bass spaces in week 2
    treble/bass lines and spaces in week 3

    I also get the kids to play treble/bass EGBDFA on the piano keyboard and FACEG.
    It’s amazing how quickly they master all the lines and spaces.

    P

  4. Richard Kant

    Treble/Bass Lines: EGBDFA
    Treble/Bass Spaces: FACEG

    Don’t use any mnemonics or rhymes.
    I just get the kids to say EGBDFA very fast like a tongue twister.

    I get kids to recognize EGBDFA in the treble clef starting on the first line in the treble clef and finishing on A (leger line) above the treble staff.

    EGBDFA in the bass clef starts on the E (leger line) below the first line and finishes on A (fifth line in bass).

    I have not had any problems with kids getting confused with A,E with middle C.

    A fun way to drill the students is to use iPad app called Flashnotes. You can choose the notes you want to drill. I do:
    treble/bass lines in week 1
    treble/bass spaces in week 2
    treble/bass lines and spaces in week 3

    I also get the kids to play treble/bass EGBDFA on the piano keyboard and FACEG.
    It’s amazing how quickly they master all the lines and spaces.

  5. Regan Starr

    I haven’t heard of that app, Richard. I’ll check it out.

  6. Benny Golbin

    Leah. Your method is the only way I’ve been teaching my students how to read notation for the past few years. Because I teach woodwinds, the method of teaching notes step-by-step makes so much sense because our fingering movement is mostly vertical. I find students who learn the acronym and rhyme method tend to spend too much time figuring out there music from note-to-note. Some of my students who learned the acronym/rhyme method first tend to recite this method for every single note they learn in a new song even if the note is only a step or third apart from another. This leads to the habit of writing the note names under the notes. Once I teach my students how to read music using the step-by-step method, they usually break away from this habit within a week.

  7. Ryan Record

    I tend to use both ways from time to time. I also use musictheory.net. You can send custom exercises to the parent’s email and they can work on memorizing those specific notes. musictheory.net also has a ipad app.

    Intervals are really important for the students to know. I do a lot of ear training with my students so understanding the numbers is very helpful. I guess when I was learning it, the numbers kinda helped me put the pieces together. For example, when I see a harmonic C to G, I probably process it as a P5 first and then as C to G.

  8. Valerie Kampmeier

    Thanks for your article, Leah. I started the piano very young and don’t remember learning to read music, so it’s always been diffiulct for me to understand why some students find it difficult, and how exactly to help them. I agree that the menmonics don’t really seem to help, so I liked your reminder to work more with alphabet and intervals. Some great ideas here!

  9. Ed Pearlman

    Teaching violin, I don’t use letters at all at first — except for the names of the strings. I focus on the patterns, and the finger numbers. They learn to read open strings on the music staff first — far enough apart to make it easy; then they learn space notes (open strings plus 2d fingers); then they transfer the spacing they’ve picked up from learning the space notes to learn similar patterns with line notes (1 and 3 fingers). I explain how easy it is to figure out the names of notes because they know the names of the open strings and also know the alphabet, and it’s one letter per finger.

    To play in tune and to know the sharps and flats is a separate project. Again, they need not to be daunted by the lack of frets — fingers are basically limited to two places each, either touching the next finger or a finger-width away.

    To help students I created a slide rule which shows the fingering maps but not the letters of the notes; it is a visual complement to playing scales and arpeggios and is sold by Shar, Johnson and on my own website at http://www.edpearlman.net/fingerfinder

    You’re absolutely right that music is language, and I often point out as you do that focusing on learning note by note is like thinking about how to spell every word we say — we couldn’t talk if we did that. We need to be able to say the words whole, and the phrases. We engage our minds in what we’re saying and teach our fingers how to spell the words for us, as on a typewriter.

    Keep it up, it sounds like you’re doing great things for your students.

  10. Amy

    I have always taught Treble Clef is called the G clef & shown them how the clef is art around G. Bass Clef is F clef because of the the F. Works nicely because I teach bassoon and F is a good note to start on. Tenor Clef is a C clef. I then teach them to work up and down from that one note. It’s easier to do with beginning bassoonists because they need to learn one note at a time. I imagine piano is harder. When bassoon students get to tenor clef, they are accomplished players & I have to slow them down to Mary Had a Little Lamb starting with C because, afterall, they are learning C clef.

  11. Michelle Birch

    Amy your comment about using the clefs for note reference inspires me to add one of the points I use when teaching note recognition. I always present the Grand Stave in its entirety, with middle C in the middle. Then I show how the treble clef is an old fashioned G, and the bass clef an old fashioned F. Mnemonics work well, particularly as I teach guitar and it’s much harder for students to grasp how notes go up and down in steps than it is if they are playing on a piano keyboard. I can see how intervals would work particularly for instruments where the notes are laid out in a line though.

    I use http://www.musictheory.net all the time with my students and often recommend the iPad/iPod/iPhone version Tenuto (I can’t use it myself because I don’t own any of the above!). It’s fantastic for teaching all sorts of things, and students really enjoy using it during a lesson. It provides a welcome break particularly when focus on the instrument becomes a bit tedious with small children. Ditto on http://www.rhythmtrainer.com, but that’s for rhythm …

    Another programme I use all the time is Harmony Assistant (like Sibelius, but cheaper). Every student has a running composition which we work on when time allows during a lesson, and this enables me to introduce all sorts of music theory points painlessly and with a great deal of lighthearted humour. Amazing the stuff the kids turn up with, too! Some have downloaded it at home, and really enjoy using it.

    My final point, which I make clear to students, is that note recognition is a three-pronged study:
    Where the note is on the stave;
    Its name;
    Where it is on the instrument.

    Most students get two of the three, with the third point sometimes being very weak. This is where I find the exercises at http://www.musictheory.net so helpful; naming the notes both on the stave and on the fret board. Not so ideal if they play anything other than a piano or a guitar I guess …

  12. Rose Lauck

    My twenty years and hundreds of students have taught me that we all learn things differently. I know that when I sight read music which I still do almost every day, I read relationships to specific notes that I have simply memorized, so in the end isn’t it a combination of landmarks and intervalic relationships that we read?

    I try to start all my students reading relationships and intervals, but you know what, some of them just can’t make the physical and aural connection. They may be thought of as less naturally talented, but I prefer to think of it that their brains are more analytical and it is easier for them ultimately to learn the intervalic connections (which they will without even realizing it as their reading improves) by relating them directly to note names.

    I believe an excellent teacher simply restates the information in creative and interesting ways until the student gets it. The more ways you can glean to teach reading, the more successful your students will be. It may be memorizing a sentence, reading an interval or something that you improvise on the spot. (Try letting them create their own sentences, then they really remember those note names.) They may get it the first time or the tenth time, but with patience and creative almost anyone can do it. I tell them that musicians aren’t smart enough to handle more than 7 letters anyway.

  13. Robin Wheatley

    This is really helpful – I’m definitely going to tell my students about musictheory.net! It looks great! I have a beginning student who actually sight reads very well in the “middle c” position, but is starting to fall behind now that he’s required to branch out on the keyboard (piano, of course). I’m going to start using flash cards with him at his next lesson, but this computer-based program may be more interesting to him.

  14. Carlinton

    I really enjoy reading this post.

    I don’t think rhymes, codes or any form of short cut are effective methods to use in music classes.
    These methods or techniques tend to cause some confusion, especially when teaching students who were exposed to them from a previous music studio.
    However, some individuals have used these techniques for years and are successful.
    But I believe that the original way to reading music is most effective and all music teachers should practice doing so.

    Great Post!
    Great Blog!

  15. peter

    Well the method you have discovered is the only method Ive been using for many many years. Just like a language the movement of the notes and its interval perception is the most important thing.

    Like a word; you read the letters as a whole but you spell each letter only to work out the sounds.. thus the same for music. the abcdefg could just as well be mnopqrs.

    ‘A child can speak well b4 they can spell’ I apply the same ideas to music.

  16. Ashli Thompson

    Two years ago I was introduced to a method entitled “Reading Keyboard Music” (www.reading keyboardmusic.com). I’ve been teaching piano for nearly 20 years, and never have I seen a more universally successful method for teaching a child to play from sheet music. No more confusion with letter names, no playing by using finger numbers, and no more guessing at the notes. Gone are “positions” ( who ever played a piece of REAL music written in C position?) and students who have to “count up” to find where the notes are. This method teaches the notes by their position names (I.e. E above middle C is referred to as “bottom line” because it is the bottom line on the treble staff). I have taught 25 students of various ages and all of them are able to play at a Level 3 capacity within the first year. After completion of the three-book course, I usually transfer to Faber level 3A and add scales and Hanon exercises to improve technique. The bonus is that these students can sight read ANYTHING and almost never play an incorrect note. They also play ledger notes with ease, and are comfortable playing anywhere on the keyboard. Letter names are introduced at one point in the curriculum, and students transfer easily to “letter language” . I have taught with many other methods (probably EVERY other method) but I can say that at this point it would feel unethical for me to recommend anything else to a student. Why would I teach a student something that would take three times as long, and potentially produce less results? I have students come to me who have been playing for years, and STILL do not sightread. What do I do? I start them over with RKM. It works for every type of learner and creates independent pianists. Oh, and consequently, my students never needed to learn shortcuts to figure out their notes.

  17. Cupcakes Maken

    It’s really helpful.It’s interested to me.

  18. Gerr

    Isn’t this a rediscovery of intervalactically/intervalactic reading ? Or am I missing something.