Children hear and speak their native language long before they learn to read. In the same way, children should experience music in a variety of meaningful ways before learning to read it from a page. Listening, singing, dancing, drumming, enjoying music both as a creator and a listener will build musical experience so that when abstract musical symbols are introduced, children can attach those symbols to something concrete, something they’ve already experienced.
Who would try to teach a baby the word “ball” without allowing the baby to play with a ball? First the baby plays with the ball, then learns to say “ball,” then eventually learns to read the word “ball.” Learning to read music can progress in the same way. Children should experience the sounds first, then meet the symbols.
Once children have had plenty of opportunity to experience music, they can begin learning their musical ABC’s in a building-block phase that will prepare them to eventually read music. Just as preschool-age children learn their alphabet with letter puzzles and games, beginning piano students need time to get to know the musical alphabet with a variety of different activities. They should be able to place the seven letters of the musical alphabet in order both forwards and backwards, and given any letter know which letters are a step up or down, or a skip up or down. See Lesson 3 for an introduction to the musical alphabet.
As children learn their musical alphabet, they can begin to attach each letter to keys on the piano keyboard, starting with a few at a time and gradually building up to being able to find all seven notes. See Lesson 4, Lesson 7, and Lesson 11 for some fun and easy ways to remember the letter names of notes on the keyboard.
Next, children can start learning about the staff, focusing on basics like how to tell a line note from a space note, how to tell if notes are stepping or skipping, and the meaning of clefs. See Lesson 21 for an introduction to the grand staff.
When children first begin to work with music written on a staff they should focus on recognizing the relationships between the notes and the shape of melodic lines. This is called “intervallic reading” by music teachers, and refers to the ability to visually track from one note to the next, and recognizing if the next note is a repeat, a step up or down, or a skip up or down. When an advanced pianist is sightreading a new piece, she doesn’t take time to think of the letter name for each note. Rather, she looks primarily for intervallic relationships of repeats, steps, and skips between the notes. Establishing a solid understanding of reading notes intervallically from the beginning is the key to becoming a fluent note reader.
Dictating Familiar Rhythms and Melodies
Dictation is the act of writing down what is heard. As a teacher, I always try to move from the familiar to the unfamiliar when introducing a new concept, so I introduce children to written music by showing them how to dictate a song they already know.
Music notation is very ingenious. It encodes two elements of music simultaneously, a rhythmic element and the pitch. When you read music you have to decode both at the same time. That’s a complex skill. It’s kind of like reading two languages at once. In my method, I split the rhythmic and pitch notation apart and teach them separately.
I like to start with dictating rhythm. In Lesson 8, for example, we dictate the rhythm to “Hot Cross Buns”, and as we dictate we discover the symbol for a quarter note, for a quarter rest, and for eighth notes. All of these symbols are linked to a familiar song, so the student can understand them right away. For another example of rhythm dictation, see Lesson 13.
Once children learn how tell rhythm by the shape of a note, they can start to place notes on a staff to show pitch. See Lesson 24 for a first exercise in melodic dictation. After dictating a familiar melody, have your child point to each note while singing the song. This develops the ability to read music in the same way that children recite a picture book they’ve memorized while pointing to the words develops the ability to read. They may not be “reading,” but they are associating symbols with sound and meaning, building skills that will later help them read on their own.
The very last phase of learning to read music is developing the ability to take an unfamiliar, written song, and play it right from the page. Asking a child to do this without sufficient preparation sets them up for frustration. Making sure the foundation is in place is key to success. A child familiar with music, the musical alphabet, the staff, rhythms, and note positions, should be ready and eager to start reading simple music on their own.