Saturday, December 13, 2014

Learning to Read Music

Before I heard of Let's Play Music, I had already taught my dear little four-year-old son how to read.  Wow! That kid sure did (and still does) love reading books.

I had spent months at the library investigating different methods for teaching reading, searching for the one that would work for my family.  The reading method we eventually fell in love with had a few key facets that made it a huge win for my son (and all subsequent siblings).  

A short time later, a Let's Play Music teacher moved into our neighborhood and my little son began to take classes and learn to read music.  I was so ASTONISHED when I heard the theories behind the Let's Play Music method for teaching musical reading, I nearly fell out of my chair!  They were parallel to important truths I had found while teaching my son to read books.


1. Get Some Exposure

Not surprisingly, I taught my son to read books in his native tongue, not Spanish or any other language.  The work of decoding text is tricky, but the motivating drive is that when the laborious work of sounding out letters is done, the text is going to mean something that makes sense.  Since his infancy, I'd also been reading him story books and pointing out words to him.  By age three he'd had a thousand books read to him; when I proposed having him read the books himself, he had a good understanding of what that would mean.

If we went to music lessons as adults, we might expect to show up, have the logistics of note-reading explained to us, and get down to the business of hammering out tunes.  Before our little children can digest such a blunt approach to reading, they need exposure to melodies and tonalities and patterns that they will soon be reading, so that these melodies can mean something.

In my recent post on ear-training for perfect pitch, I discussed how a student can, with practice, be able to mentally "hear" the music as she reads notes on the staff.  The first step on the path to such excellence is practice hearing, singing in tune, and internalizing a large collection of musical tunes and patterns that represent the language of music.  Much of the work during Year 1 of Let's Play Music is designed to expose children to the language and patterns of music.  These activities in class are an important accompaniment to note-reading, so the students will find meaning as they decode, since they'll be decoding a language they know.

2. Learn How Notes Work

I taught my children the sounds that alphabet letters make and the sounds that the consonant clusters make before focusing on the names of the letters. Eventually it's important to know the letter names (an abstract concept) so we can talk about letters and discuss spelling and do intellectual things like that.  But when one is actually reading, he's not thinking about the names of those things...he is just focused on what they mean and how they work as a tool.  Letters are just tools that represent sounds; you don't need to know a whisk is called a whisk in order to make meringue!

In Let's Play Music class, our students are starting to read on the staff in Year 1 and they don't even know ANY NOTE NAMES on the staff.  Shocking? Not at all.  Your kiddo can become a pretty good note-reader by paying attention to the patterns of notes as they baby step and skip, up and down.  Being able to correctly and easily move from one note to the the next is the essence of reading music.  A student must quickly process the relationships between notes in order to read music; the student focuses on how the notes move and relate and work as tool BEFORE focusing on abstract ideas like names for notes.

Stepping and skipping patterns are the first relationships students recognize and perform.  The next fantastic tool will be the ability to quickly recognize intervals between notes, a huge focus in Year 2 (read more about intervals here and here). 

3. Learn some Common Patterns

In the English language, there are a bundle of common words that don't make phonetic sense to a four-year-old.  The word SAID is one of the first sight words my son learned by rote.  Once he had this word in his memory bank, he could effortlessly read it and flow easily past it, spending more effort on the tricky new words in stories.  Even phonetic words, once they are read many times, begin to meld into single items (instead of individual letters) in our fantastic brains.  We don't see the letters anymore- we see the WORD as a whole chunk.

Similar to the English language, the language of music also has some very common "words".  These musical chunks, or melodic patterns, show up ALL THE TIME in music.  The Let's Play Music program introduces the most common melodic patterns (mi-re-do, sol-fa-mi-re-do, sol-la-ti-do, sol-sol-do, sol-mi-do) as if they are sight words. Experienced students will read three or four notes as a cluster of notes; they quickly internalize the pattern represented and play it as a "word" instead of individual notes.  This ability stems from both mental repetition and muscle memory from playing these patterns and handshapes frequently (blog post on muscle memory).

A skilled pianist can sight-read music (play through something brand new) by quickly finding relationships and by looking at "chunks" of notes at once.  During measures of music with unusual patterns, he'll have to slow down and carefully pick out the notes.  Is it amazing to read music without being fully focused on each individual note? Not more amazing than how your brain interprets this entire sentence of English text, only slowing down when it comes to an unusual word, like abecedarian.

4. Learn some Anchor Notes

So, midway through Year 1, your student can play melodies of steps and skips correctly, but it only comes out as intended if the student begins on the correct note!  Every note on the staff represents exactly one white or black key on the keyboard; it's critical to find THAT ONE KEY.

It's not necessary to painstakingly match note-to-key for every single note of the piece if the student can accurately work through the rest of the song by following patterns of steps and intervals.  It will be necessary, for him to learn to check at the beginning of each "chunk" he reads to be sure he's in the right place.

Before teaching all the notes on the staff, Let's Play Music teachers introduce some anchor notes. In Year 2, students learn Middle B,C,D, Treble C, and Bass C, and quickly match between the staff and keyboard.  As they play piano, they check for accuracy of the first note in a "chunk", then play the remaining notes based on patterning.  This is very evident in the second year song How to Skip; the student identifies the first note of each measure, then plays skips up and down to complete the measure.

Anchor notes are these first notes on the staff that the student unfailingly matches to the correct key on the keyboard.  Any note now can be paired to its key by considering the relationship to the anchor ("Oh, I see the key I need is one skip above Middle C, and I know where Middle C is!").  Thinking in this intervallic way is not only a quick way to find the keys, but an excellent way to mentally internalize the distance between notes while your hand is likewise memorizing the physical distance.

5. Find Any Key

By Year 3 of Let's Play Music, your child will be ready to transpose (move Do somewhere other than C), ready to play complex pieces, and ready to build triads and chord inversions.  It's finally and absolutely necessary that we be able to intellectually talk about the notes. The mnemonic song Treble, Bass, Line and Space helps students remember the note names represented by each line and space on the staff. I call this note-spelling since the names are alphabet letters. Teachers will quiz students to be sure they can quickly identify these note names; students will need to do this in order to understand the theory of Year 3.

I sometimes see a division in Year 3 between students who can sight-read music well and those who cannot, and the fast note-spellers are NOT always the best sight-readers.   Fast note-spellers are sometimes tempted to name every note, then match to every key of the song while playing.  Note-spelling has its place in reading: to identify the first note of each "chunk"The rest of the music should be read by looking for patterns.

6. Start With Success

A huge element that I love about our reading program is the way my children experience immediate success.  Most English words are not perfectly phonetic, but we learned a way to write them so they could be decoded phonetically: put a line above a vowel if it is a long vowel, draw a letter tiny if it doesn't actually make a sound, glue two letters together if they make a cluster sound, etc.  My son felt FANTASTIC when he was able to immediately start reading real content.  He still had a short list of practice words each day, but there was no reason to wait for months before letting him read real stories with meaning.  Intrinsic motivation was high! He could see that he was really reading, and he wanted to keep at it, and he read daily because he loved it.  

After a few months, the helpful hints and modifications to words were taken away- but by then he had internalized the many wacky phonetic rules of English and could still read the words, and correctly infer how to read new ones. Success!

In Let's Play Music, students begin keyboarding by playing chords.  They are still practicing daily at reading and playing melodies, but we want them to have immediate success at the piano, too!  By playing accompanying chords while singing the melodies, the student creates the harmony and the complexity of real music! There is no reason to wait months before playing something that sounds full and rich and big and exciting.  

I remember my own early piano lessons with my primer-level book.  For months I languished with small-sounding tunes, dreaming of one day playing some real songs. Nowadays, my students get the joy of success early on, and it motivates them to strive for music success, even long after they graduate from Let's Play Music.

7. In Loving Arms

I didn't mind teaching my son (and eventually his siblings) to read.  It was a commitment, for sure, but it meant that every day I would hold him snuggled in my lap for 15 minutes.  We made up silly games to get through the practice words and we had curious discussions about the silly stories he read. I shared with him my joy at seeing his progress and told him I would always welcome hearing him read me a story.  We took turns reading passages, and reading was our special time together.

Is it any surprise that reading music can be a similar experience for a child?  If you, Mom and Dad, don't read music yourself, take this opportunity to learn along with your child during your Let's Play Music years.  Sit at the bells or keyboard together and play duets, take turns reading melodies, and make up songs together.  Much of the long-term success of this early music education is wrapped up in your child's emotional experience with learning music.  

If I'm asked why the Let's Play Method of teaching note-reading really works, I can get right down to it and answer, "because the children feel loved." The Let's Play Music program was carefully crafted to help your child learn music AND hopefully help you build a strong, loving family at the same time.

-Gina Weibel, M.S.
Let's Play Music Teacher

EDITOR'S NOTE: I didn't set out to write a commercial for my favorite reading method, but I truly have loved using Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons and you can buy the book used for $5! Just to be clear, I have no evidence that other LPM teachers endorse this method. If you'd like to discuss it with me, leave comments below.  My favorite method for handwriting is Handwriting Without Tears, and of course my favorite method for music is Let's Play Music!


  1. That's our reading book!! I loved teaching each of my kids with it and love your comparison with LPM. They are both the very best out there. Thanks Gina!

  2. Great insights… great article! Thanks for sharing!

  3. I've taught 2 of my kids to read from that book and just started my third! All of them were reading well before kindergarten!