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Why starting with reading music notation is a bad idea when teaching children with learning difficul

If you are a piano teacher, you have most probably been reading music for quite a long time which makes it easy for you to overlook the complexity of the process. When a musician plays an instrument, the brain is processing a huge amount and variety of information in parallel.


"Cognitive research reveals an intricate system of neural networks spread over all four cortical lobes of the brain, which are involved in processing musical sound and notation in particular."

Ella Furie in her article research - The processing of music notation: some implications for piano sight-reading

"For example, pianists need to read a score, plan the music, search for the keys to be played while planning the motions of their fingers and feet, and control their fingers and feet. They must also adjust the sound intensity and usage of the sustaining pedal according to the output sound."

Eriko Aiba, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Informatics and Engineering at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo, Japan


In other words, to teach a beginner to successfully play from a sheet of music you will have to teach the student the following concepts, which are the essential basics for reading music:

  • Read the notes.

  • Find the correct keys.

  • Move the correct hand and correct fingers.

  • Adjust the sound.

  • Maintain the rhythm.​

If you put something over an essential basic without mastering the first, the latter becomes really heavy. What you need to do in this case is divide and conquer. Break the concepts down into small manageable concepts. Teach each concept in small bites until the student has gained mastery. Don't pile up information and concepts without first having a solid understanding of the basics otherwise you will risk having a confused overwhelmed student that soon will become unmotivated to learn. In short you will be setting up your student for failure.


"Use task analysis – teach a concept in small chunks until students have gained mastery. When teaching a new rule, be sure your students have a solid understanding of the rule before you teach them the exceptions to the rule. Try to first teach the concept in isolation, and then re-introduce it in context. For example, sequencing is a skill that can be difficult for students to master."

Rachel Lynette in How to Simplify Difficult Concepts for Struggling Learners

"Break down instructions into smaller, manageable tasks. Students with special needs often have difficulty understanding long-winded or several instructions at once. For children with learning disabilities, it is best to use simple, concrete sentences. You might have to break down a step into a few smaller steps to ensure your students with special needs understand what you are asking."

Candice Evans, www.special


The 4 main basic concepts that you need to start working on, and design your lessons around before you start music notation: ​

  • Finger dexterity.

  • Names of the piano keys and their place on the piano.

  • Rhythm.

  • The pitch and sound of the different piano keys ​.

There are plenty of ideas and ways to teach these basics in a fun and creative way, with some very easy and simple activities you can achieve this goal very easily, a few example:

  • Five finger scales: very good for finger dexterity, developing the sense of pitch and getting familiar with the key names all in one simple activity. Can also be used for introducing improvisation. These scales are one of my and my students' favourite activities. For more finger exercises try The Hand Gym.

  • Creating musical stories: great for adjusting the sound of the piano, soft and loud, high and low, fast and slow...the possibilities are endless.

  • Playing by rote: a good exercise for the memory, ear training, focus and attention.

  • Playing popular songs using letter names of the keys instead of notation. The Easier Piano Book is good free resource.

  • Clapping and dancing to the beat of the music: perfect for developing a good sense of rhythm and at the same time extremely fun and enjoyable activity that I like to leave to the end of the lesson. Everyone's favourite.

How to know that your student is now ready to start music notation?

After a period of time that can be anything between 1 month to 1 year depending on your student, you will reach to that stage when your student is now ready to start on your favourite method book. Signs to look for are when the student: ​

  • Has good control on individual fingers and can do both skips and steps going up and down the keyboard.

  • Can easily and without hesitation tell a G from a B or a C.... on the piano.

  • Can play some five finger scales using both hands simultaneously and can tell if the scale sounds sad or happy.

  • Can track with his/her eyes and play from the book that uses alphabets instead of notation without looking at his/her hands on the piano with ease.

  • Can play simple easy popular tunes maintaining the correct beat and tempo.

Once you've checked for the above and you've accomplished it all, you can confidently take out your favourite method book and start music reading.


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