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Why Is It Difficult to Read Music?

Updated: Mar 20


“It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.” Johannes Sebastian Bach

Music reading difficulties

During the course of my teaching, I had many students who found reading music a challenge, the type of students who start memorizing their piece the moment I start teaching it. The lesson would look something like this: The moment we start a new piece, even before attempting to play it properly, my student would start memorizing, me trying to convince the student to look at the sheet and read instead of looking at the hands to no avail. In many cases, my student would end up memorizing and playing robotically from memory with no expression and with many mistakes in rhythm, pitch, and dynamics, and to make things even worse, those mistakes were almost always very difficult to correct, and to make things even worse than all of that, if my student left this piece for a few weeks to work on something else, playing it again would mean re-learning it all over again from the beginning no matter how much time we had previously spent learning it.


If you want to eliminate these situations from your studio, you have to first understand the origin of the problem and the reason behind it. Once you identify the problem, it will become much easier to find a solution.

Music reading is a complex procedure, the term “reading” in itself is deceptive and gives the idea that music reading is somehow comparable with general reading. Nothing is farther from the truth. I will start by demonstrating in more detail the concepts and the skills needed to make music reading work.


I will first set a few examples of the concepts most usually taught in the first few lessons and the skills that the children are assumed to have which form the basis of instruction.


What typically is introduced during the very short period of a few lessons, the first month, will in most cases be something like:

  • Learning the names of the piano keys and finding them on the piano.

  • Learning the whole note, half note, and quarter notes.

  • Learning the bass and treble clefs.

  • Recognizing and reading the notes of the middle C position or the C position, playing simple tunes using these notes on the piano using the correct fingers, and using the correct hand and the correct rhythm.




Before going any further, I want to be clear on what exactly I mean by the two words: concept and skill.


A Concept as defined by the dictionary is a principle or idea.

In other words, it is knowing the workings behind the answer of a problem and why you are doing certain things without having to memorize formulas to figure things out.

  • Counting by 1’s

  • Writing down the numbers from 1 - 9

  • Matching numbers with objects

Music reading problems

A skill, however, means the ability to do something well.

Referring to the math concepts listed above, you will need at least one or more of the skills below:

  • The skill of speech.

  • The skill of holding the pencil properly in your hand.

  • Spatial sense.

  • The skill to identify patterns.


Skills needed for music reading

Now let’s Go back to teaching piano:


In an attempt to break down, what is traditionally taught in the first few lessons into concepts, I came up with the following list. I invite you to go through it and most probably and very easily, you will be able to add more concepts:

  • Understanding the white/black key pattern

  • Knowing the first 7 letters in the alphabet

  • Concept of different keys having different names

  • Assigning numbers to fingers

  • Finding the keys on the piano

  • Concept of pitch and relative pitch

  • Concept of assigning shapes of notes to time values

  • Counting rhythm

  • Concept of notes moving up and down the staff will change the note name although it still is keeping the same shape.

  • The concept that going up on the staff is going to the right on the piano.

  • The concept that going up on the staff is going to the right on the piano.

  • One note on the paper means one key to be pressed

  • Concept of maintaining a rhythm.

  • Understanding that each note is written in a different place on the staff.

  • Differentiating between treble and bass clefs

  • The 5 lines on top of the grand staff starting with the treble clef are for the notes to play with your right hand.

  • The 5 lines on the bottom starting with the bass clef are for the notes to play with your left hand.

Music reading is complicated

If we try to teach all the above concepts in a very short period of time to a beginner child we are assuming that the children we are trying to teach have at least the skills listed below before beginning any piano lessons:

  • Recognize patterns

  • Memorizing ability

  • Assign an abstract (number) to a physical object (finger)

  • Read a few letters

  • Manual dexterity

  • Motor planning

  • Sit still for at least a few minutes to perform a short melody

  • Hand-eye coordinate

  • Ability to sense the rhythm

  • Ability to identify pitch

  • Know the difference between left and right

  • Able to eye track the sheet

  • Good attention span

  • Ability to follow instruction

  • Communication skills

  • Counting


 

Let me tell you about my student Miriam who quit far too soon:

I was an inexperienced teacher who had just started teaching and didn’t know what I was doing.

Miriam started her first piano lesson when she was 6 years old. She seemed to be a typical student, struggling a little in school but still managing to move up her grades.

I started her on a typical method book that I used with all my students and worked fairly well so far. It didn't take me long to figure out that this little girl had a perfect pitch, she was attempting to memorize everything! She even tricked me into believing that she was reading the notes, that's until the music started to become a little more complicated. We both struggled for 3 months, to no avail. After 3 months she quit. The piano was so stressful to her that it was impossible to go on. I felt like a failure! I sabotaged the chance of a student with perfect pitch the fun and enjoyment of learning a musical instrument. Many years later, after Miriam went to college, we met again and she told me that she was later diagnosed with ADHD


Now let me tell you about another more recent student of mine Adam:

Adam was 6 when he started his first lesson. After only 2 lessons I recognized similarities between him and Miriam. Not wanting to go through that painful experience again, I redesigned my approach. Before introducing a concept, I always made sure he had the required skills he needed to master this concept and worked on those skills. Little by little and within a few years this student had completely transformed. He joined a group, he is learning independently, playing confidently, and at last, taking part in the ABRSM examinations. Did that make me feel different than what I felt after Miriam quit? You bet!


 


In most cases, my observation led me to conclude that music reading difficulty is almost always the result of one of the following:


The presence of a learning disability such as Dyslexia, Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), ASD, Visual Perception / Visual Motor deficit:

Whenever there is a diagnosis, note reading difficulties seemed to follow, progress in most cases took more time and was a bit trickier.


An auditory learner who relies on memory and ear instead of reading:

An auditory learner with a good ear will almost always rely more on their hearing to play and memorize instead of reading simply for the fact that it is easier and humans always tend to prefer to do things the easier way. I noticed that most of the students who were blessed with a very good ear and more particularly students with perfect pitch find note-reading more challenging. This could be simply because of lack of practice, when you memorize you are less likely going to look at the sheet and read it, consequently, you will miss the opportunity of practicing note reading. The lack of practice, in the end, leads to a lack of skill.


Writing note names on the sheet:

Writing the names of the notes is probably the worst thing you can do if you are trying to teach your student how to read music. When we play the piano we do not read A, B, C, and so on, we are actually reading intervals and patterns moving up and down the staff. If you have letter names on the sheet, you will prevent your student from acquiring this complex skill, and instead, she will keep reading letters instead.


Not learning something new every week:

Reading music is a skill that needs practice, if your student is playing the same piece over and over again for many weeks, perfecting it for a recital or exam, then she most probably is playing it from memory and is not reading from the sheet anymore.

To be good at reading music, you have to incorporate reading new pieces in every lesson as a practice, short pieces only learned for this purpose is absolutely fine. Better still, if you give short pieces to your students as homework to work them out by themselves at home. Be careful with the leveling of these pieces, you don't want them to be difficult to read, always keep practice pieces easy, a little easier than what your student can play.



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