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In the next article we'll get you up to speed on reading and playing sheet music.
One of the most common questions I get from clients is, "do you teach students to read notes?" My answer is always yes - though in my head I'm thinking of course, why on Earth would I not be able to teach this elementary, basic skill?
It wasn't until I had transfer students here and there that it started to make sense: most of them could barely read music.
Even more shocking - a few had been taking lessons for years. What gives?
How To Read Piano Notes
The Piano Note Reading Myth
It has to do with lecturing birds how to fly.
This is a concept from Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan. As an aside, he's such an important author that I regularly reread all his books at least once every year.
Here's the idea in a nutshell:
Sounds ass-backwards, doesn't it? This is why people think education leads to wealth, when it's the exact opposite. It's also why people go to business school to learn how to start a business.
Funny, my dad didn't even have a college degree when he opened his first dry cleaners.
Anyways, back to our subject.
It seems in the field of education, there's an unhealthy obsession with theory. This idea extends to music lessons as well. In college, I remember taking a pedagogy class - it was 90% theorizing and 10% actual hands-on teaching.
Look ... you don't learn to cook by memorizing recipes.
Another common question I get, "how much theory do they need to know to read notes?". Answer: NONE.
The Right Way to Read Piano Notes
So if you want a simple approach that relies on zero experience, and zero theory, this is the article for you.
For over a decade I've been teaching students to read notes from their very first lesson, through action.
And my success rate is 100% (humble brag).
Here's the breakdown for the rest of this post.
We'll cover the basics from the complete beginner level. I'll share the simple, affordable tools you can purchase from Amazon to replicate my approach at home. Then I'll show you how to use each tool and the step-by-step process I've developed to get you fluent in no time. Sound good to you? Then let's do this!
Here's the good news, there are only 7 letters of the entire musical alphabet:
A B C D E F G
This is something every musician on the planet is familiar with (unless they don't read). Now, take a look at your instrument.
You'll notice 2 colors: white and black. Ivory and Ebony.
And the black keys are placed higher - don't ask me why.
We use the black keys to identify each "letter" - a.k.a. white key. Here's the first pattern to familiarize yourself with.
And the next.
Here's how it looks all together.
Now, let's look at it again, this time with each white key labeled by letter.
That's all there is to the layout on a piano, this cross section repeats itself up and down the keyboard.
Next, the grand staff.
This is what we use to read actual music. But since we're focused on single notes, we're going to split the grand staff across the middle. Let's start with the upper half.
This is the treble clef. Basically, everything from the middle to higher range.
You'll notice 5 lines and 4 spaces.
Each line and space represents one of the letters of the musical alphabet.
The same applies for the bass clef (middle range to lower).
If you were taking a traditional music lesson, this is where the teacher would have you learn a mnemonic. If you don't know what a mnemonic is, here are some examples:
Now, mnemonics are pretty useful: I use one to teach my students the order of sharps and flats.
However ... when it comes to note reading, you do NOT want to learn any mnemonic of any kind.
You're actually worse off if you do. It's like taking a shortcut: short-term fixes usually come with long-term, negative consequences.
The myth is that you must memorize the letter that each space or line represents.
Instead of memorizing letters, you just learn to recognize the location of each note on each line or space. In fact, I dare say memorizing letters is a byproduct of this process and not the main goal.
By the way, we'll get you to do this subconsciously - see perceptual processing later in this article.
In fact, I'm so adamant about not learning mnemonics, I'm not even going to mention this particular one for fear it will get permanently lodged inside your head.
It's a double-edged sword: once memorized, it's nearly impossible to forget. When a student comes to me pre-loaded with one, we waste a lot of time trying to get them to unlearn it.
It becomes a crutch. Instead of just playing the correct note, they cycle through the entire damn phrase.
Over and over again. Thinking and thinking, but not playing.
If you've never learned a mnemonic to read music, count yourself lucky. Unlearning is a difficult process, but doing it the right way from the start is easy - though it takes longer (as it should).
But if you've already learned one of these dastardly expressions don't fret. Later in this post, I'll show you how to banish it from your memory.
Tools of the Trade
Here's all you need:
Let's start with the keyboard guide.
It has two purposes:
Set it up on your keyboard or piano and see for yourself:
This is how we completely bypass the need for theory: with the guide, it's simple to locate each note.
Side note: This guide fits my baby grand piano perfectly. If it doesn't fit snugly on your keyboard, you may have to make some adjustments - get those scissors out (snip, snip).
Lastly, if you're new to the note-reading process, you're going to keep this guide on for quite a while.
Now, just a short blurb about flashcards.
If you prefer digital (free), then just download an app - there are probably hundreds to choose from (good luck). Me? I prefer a physical copy, it's more versatile (you'll see why).
In the next section you'll use flashcards to physically locate the correct keys via the keyboard guide.
First, filter through your flashcards and select the ones that form the middle c position:
Here's the keyboard guide for comparison.
Two reasons why we use this position:
We're going to keep the cards in this sequence and have each answer side showing.
Side note: play all treble clef notes with your right hand. Bass clef notes with your left hand. Remember this rule when you start to play beginning level sheet music.
Challenge comes later, for now we want some quick wins - my philosophy for first-timers is to encode success. Just get familiar using the cards to play each note in the easiest way possible.
But if you find this too wimpy, feel free to skip ahead to any part of this section (you wild thing you).
From here, we're just going to add a layer of difficulty, step by step. Once you're able to easily identify (and play) every note, shuffle the cards so the patterns are random:
This is more realistic since, in real music, you usually won't see notes in any detectable.
When this gets easier, practice with the no answer side showing.
A word of caution: ALWAYS doublecheck your answers. I'm assuming you're doing this on your own, so if you don't confirm your results you'll assume you're getting everything correct - only to realize MONTHS later that you've been doing it wrong.
Seriously. Check your answers every single time.
The last step is to repeat this entire process - answer side up, easy patterns, etc. - without the keyboard guide.
Once you go through this sequence without the guide, just go back to square one - put the guide back on and repeat all the steps in order, but with a larger range of flashcards.
Repeat this process until you're able to read every flashcard.
Houston, We Have Ignition
I mentioned earlier that you might be one of those unfortunate souls who memorized the dreaded mnemonic.
Fear not, for I have your cure.
The good news is that it's really easy to implement. The bad news is that it takes a lot of self-discipline to do by yourself: doing this alone is a really unnatural process, it's going to feel like you're "force-feeding" yourself. Anyways, this fix has to do with the last ten seconds of every year - the (New Year's) countdown.
Now, I initiate countdowns - usually 3 seconds - when I notice a student is taking too long to identify the notes. When this happens, there are two things going on:
Counting down eliminates both of these problems.
The reason has to do with perceptual processing: your brain will autocorrect your initial mistakes over time - as long as you're double-checking your notes.
And this happens at a subconscious level: the short countdown eliminates conscious thinking.
If you're a bit of a perfectionist, this is going be uncomfortable for you because you are going to make a LOT of errors - it's helpful to just think of every attempt as a random guess.
The first time I have a student go though this process, they normally miss 90% of their notes.
But we stick with it week after week and they eventually reach 100% accuracy. They get so good we can whittle the countdown to a single second! And keep in mind we do this just once every week (each lesson).
So if you find yourself in the same situation as my students - analysis paralysis or referring to a "base" note - then try this out at any stage of your note reading.
Take a leap of faith and mnemonics will become a distant memory - since you won't even have time to think about it.
But like I was saying, this is hard to pull off on your own. You have to have the discipline to play a key, any key, once you reach zero - I suggest having someone help you out initially.
By the way, if you think perceptual processing is interesting then there are 4 other amazing practice concepts that will blow your mind. Read more here.
So there you have it, the method I've been using to get students fluent in note reading for over a decade.
There's nothing complicated about it. You don't need method books, you don't need a thousand steps, you don't need homework assignments.
What you do need is consistency, patience and a ton of action
Action first, theory later.
Fire, ready, aim.
If you enjoyed what you read today, then you definitely won't want to miss my next blog post - we're going to piggyback off of your success and get you playing actual sheet music immediately.
Life doesn't come with an instruction manual and neither does piano. Just jump right in and you'll leap-frog your competition in no time.
And if you see one of those "researchers," let them know birds can fly perfectly fine on their own.
Hope to see you in the next one and happy practicing!
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