Teaching Students to Read Music

What is the number one reason students don’t practice?

They can’t read music well.

Having to figure out every note as you play is no fun at all. It’s like reading a book in a foreign language where you have to stop and look up every other word. It’s a tedious chore.

Teaching students to become fluent readers is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching the piano. There are just so many notes! But it is possible, and it is well worth the effort.

After much research, trial and error, and many years of teaching I can honestly say that I have figured out how to teach my students to become competent readers. My students can pick up their music and read it. This makes learning much more enjoyable for them and teaching much easier for me. In this post, I am going to share with you exactly how I teach my students to read music.


I love to start students as young as possible. I start students at three-and-a-half to four years of age. I don’t teach reading to very young students. We work on lots of listening, ear training, and hands-on activities. Around the time a child begins to read words is when I start teaching music reading. Here’s how I do it.

Know your Student

In my experience, most piano students fall into one of two categories: visual learners and auditory learners. Because it is human nature to take the path of least resistance, visual learners tend to look at the score and auditory learners tend to try to pick things up by ear.

Some kids take to reading easily. They have an easy time connecting what’s going on in the score with what happens on the keyboard. Others have naturally great ears and can hear something and learn it without looking at the music very much. For these students reading seems counterproductive.

As a teacher, it is crucial that I watch and listen carefully to see how my student is learning.

How to Begin

I can honestly say I became so frustrated with many of the available piano method books that I wrote my own. I recommend that you stay away from any method books that have hand positions and fingerings over every note. Use a method that introduces new concepts slowly and gives students plenty of time to absorb what they are learning. You may also want to use more than one method and always have lots of supplemental music.

Downplay Mnemonic Devices.

I start my students start with middle C and we go from there. I don’t even mention “every good boy does fine” I use this only as a reference, it can be helpful to help a student find the first note of a piece. That’s it though, no counting lines and spaces.

How Music is Read

Piano music is read by seeing patterns and transferring those patterns into music on the keyboard. Think about it. As an experienced pianist, do you ever think about note names while you are playing?

The score is a picture of what happens on the keyboard

Notes go up. Notes go down. Skips, jumps, chords, repeated notes. It’s all very logical. I tell my students that. What the music looks like, that is what it is. It never tricks you. This may all seem obvious, but it isn’t. I have found that pointing this out to my students really helps them to make the connection between the score and the keyboard.

In the Beginning

Start with a few notes and expand slowly. I start with treble C through G and then add Bass C through G. While making sure that my student is understanding and able to play these notes, I begin expanding the notes until all of the treble and bass clefs are covered. Then accidentals, chords, different keys. All of this happens as students are learning to count and understand rhythm as well. The process is fairly straight forward, but it takes work and persistence.

Practice is Key

Of course, even if you are an expert at teaching you may see very little progress if your student isn’t practicing at home. So, it is imperative that your students do their part. I talk about the subject of motivating students to practice in my book “The Happiest Piano Teacher in Town, Empowering Teachers to Inspire Students”


The Most Important Time to Practice

I want my students to practice every day, however, I tell my students to practice on the day of their lesson after the lesson is over and as early as possible on the next day. This is because for information to go from short term to long term memory it must be repeated within about 24 hours of being presented. If a student waits a few days before coming back to the piano and practicing, much (if not all) will be lost.

Read the post, Practice Makes Progress

At the Lesson

I do my best to sit back and let my students figure things out. When a student starts a new piece, I let her take a look at it and try to read through the score. I may begin by asking, what is the key and time signature? How will you count the rhythm in measure 3? If my student gets stuck, I encourage her to try and figure things out.

I will ask, do the notes go up or down? Is that a skip or a step? How do you count the rhythm in measure three? I keep coming back to the point that they can learn to read well, that music notation makes sense and that learning to read is worth the effort.

I make sure my students have the opportunity to read through their assignments at the lesson so that I can be sure that they are able to read the music when they are at home.

When a Student Just Isn’t Getting It

Usually, these things work. But there are times when I really need to work hard with a student to help him to learn to read.

In my experience, these are usually students who have very good auditory skills and can get by without learning to read. Years ago, I had a student who had such a good ear that he could learn pieces like Debussy’s “First Arabesque” by ear!! The only way I could get him to read music was to find obscure music and change pieces every week. (Now you may ask why a student like that would have to bother learning to read music in the first place — but that’s another discussion entirely).

With these types of students, I give them lots of new music to look at. I also allow them to learn music by ear as a separate skill. I strike a bargain, so to speak, “learn your minuet and then listen to and learn to play “Piano Man”.

A Few More Tips

Create a Print-Rich Environment

Music notation is beautiful!

Classroom teachers know that having lots of words and print in the classroom environment helps students to learn to read. We can create a musical print-rich environment in our studios by having musical posters and examples of beautifully engraved music readily available.

At home, students should have more than one piano book. Give them lots of different music to look at. Let them see what you are playing.

If you are watching a YouTube video look for one that has the musical score scrolling by as the music plays.

Be careful to make sure any music notation your students are exposed to is accurate. We have all seen music bags and sweatshirts with backwards treble clefs and keys sigs that feature flats and sharps at the same time.

Music Writing

Give your students a pencil and some staff paper. Let then write some music of their own. This is a great way for them to strengthen their note reading skills.

Get the Young Composers manuscript book for free as a Paloma Piano Gold member.

Apps, Flashcards and Note Spellers

Ehh… I use them here and there. They may help a little and they can be fun but honestly, I don’t believe they do much to create excellent readers. This is because music is about seeing patterns; It about learning to hear and play what you see before you on the page. This is why isolating notes doesn’t do much to improve music reading skills.

Be a Cheerleader

Encourage any progress you encounter. Celebrate success! Acknowledge the fact that music study is hard work, but add that hard work is good.

Words have power!

I never let my students say, “It’s too hard” or “I can’t do it” without substituting phrases like “It’s challenging” or I can’t do it yet.”

My Favorite Word

My favorite word is “imagine.”

“Imagine how it will feel when you can pick up any piece of music and read it easily.”

I believe it is important to keep the vision alive and let students know that it is attainable.

It’s worth it to help students to learn to read music fluently. Being able to easily decipher music notation makes playing music much more joyful. This ensures that the piano will be part of your student’s life for years to come!

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