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What Kids Understand About Sheet Music

What kids understand about sheet music is not immediately apparent. If you watch kids over time, you start to see what they understand, and what they instinctively ignore. How many of the symbols on a page of musical notation are really understood by the average child? You might start by asking the same question of a professional musician.

The answer is, of course, musicians understand all the symbols on the page. But some are ignored. They may use only those that mentally that help their performance. The symbols are old news. What the symbols add up to is more important. Some symbols may be less useful at first, especially when you are young and beset with so many strange squiggles.

I Can Read Music Printed Book

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Notes Are Circles On Or Between Lines

Children need to understand the concept of small circles set on a series of five lines. That is exactly what they see on a page.


Looking at the drawing above, there are only three common shapes for a child to recognize:

Middle C
A note on a space
A note on a line

Until the child can distinguish these three types of circles placed within the grid of five lines, it is pointless to move further. It’s easy to teach if you are willing to wait months to see the result, a child who fully understands the playing field.

Start With The First Three Keys

The next step is easy. Get them to find the first three keys (1, 2, 3 in Piano by Number) and find them on a page. Keep insisting that they find the note on the page, and then immediately play the corresponding key on the piano. Restrict the process to Middle C until they are certain of the name, location of the corresponding piano key, and location on the page.

Related Games For Further Concepts

Look at the page of notes, select a group of a few notes, and ask if the notes are going up or down. Choose, obviously, a passage in which the direction is clear. Use your fingertips to outline the passage. Kids need to understand how up is to the right and down is to the left, a setup unique to the piano. This skill alone can take weeks to learn properly.

Explore Up And Down With Simple Songs

Let them explore pieces that use the first five keys, like MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB, and JINGLE BELLS. Let them use any finger. This is crucial. You must separate fingering and reading music until they are absolutely certain of the first five notes above Middle C.

The Mental Skills Needed To Read Music


Find Middle C
Distinguish note on a space
Distinguish note on a line

I do not introduce the note names at this time, except for Middle C. Adding “note-naming” to the process is almost always a recipe for disaster. Naming notes comes quickly after they understand the visual setup on the page, and the relation to the piano keys.


We've turned notes into numbers for happy beginners at the piano!


Our PLAY ALONG SONGS are produced by Grammy Award winner Joe Castellon of Sesame Street. They're such an important element in making the piano fun for kids!



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