Helping 6 year old learn to read music?
April 11, 2020 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Our daughter has been taking piano lessons for a while, and enjoys it. But she's really struggling to remember the notes. How to help?

She's a good reader (i.e. of books) and can play decently, simple songs with two hands. But what seems to happen is that she learns the notes, plays songs with them, memorizes the song, and forgets the notes. She can seem to know them for a short time, but then they just seem to disappear from her head.

I think she's needs a bit more reinforcement, hopefully through a game or other not too hard approach. I don't want her to get put off, and she doesn't want to quit, but it's frustrating for all of us. She definitely gets the concept but can't just get it to stick. Her teacher is very laid back, but the lessons (now on video) just aren't that productive at the minute.

Most frustrating of all is that she had the treble clef decently, but trying to learn the bass seems to have erased everything and now she's having trouble with both.

She can identify the notes on the piano (without reading music) well.

Any advice?
posted by caoimhe to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
My kids used flash cards with notes on them, which seem to still exist. These days, I would expect there to be an app.
posted by FencingGal at 7:54 AM on April 11, 2020's frustrating for all of us... Most frustrating of all...

I can see why she might feel frustrated — it can be rough to struggle with something like this, especially when you otherwise enjoy the hobby. But I can’t see why you would feel frustrated at all.

So my advice is to r e l a x about this; encourage your daughter to practice without adding any stress or frustration to the mix. Perhaps others will suggest tools to help her learn, but she’ll learn more quickly if she doesn’t feel pressured to do it.
posted by shb at 8:57 AM on April 11, 2020 [7 favorites]

I assume "remember the notes" here means "remember how to read notes off a stave". With that in mind:
* Six is still very young. Having started early (though you haven’t said how long she’s been learning) is likely to benefit her progress later, but pressure will not. Her teacher is right to be laid-back. That said, if she’s been learning for a year or more then having more secure note-reading is probably a good thing to focus on.
* If she’s re-learning and forgetting how to read the same notes, they’re going to stick eventually.
* Learning both bass and treble clef can cause a lot of complications. The same position on the stave can mean not just two different octaves, but two different notes in those octaves!

So, for actual advice:
* Email her piano teacher with pretty much this ask; they’ll be most familiar with how she learns in lessons and most able to integrate this information about how she practises at home. What follows is my best guesses.
* When she has trouble reading a note she’s read before, don’t think of it as "forgetting" - as she learns more more notes and more clefs she has more to think about to read each one. She may also have issues with confidence or not trust her memory.
* Keep in mind that stave notation is not an alphabet - you don’t need to learn every note individually to be able to read every note. If you learn one note, you can the notes on either side as far as you can count. My strategy for her would be to make sure she knows a few "key" or "anchor" notes on each clef, and encourage her to count to the nearest one when she’s unsure of a note.
* Counting is also the key to clearing up confusion between the clefs - a note on the bass clef is two octaves down and two notes up from what it would be on the treble clef. There are lots of rulesOne Weird Tricks like this to learn in music, and it’s a lot more helpful to learn those than to learn every note like a letter of the alphabet.
* Finally, the quick fix - mnemonics. These are some classics, but she could also make up her own:
Treble lines: Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge
Bass lines: Grizzly Bears Don’t Fear Anything
Treble spaces: F A C E
Ass spaces: All Cows Eat Grass

Credentials: started learning after age 10, piano teacher of teens and adults.
posted by polytope subirb enby-of-piano-dice at 9:10 AM on April 11, 2020 [6 favorites]

Caveat: I've never taught piano, and I've lost a great deal of what I learned as a child. Still...

Seconding the note above that reading music isn't like reading text, in most ways. thing that does seem similar is the fact that, after a while, you're not picking out individual notes, any more than you pick out individual letters when you read text. Typically, readers see the shape of the word and infer from memory what the specific word is, from context--and that's building upon a lifetime of speaking the language and knowing what typically goes where.

She probably hasn't gotten quite to the point where the overall shape of the note (or chord, or phrase) on the staff looks like a whole "word" that fits into a musical context. Add to that the likelihood that she's translating the sheet music into "notes" and then from "notes" to keys on the piano (and further from that to the actual sound), that's going to be a frustrating chain.

One flashcard-like thing I used when I learned piano was "Bea's Keys" - they're piano key-sized flashcards with notes on them that you place on the keyboard. It can be a fun little game, and it shortcuts the idea of thinking "middle C sharp" or "bottom G" in between the sheet and the keyboard. That quarter note no longer becomes "D above middle C," it's just *that key on the keyboard and its accompanying sound.*
posted by pykrete jungle at 9:20 AM on April 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

Make sure her vision is good at the appropriate distance.

I would think that piano teachers would have exercises for this, maybe singing scales as she plays them. Do, as you know, is a deer...
posted by SemiSalt at 10:32 AM on April 11, 2020

I"m a little unclear what you mean by this:

But what seems to happen is that she learns the notes, plays songs with them, memorizes the song, and forgets the notes. She can seem to know them for a short time, but then they just seem to disappear from her head.

Do you mean that she knows what the notes are when she initially reads the music, and then plays something, but then once she's got it in rote memory that you can point at a note and say "what's that" and she says "I don't know"?

If so - if it's in her rote memory, I'm not so sure why being able to read that one note in that one pie e of music is necessary. It sounds like she's using the initial sight-reading to do a first read, but then her rote memory takes over and she doesn't need it.

But if what you're saying is that she's having trouble remembering the notes in the first place, like, she's looking at other sheet music she's never seen before and is having trouble remembering "wait, what's that note again?" then that's different.

I also think six may be kinda young, but maybe what might help is some mnemonics my own piano teacher taught me:

* In the treble clef, the lines are E-G-B-D-F. and she taught me to remember that by saying "Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge". For the spaces, the notes are F-A-C-E, and that spells "Face".

* For the bass clef, the lines are G-B-D-F-A, and her reminder for that was "Good Boys Do Fine Always". The spaces are A-C-E-G, and for that she taught me "All Cows Eat Grass".

I was about nine or ten when I started lessons, and that helped.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:59 AM on April 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

I remember when I was around her age, my piano teacher would dedicate like 5-10 minutes at the end of the lesson to playing "hangman" with note-flashcards. It was a fun game, low pressure, and I think it did help lock in quickly learning to identify notes. You don't necessarily have to do hangman, but gamifying with stickers or something could help make the whole process fun.
posted by thebots at 11:47 AM on April 11, 2020 [4 favorites]

My teacher used the mnemonics mentioned above, plus games where she'd give me a word (e.g. "bead" or "egg") and I would have to "spell it out" on the keyboard.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:32 PM on April 11, 2020 [4 favorites]

I'm going to recommend softly against "Every Good Boy Does Fine" and such. Knowing these messed up my sight reading in a way I'm still fixing because I never learned to just look at the middle line of the treble and know it's B; I'd just count up Every Good Boy, and this makes sight reading slow and bad. I had an app at some point that would just flash notes and have you say what note it was. Maybe that'd be useful, though not very fun. I think it was just called "Music Tutor."

I can see how it'd be confusing, while you're learning it, that the clefs are different. Another thing I might recommend as a bad sight reader is being able to identify, first and foremost, middle C when you see it on either clef, and then you'll kind of have a point of orientation.
posted by less of course at 1:20 PM on April 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

To keep up her confidence I would just get her to pencil in the note names on her sheet music for a while. If possible I would get her to do it herself rather than doing it for her. If you guys are ambitious, photocopy the sheet music and get her to do this every practice session!
posted by kitcat at 5:32 PM on April 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

She's doing great – no need to frame this as "forgetting" or as worth frustration.

Note names do just take a long time to absorb. Their position on each clef is (in visual terms) quite arbitrary and requires lots of repetition to learn.

I agree she needs more reinforcement but it needs to be both repetition games for the note names and relaxed praise/reward for the great work she's already doing (especially right now, when cognitive ability is just going out the window for many kids and adults – and when, as you observed, video lessons are just not the same at all for any musician [I hear that at all levels, including from my colleagues teaching at the conservatory level]).
posted by kalapierson at 9:30 PM on April 11, 2020 [3 favorites]

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