What Kids Understand About Sheet Music

What Kids Understand About Sheet Music
Musical Symbols

What kids understand about sheet music is not immediately apparent.

If you watch kids over time, you start to see what they can see, 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 question of a professional musician.

The answer is, of course, musicians understand all the symbols on the page, but may use only those mentally that help their performance.

In other words, the symbols are old news, what the symbols add up to is more important. So some symbols may be less useful at first, especially when you are young and beset with so many strange squiggles.

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My philosophy, borne out by long experience, is that 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.

There are only three common shapes for a child:

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 lines, it is pointless to move further.

It’s easy to teach if you are willing to wait through up to three months of games to see the result: a child who fully understands the playing field.

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.

Here are related games.

Page with lots of Middle Cs.
Are the notes going up or down?

Look at the page of notes, (you can click and enlarge it) select a passage 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.

Let them explore pieces that use the first five keys, like MARY HAD A LITTLE LAMB, JINGLE BELLS and HOT CROSS BUNS.

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 only symbols children need to know to navigate sheet music are:

1. Middle C

2. A note on a space

3. A note on a line

The skills they need are:

Distinguish 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.

Copyright 2008 Walden Pond Press

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