Music Literacy is Not What You Think

I have some unique perspectives when it comes to music instruction, and that’s because after being classically trained as a pianist, I became an OT (school-based occupational therapist). That opened up a new realization that instruments can be taught or played in unconventional ways and for different (but valid) reasons.

As incredible as our brains are, there’s no one part of our brain that was built for reading music. It takes lots of connections between areas all over the brain. When you add playing the instrument at the same time, your head gets a real workout. So many teachers notice that their students have the same problems when they try to read piano music. So what exactly is going on? And more importantly, what can teachers do about it?

Reading music starts just like learning to read words. The first part is being able to name and find all the notes. This is a really important part, but if we had to name every note individually, we’d never become fast sight readers. So that’s where the second part of reading music comes in: understanding the relationships between the notes. When you put it all together, you’re able to accomplish the third part, which is putting meaning behind the notes. You have to know the notes to be able to notice intervals, understand the direction of the melody, and then shape the phrase. So it sounds like three easy steps… but there’s so much that goes into it.

Why is music so hard?

Heads up: there’s some science in this paragraph…  Vision is one of the most important factors in reading music and playing piano. But vision isn’t just whether or not you need glasses. You can have eyeballs in perfect working order, but if your eye muscles or the visual part of the brain isn’t just right, you’ll have a tough time learning to play the traditional way. Visual skills help you do things like read a high E by seeing that it’s in the top space. You might even have to remember the notes you saw long enough to look at keys and play them in the right order (called visual sequential memory). Piano takes a lot of muscle coordination to be able to move just one finger individually (called isolation) or make them all work together. Sometimes your hands have to be doing different things at the same time, which takes lots of hand-eye (called visual motor) and bilateral coordination.

That’s a lot of work! Are you impressed by your students yet? Because I’m in awe of mine every day just knowing how hard their brains are working! When all these skills become automatic, it gets much easier to play with musicality- the ultimate goal. Here is how you can help students develop a foundation so that these skills can become automatic more quickly.