One of my favorite things as a music teacher is seeing kids develop their note reading skills and unlock new repertoire. But we’ve all had students who struggle to read music no matter how we teach, and only few kids can confidently sight read. Music reading can be hard, and here’s what you can do about it.
When you make something easier, it opens up possibilities for lots of new learners. I realized that difficulties with music reading are keeping large numbers of kids from being able to enjoy playing a musical instrument. Most of the common music reading challenges have to do with a student’s visual perception and eye movement (oculomotor) difficulties. Visual perception is different from what we usually consider to be having good or bad ‘eyesight’. And it doesn’t mean that you need glasses, either. It’s how our brain makes sense of what we see. You might have a student with deficits in those areas and not even know it.
Here are some signs your student’s difficulties reading music might have to do with their visual skills:
They lose their place while glancing between the keys and the music or ask you to point to each note on the music to help them follow along as they play.They have a hard time telling intervals between notes or noticing if the music is ascending or descending.They might forget which side of the staff or instrument is for high notes and which is for low notes.They often try to ‘count’ from a known note every time either on a keyboard or in the music, or rely heavily on mnemonic acronyms like “All Cows Eat Grass.”
If these sound familiar, you might be their music reading hero if you give them a little visual support.
I use FableNotes music literacy resources to help students build a strong visual foundation for note reading. FableNotes uses engaging picture books with adorable music note monsters to teach music notation through stories. I’ve found that kids love the book so much, they want to read it again and again. They don’t even realize they’re actually studying and memorizing all the treble music notation!
When developing FableNotes, I used my training as an occupational therapist and music teacher to make sure music resources are inclusive of students with visual learning disabilities, like dyslexia. FableNotes is illustrated with a visual sense of gravity to reinforce up from down, and always reminds them of spatial relations between the notes. It helps them see intervals and shows the music note monsters interacting based on their visual distances. The story itself gives readers and teachers a sort of script for reinforcing lots of music literacy concepts clearly and in a way includes kids with all levels of visual skills.
Some kids just need instructions to know where and how to look at music, but it’s not often taught, it’s just expected. Putting the spatial relationships of notes into simple descriptions is a more positive way for them to learn. That way they can use their own learning style and personal strengths, rather than feeling weighed down by their visual weaknesses.
See it through your students’ eyes:
Your students could be struggling with one or more of the many aspects of visual perception, and you might be the first to pinpoint the source of their difficulties. Let’s try to see the world through their eyes to understand how their visual difficulties could impact note reading:
Have you ever had a hard time finding that paperclip that you know is hiding in your junk drawer? It’s obviously a lot harder to find it in a junk drawer rather than on an empty table. That’s because there’s so much to look at and you need to pick out what you’re looking for amongst the busy background, kind of like Where is Waldo. OT’s call that skill figure-ground. Weaknesses in figure-ground skills could make it as difficult to spot their place in the music as it is to find Waldo in a crowd. Not to mention the fact that it’s a moving target as the song goes on!
Another visual perception skill is called visual discrimination, and it’s your ability to tell the differences between things that you see. This is especially important for reading rhythm, because of the way it’s represented by different types of music note symbols. Some kids have a hard time seeing the difference between note values, because they may not notice the variations in stem or notehead features.
Remember being in school and trying to copy from the board? You’d glance up, see a word or sentence, then look back to your own paper and write it down using visual sequential memory (quick, before it gets erased!) You had to remember what you saw and hold it in your mind to write the words down in the right order.
Kids have to do this same thing when playing piano, especially beginners who are still learning how to play without staring at their fingers. They read the music, look down, and need to remember the notes they just read in the right order to be able to play them. But sometimes the notes get lost in their memory, which makes it so they can only play one or two notes before having to glance back at the music again, which makes it slower and more difficult to play.
Have you ever tried to make sense of a complicated-looking data chart and felt like you’re not even sure where to begin? You need a high level of visual spatial relations skills to understand data charts. When kids look at music, they see a chart of data that they’re trying to interpret while coordinating the playing of their instrument.
All pitches are represented spatially, but spatial relations skills are a weakness for many children. Like, for some kids, it can be tricky to “see” the distance or difference between an F in the bottom space and an E in the top space. Various interval distances on different notes may blend together in their minds. Remembering the top and bottom of the staff or which direction to make your eyes look across the page isn’t a given. How could they focus on playing musically with expression when they’re struggling with all that?
On top of all those visual perception skills, we also have to be able to move our eyeballs with our eye muscles. Think about how musicians might have to glance between the music, their hands, the conductor, and their instrument. Even if they’re just playing alone, they still have to be able to smoothly track their eyes looking across the page from left to right, then jump them to the next line. That doesn’t come easy for a lot of kids!
What you can do about it:
The problem with most of the ‘tried and true’ music method books is that they don’t take different learning styles into account. Thebooks are too heavy on visual skills for kids with difficulties in that area. That’s why I created FableNotes to break down the most common note-reading challenges, answer common music literacy questions, and prevent reading struggles before they arise. FableNotes makes it easier for parents to support their children’s music education at home and helps them to feel more comfortable the written system of music.
Most music method books usually only show (pretty small) black notes & lines. That would be like if we only taught the alphabet with a small, serif font. Meanwhile, kids are learn the alphabet by tracing it in play-dough, building letters with blocks, reading books like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, singing the alphabet song, playing with alphabet refrigerator magnets, etc. Every kid is offered multisensory education opportunities to make sure they catch all the kids’ unique learning styles. There’s no reason music students shouldn’t have the same varied learning opportunities!
Another problem is that many parents can’t read music confidently, so they don’t know how to help their kids practice outside of lessons. If music books can only be easily decoded by a music teacher, how could we expect kids to practice on their own?
Music education resources have fallen behind other subjects, and it’s the reason millions of kids are excluded from the joys of music participation. This especially goes for kids with learning disabilities, kids without parents who can help, and kids whose families can’t afford regular music lessons. They end up quitting because they’re stuck in the beginner phase for too long with boring beginner music or falling behind their peers in class, rather than being able to read and play the music that speaks to their souls.
As an occupational therapist, I was trained to solve problems to support participation in any activity. So when I noticed that my piano students all had similar visual causes of their note-reading difficulties, I decided to create a tool that makes music literacy more accessible for everyone. I used the science of how people learn when I was developing FableNotes (because the future of music education deserves more than opinions), and the result is a high-quality, music-learning picture book. FableNotes also makes it easier for parents without any music training to support their kids music education outside of lessons.
Along with FableNotes, you can use lots of OT-style tricks to support kids’ visual foundation skills while developing note reading skills.
Vision and Note Reading Ideas
Some kids do better when they’re able to see only the part of the music they’re working on. Cover the other parts with a blank paper or even create little window cutouts in a notecard. You can make different size windows for different kids’ needs, depending on how many notes they can handle seeing at one time. You can also use it to focus the learners who keep trying to go back to play from the beginning or another ‘starting spot,’ relying on muscle memory rather than reading the specific measure you want them to work on. When you’re using window cards, try not to obstruct more than is necessary, though, so that they can start to develop a habit of reading forward in the music.
Play Musical Eye-Spy and hunt for types of notes (like all the middle C’s, or all the half notes), then intervals and rhythmic motifs, triads in root position then triads in various inversions, then lots of different chords. This helps them practice looking through music with purpose and quickly identifying meaning in the notes and phrases.
Make it bigger! Show them very large notes, and I mean like really big. Sometimes kids need to work off sheets that have only one measure per page. FableNotes uses large notes so they can see the details, understand what they’re looking for, and mark up the page for their own learning, even if they don’t have great pencil control yet! When you’re teaching the details of note-reading, explain how to find the notes using clear words. FableNotes tools can also help you structure what you say so you can keep it simple, quick, and memorable. Which brings me to the next tip:
Try coloring in the notes in rainbow order starting on C (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink). Use it just as a game to reinforce note names or keep the colors on as training wheels while they work on note reading skills. This also opens up music for younger kids, because music reading isn’t always developmentally appropriate for the youngest learners’ visual development. Then I use the FableNotes workbook to transition kids from reading colored music to confidently playing black and white sheet music.
One of my favorite ways to reinforce music reading uses the whole body! You can mark 5 tape lines on the floor and stand with our feet on a space or line and talk about which note you’re standing on. Sometimes we use a spinner to tell us what note to jump to next. You can even take that to the next level by turning it into musical twister! (Right hand on B, left foot on F, etc.)
It’s our job as music teachers to bring music to life and to make music fun and accessible for all our students. So many music students feel like failures because their visual weaknesses aren’t being supported as they learn music. We have such a special role in helping our students gain self-confidence, learn important life skills through music, and develop a life-long love of music. Between FableNotes and all these other fun tricks, we have the power to give them exactly what they need to succeed!