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How to Learn to Read Music

What is the best way to learn to read music? The United States has printed more series of music curriculum than any other country in the world. While there are many aspects of a good music curriculum, including music theory, technique, and listening skills, one of the main focuses of early music training, traditionally, has been music reading. Even though there have been many series of books written, they generally fall into three distinct systems. Understanding these approaches helps students and parents choose an appropriate music teacher.

Single note identification

This method of learning to read music is primarily a method of memorization. It can be as simple as giving a chart of the notes on the Grand Staff which shows the relationship of notes to keys on the piano, or a set of flashcards for each note. Usually, however, it is presented systematically from Middle C. This Middle C Method was introduced by W.S.B. Mathews in 1892 and popularized by John Thompson in 1936. Thompson’s Modern Course for Piano was extremely influential throughout the 20th Century and many remember learning from his red books. Many other piano method writers borrowed the essence of his presentation. Most people who studied piano in the US in the 20th Century were taught by this method.

In the Middle C method, the first note learned is Middle C, which is shared by both thumbs, taking turns. From there, students learn one note above Middle C, then one note below; two notes above middle C, then two notes below, and so on. The hands stay in the Middle C position, with thumbs on C, for a long time, before venturing further apart on the keyboard.


Letter names securely learned. Every musician must learn the note names at some stage, and students of this method generally learn them well through drill and memorization

Methodical presentation of new notes. The presentation of new notes in sequence from Middle C outward is logical, and easily understood by the beginning student.

Middle C position provides security. Students do not need to wonder where to play when they sit down to practice, since they always place their hands in the same place.


Musical patterns obscured. Reading music by single note identification inserts an unnecessary note naming step into the music reading process. Reading becomes a process of decoding, often devoid of musical meaning. If students do not move beyond simple naming to the discovery of musical patterns, their music reading will be slow and unmusical. This is best understood with the analogy of language reading. If a new reader reads like this, “T-H-E the B-O-Y boy R-A-N ran …,” by the time he gets to the end of the sentence, he will have lost all sense of meaning. It is necessary to combine letters together into common patterns, called words. Music should be read in a similar ways, with notes joining together in familiar patterns, which can be taught. Pattern recognition is often overlooked in a note identification approach to note reading.

Fear of black keys. Another disadvantage is caused by the extreme delay of sharps and flats. Many never get over their reluctance to read accidentals or their fear of key signatures.

Finger to note correspondence. The Middle C Method also causes the student to identify certain fingers with certain notes, since they are always played with the same finger. This difficulty is compounded by some publications that include finger numbers for almost all notes. When students finally move beyond this Middle C position, it is difficult to imagine that D could be played with any finger other than “2” of the right hand or E with something other than “3”. This orientation is very hard to unlearn.

Technical difficulties. The Middle C Method also creates physical problems, unrelated to reading, because of the unnatural position of the thumbs tethered in the middle of the keyboard, causing the wrists to twist at an awkward angle and the elbows to remain immobile next to the body.

Intervallic Method

In 1955, Frances Clark revolutionized the way music reading was taught with her publication, “Time to Begin,” which teaches music reading by recognizing patterns. The first patterns taught are simple up and down patterns, followed by steps and skips and then note pairs of greater distances. Students first read music without any musical staff, then a partial staff, and finally the full staff, reading from certain landmark notes which they learn to recognize easily throughout the Grand Staff. In contrast to the Middle C approach, students begin playing all over the keyboard from the very beginning.


Uses the entire keyboard. This immediately makes the music more interesting to the student. This style of music teaching also comes as a surprise to parents who may have been schooled in a Middle C approach as children and expect that a short keyboard, encompassing just the middle octaves, will suffice for beginning lessons.

Pattern reading. This is the way professional musicians actually read. Reading by pattern, a student can read several notes at once, and thus can play more fluently. The reading patterns also form the basics of music theory, so students are beginning to understand how music is put together from their first experiences.


Multiple landmark notes can be confusing. Most presentations of intervallic reading use seven landmark notes, 5 Cs plus the G above Middle C and the F below. Additionally, they are generally named using words like “Bass C” or “Treble C,” which are unfamiliar terms to most children. Students sometimes fail to realize that “Treble C” on the staff, for example, is a specific note on the keyboard, not just any C. One approach to moderating this confusion, which I use, is to use magnetic markers on the keyboard, which then can be moved to a magnetic musical staff, drilling the relationship between note and notation.

Music can sound unmusical. Using only landmark notes and a few notes above and below is very limiting for a composer. The resulting music may not contain the common scale passages that we generally expect in Western music. More recent teaching material has recognized this difficulty and mitigates this tendency somewhat, but it still can be an issue at the earliest stages.

Multi-Key Method

Another music educator which was unsatisfied with the Middle C approach was Robert Pace, a teacher at Columbia University. He produced his first piano series using the multi-key method in 1954. In this approach, students are introduced, through discovery and application, to all major and minor keys (24 keys in all) in rapid succession in the early weeks of instruction. Following on the heels of Robert Pace, other music curriculum writers, such as James Bastien, developed multi-key materials that introduced the 24 major and minor keys in a more gradual manner.


Not limited to C Major. Students have no fear of sharps or flats. They learn to read patterns by playing in many different keys or transposing.

Develops a strong tactile feeling of the keyboard. Initially students learn to play in 5-finger positions (the first 5 notes of a scale). Students learn to feel the keyboard topography of the black and white keys by playing in multiple positions.

Encourages musical creativity. An important feature of the multi-key method is that students to learn “functional piano.” This somewhat awkward term was Robert Pace’s name for musical creativity at the keyboard. It includes such abilities as playing by ear, transposing at sight, harmonizing a melody, arranging, improvising, and composing. Because students, initially, play in a basic 5-finger position without moving around on the keyboard, they are free to be creative in other aspects without having to hunt for their place on the keyboard.


Visual confusion. Presenting all the visual information of key signatures early on can be visually overwhelming to the learner. Some approaches to the multi-key method ease this disadvantage by teaching the different positions at the keyboard first, before introducing the visual representation.

Positional orientation. Students taught exclusively with this positional emphasis often ask, “What position am I in?” They can have difficulty when they are asked to extend beyond these fixed positions or change positions in the middle of a piece.

Technical problems. Aside from the reading approach, beginning with 5 fingers on 5 adjacent keys may not fit the student’s hand, particularly younger students. They may need to spread their fingers unnaturally in order to accommodate it.

Combination methods

Realizing that no one method contains all the advantages, some more recent educators have sought to capture the advantages of the various approaches by combining elements from each. Examples of this type of combination are “Piano Adventures” (Randall and Nancy Faber), “Succeeding at the Piano” (Helen Marlais) and “Alfred’s Premier Piano Course” (Dennis Alexander and others). While this may seem like a good idea, at first, the lack of a unifying teaching philosophy can lead to a sequence of presentation that has no inner logic.  I particularly find the inclusion of the Middle C position, with thumbs sharing Middle C, to be problematic, in that it encourages an awkward physical approach to the instrument without any compensating advantages.

Learning to Read Music at Stan Watkins Piano Studio

How, then, do I approach music reading in my own studio? I do combine elements of different methodologies, but not in the way just described above, where the different approaches are taught in tandem from the beginning. Rather, I adopt the intervallic method as the basic approach for initial instruction, then gradually add some of the advantages found in other methodologies. This is the tactic taken by “Celebrate Piano” (Albergo, Kolar and Mrozinski), which I use regularly for new beginners who are aged 6-9. The intervallic and landmark approach to reading provides a very secure reading foundation. To that base is added the transposition and creative music thrusts of the multi-key method. Along the way, I also add drilling in note recognition through flash cards and games in the lesson and worksheets and online video games for home practice. By taking this logical, comprehensive approach, students build a solid foundation in reading music with understanding.