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A friend of mine who is 18 has played guitar for practically his whole life, except he's only played by ear and tablature. He's been playing piano for a year and a half now, but he's never learned to read notes. He had a classmate try to teach him the musical staff and the notes on it, but failed. He knows the acronyms of FACE and Every Good Boy Does Fine, but it takes him a long time to recognize what each note is on piano sheet music. So he turned to me to help teach him.

How do I teach him to read notes on the musical staff?

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8 Answers 8

I don't think this has anything to do with his age. Everyone except savants start out taking a long time to recognize notes on the staff, in the same way that toddlers might take a long time to recognize letters in a book. The only answer is to have him practice.

Simple practice is best to start. Something like flashcards is ideal, and what my teacher used when I started piano. Have a fixed deck that he can go through repeatedly (shuffled in between each attempt), and have him focus on accuracy. Through simple repetition over a few weeks he should become quite adept at recognizing the notes.

Then he should start practising simple songs. Probably simpler than the level he currently plays at. Again, have him focus on accuracy and the speed will come with repetition. The songs should not be familiar, and he should attempt different entries to avoid becoming familiar with the tune since he likes to play by ear. (For me, I had to avoid falling into muscle memory.)

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Learning the notes on any staff is a lot of memorization at first. There are a lot of little tricks to remember what each line and space is on the staff, but it can be a lot to learn at once. I've taught a few younger kids how to read the treble and bass clef (not any teenagers though) and while FACE and Every Good Boy Does Fine helps some it confuses others.

Make sure that he understands the basics of notes on the staff in general like there are 7 letter named notes (A, B, C, D, E, F, and G) and going up on the staff goes to the next letter name and going down goes to the previous letter name.

One method that I found worked well is to get them familiar with one note on the staff and then if they remember that note they can figure out any note. In the treble clef, the G on the second line is very easy to remember because the treble clef look a little like a G and that line is where the treble clef curls inward. If he can remember that note and remember the basics of how going up and down on the staff affects the letter name he can figure out any note. When he gets familiar and can remember the G on the staff, then he can move on to memorizing a different note on the staff. Eventually with repetition and time he will learn what each line and space on the staff is.

There are also several online sites that have exercises to train recognizing notes on the staff. MusicTheory.net has a very good exercise for it and lessons to go along with it if he is still confused. I recommend pointing him to that for extra practice in recognizing notes.

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I assume that this person already understands the stave and can, slowly and methodically, translate between a stave position, a note name, and its position on an instrument (that is, which key to play, which fret to hold, etc. depending on the instrument).

I assume this because they're simple concepts.

What he needs is practice; and to encourage him to practice, motivation.

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The motivation is to realise the usefulness of being able to do these translations at speed. There are a lot of musicians who can't read sheet music, but almost all musicians have a need to communicate using note names, so your pupil should understand how useful it is if:

  • He can play a note, then immediately tell his band-mate "That's a B"
  • When his band-mate says "Play a B", he can play one immediately.

That's one-third of the circle in the illustration.

Since he has asked you to help, your pupil clearly wants to be able to work with the stave, so he must see the benefit already, but it's worth taking some time to hammer home what that means:

  • He can see a note on the stave and say "That's a B"
  • He can say "I want to write a B", and put a note on the right line of the stave.
  • He can see a note on the stave and play it on his instrument.
  • He can play a note on his instrument, and put a note on the right line of the stave.

That's two-thirds of the circle in the illustration. Clearly you can "cheat" by only learning two-thirds of the circle. For example, to play a note read from the stave, first translate into a note name, then find the instrument position for that note name -- but he needs to understand that the end-goal is to not need that.

The purpose of all this is to motivate him to practice, because he knows what skill he's aiming for, and how each practice exercise helps toward that goal.

So we have 6 skills. He may decide that some of them are not relevant to him (yet). For example perhaps he wants to sight-read, but doesn't want to write music; that would remove two skills from the list (and actually, for many people, having learned to read the stave, writing it is a doddle).

Now, practice, practice, practice. I think sometimes we forget that the word "exercise" when used in schools, textbooks and musical pieces, is the same word as that used for physical exercise. When you exercise in the gym, you strengthen your muscles. When you do maths exercises, you strengthen your maths skills. When you do musical exercises, you strengthen your musical skills.

Unless your student lacks motivation, I don't think you should need to actively participate in his practice. He needs to sight-read music -- slowly at first, by manually counting the lines to each note if necessary, but with practice, faster and with more complex pieces. He needs to speak the names of notes as he plays, and as he reads from the stave. If he wants to write music, he should transcribe pieces he plays by ear.

The more he does it, the more fluent he will become.

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It should not be a issue of age. I myself have taught 8 year olds how to read music. Get yourself a good theory book and start counting notes. You learn this by doing.

Write the numbers A B C D E F G out. Mention it to your student that when you go up on the staff you count forwards and when you go down you count backwards. It is tricky at first because you are not taught how to count the alphabet backwards at school.

You starting counting from G on the second line from bottom on the Treble Clef and on the F second line from top on the bass clef. Then you just keep on practicing until you know them by heart.

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On the age question, perhaps asker is concerned that 18 is too old to learn, rather than too young? Conventional opinion generally has it that the young learn faster than the old, after all. –  AakashM Nov 20 at 11:57

I like Dom's suggestion of just focusing on a single note, to which I'll add: teach where that note is across several octaves. Get them used to the idea that whatever you write in one place on the staff (be it a single note, a short figure, or a simple triad) can be moved up to a higher octave but will still have the same note names. Learning to visually recognize octaves on a staff is musically important, easy to do, and also reduces the amount of work they have to do, since they'll fill up multiple staff positions with a single letter.

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This is just a personal anecdote, as I have no experience in teaching. But I've recently started trying to teach myself basic music theory from scratch as an adult, so I may have some insight.

The lightbulb moment for me came when I saw the grand staff. Middle C is between the staves. Then it just goes up alphabetically into the treble staff, and down alphabetically into the bass.

Trying to remember FACE, Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit, Good Boys Deserve Fruit Always, and all the other mnemonics was just confusing. I just started ignoring the fact that some notes were on "lines" and some were on "gaps", and just treated it as an alphabetical progression.

I still can't read it particularly fast, but I imagine that's a question of practice. At least I don't have to remember four different mnemonics, and which one applies to which staff any more - I just need to know the alphabet.

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It's just practice and perseverance. If you aren't able to stick for 5 minutes doing some exercise by rote and want to just play the whole time, there's not a lot that can be done. Conversely, even a little disciplined practice will make a big difference.

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I use flash cards with my students. This is something that you have to do by rote, like learning multiplication tables. A few things can help, though. FACE and Every Good Boy Does Fine (and then All Cows Eat Grass and Good Boys Do Fine Always for the bass clef) are useful mnemonics. But also, consider looking at middle C in both treble and bass clef. Then look at the C one octave above and one octave below, and you will see that they are the mirror image of one another. Then go up and down another octave, (two ledger lines above treble clef, or two below bass clef), and you will see the same again. If you can understand that there is one line (middle c) between the bottom treble clef line and the top bass clef line, it helps to picture the whole set of both staves.

So, a combination of this sort of picturing and rote learning generally works best in my experience. Also, it often helps to work this out using a piano, since there are visual cues for each note (C is always to the left of the two black key group, for example).

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