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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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4 Answers 4

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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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 9 hours ago

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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