I’m teaching piano. So far all scales have been covered and soon all family chords will also be done. I’m not trained in reading sheet music and so can’t teach that. So what else to teach now...?

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    I suggest you take lessons and/or study a lot on your own to learn to read music and develop your abilities as much as possible. That’s an important part of being a teacher: continued learning. Sooner or later your students will figure out they have caught up to you in knowledge. If you want to keep teaching, you’ll have to stay ahead of them by constantly learning. Slightly an answer: teach songs in addition to or instead of chords and scales. That’s what playing is all about: making music. It’s not about memorizing patterns. Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 14:41
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    Have you ever taken lessons? If so what did you learn?
    – b3ko
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 14:52
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    Literacy is a must for all human beings in all walks of life. I think it's important that you expand your knowledge by training in reading then teach it when you get better at it.
    – user50691
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 15:15
  • what style(s) are you teaching? all scales? which scales specifically? Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 16:21
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    Are you charging people for lessons, or are you just teaching a friend or family member?
    – David K
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 18:07

7 Answers 7


With all due respect, you are doing your students a grave disservice by not having them read sheet music from the start. Yes, chords and finger patterns are very important, but nobody can become a skilled pianist without being able to read the charts. Not all music is simple folk tunes! Beyond just learning to read notes and chord groups, there's rhythm, dynamics, pedal applications, and more. There is zero chance of anyone less talented than, say, Felix Mendelssohn, being able to play a Beethoven Concerto just by listening to it.

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    I always find it strange that when teaching piano, reading is considered a must, whereas teaching guitar, it's most often something that gets ignored by most - unless it's classical guitar. Never actually understood the reasons for this - except a lot of people who teach guitar don't read themselves. Maybe time for a question... Although as a teacher, I always want students to get to know their instruments way before presenting them with yet another hurdle - dots.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 13:56
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    @Tim I teach reading when I teach guitar. Although to be fair, I start by teaching how to read tab. It’s not “real” reading but it’s also not obvious. Also for guitar, tab is a good way to begin because the student doesn’t have to learn to figure out where on the neck to play each note. That’s not a problem on most other instruments, and grand staff is practically tab for piano. Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 14:45
  • @Tim, you comment is based on limited experience I suspect. For guitar reading is a must. At least if one is learning from a real certified guitar instructor. None on mine would have let me out w/o reading.
    – user50691
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 15:13
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    @Tim "where to play certain notes on the guitar neck..." This is (gosh!) an issue with all string instruments. For the bowed set, at least, there are several methods. Some composers specify which string to use, since the timbre of a high note on one string is different from the same pitch on an upper string. The choice is also dependent on performer's planned positioning sequence (of left hand) to simplify playing the passage. Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 15:48
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    I think it's more important to be able to speak than to read. Where did you get the assumption that the original poster's student should want to play a Beethoven Concerto? The OP implies he doesn't even read music very well, so my assumption is that he and his students are not primarily interested in approaching music according to the classical tradition. Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 10:42

All scales? Majors, minors (x3), pentatonics, blues, modes, chromatics, whole tone, diminished?!!

In reality, now's a good time to learn how to read yourself. Being serious - one of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. At the level of your student, you'll be ahead of him, and while you're learning about it yourself, showing him will help you. What better incentive?

On to what next. Being able to play one tune in several keys (scale usefulness) - there has to be a tangible point to learning scales. Just for their own sake is boring. Listening to you play a couple of bars then repeating them. (rhythm and melody). Harmonising a melody. (Happy B'day is a good start). Learning the national anthem (depending where you are!). Just a few ideas.

  • Thanks @Tim...All the scales u mentioned have not been taught but Majors and minors (x3) have been covered. Since the other ones were deep subjects and not so useful for normal songs/playing, I didn't concentrate on those. But yes, the scales and chords have been taught with songs in several keys.
    – user308123
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 6:56
  • Also by Harmonising a melody, did u mean playing a tune/song after listening to it..?Also which scales are more important after majors and minors..?
    – user308123
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 6:57
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    Depends which direction you and student want to go. Pents are interesting - compile a list of a dozen, learn them. Make up your own. Blues scales are pretty good for playing blues! And jazz. Harmonise both ways.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 7:17

If you've taught scales and chords the next natural step is progressions and song structure, resolution and how chords naturally move from one to another. If you don't read music how do you teach songs if at all? By ear. If your student has a specific goal then focus on lessons that lead to that goal. Although in my opinion lessons in an instrument should be general and broad for well rounded development. Last but not least when about technique? Based on your post it almost sounds like you gave your student a list of scales, then a list of chords and not much else. I would imagine that there are many voicings of chords possible on the piano, have you covered these?

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    As well as scales/chords, arpeggios are another facet. To be able to belt up and down with them sounds pretty impressive, and can be done within a few weeks.+1 for voicings, both open and closed.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 14:00

Put the scales and chords into context to give meaning and purpose to it all. Your students must have a purpose in music (and in life, but that's a slightly more advanced topic). Make the students play actual songs that they like, try to learn to hear melodies and chords by ear, and do performances for an audience, no matter how small. In my opinion, it is extremely important to play for someone and with someone, and perform as often as possible. Performing has to be a completely natural thing, just like talking and other kinds of human interactions. Being in touch with people and having a meaningful, successful role in those interactions gives you perspective and purposeful orientation, which is important for motivation. Make the steps of progress the right size for each student, so they achieve things, without being put down and without feeling that the obstacles are beyond their capacity.


I like your question and I like how most answers start with or include 'You must teach how to read music'.

In my experience, there are two and a half types of musicians:

  • Those that play from sheet.
  • Those that play by ear.
  • Those (few rare) that excel in both.

I am the second type. I learned reading sheet music only when I had to. Sometimes I still ask my wife 'What's that note?' or 'What chord is this?'...

I also like how most answers state or imply 'practice, practice, practice'. In my experience, to become better, the most important part is not to practice, but to use it.

For me, music also is about passion, expression and connecting to your inner self.

When someone approaches me to be taught how to play, I try to find out what serves the student best.

  • For self-disciplined, eager people a 'classical' training is ideal, and I ask them to pay for a professional music teacher.
  • Others need to perform so they have a reason to practice, so I give them the chance to be on stage accompanying more seasoned musicians.
  • Again others want to try out (learning by doing) so I give them some hints on how to improve what they already can or show them how to sound nice with little effort.
  • Those who are fed up with their music school I try to teach playing by ear and/or improvising - because that sometimes opens a whole new world to them.

The main pillars of teaching an instrument are (I just made this up):

  1. Technique -- scales, rhythm, arpeggios, fingerings and (sometimes) embouchure
  2. Literacy and aural skills, e.g. the ability to either read music or play music by ear
  3. Repertoire
  4. Performance, interpretation, and authenticity

It sounds like for #1 you have it covered.

For #2 you have chosen not to teach your students how to read music. Which is a something of a shame, but whatever, if you can't, you can't. Teaching them to identify melodies and harmonies by ear, and recreate them with the keyboard, is a decent alternative.

For #3, students should be at least exposed to the "standards" (if not learning to play them outright). And/or you can have your students pick out songs they wish to be able to play and help them learn how to play them perfectly.

And for #4, they must master the other skills and apply them in performance. You can teach them how to interpret a piece so their performance is expressive and/or historically accurate.


I can think of a couple of directions you might choose to take your students without focusing on reading. First, you might show them how to make up their own chord charts for songs that have their lyrics posted on line, and how to transpose those songs into keys that are most useful to them. This can go along way towards allowing the student to study the kind of music they are interested in. Second, you might choose to open the door to melodic patterns and sequences study, which can take a considerable period of time to cover completely and may inspire you and your students to learn at least basic sight reading. From this point, you may find one thing leads to another and the learning never really has to end.

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