How long does it take to learn to read music

How Long Does It Take to Learn to Read Music?

“Tuh ruh uuuuurrrrr nnnnnnnnn duh.”

“Tuh  ur nnnnnnnnnnnn duh”

I was sitting on the couch on a fall afternoon listening patiently as my kindergartner sounded each each word. Well, I was trying to listen patiently.

“Tuuuuuuurrrrrrrr nnnnnnn duh”

Ugh. Did I mention that this was only one of many, many words to go in this primer level story?

“Tur nnnnnnnnnnnn duh”

By this time, I was biting my lip during this excruciating process while still trying to give her an encouraging smile. It was all I could do not to yell out the word “turned!” after listening to this type of elongated phonetic pronunciation of each word for 15 minutes.

Fast forward one year. Yes, a whole year.

I was sitting on the same couch with the same little girl when I heard this:

Right then, I remembered what it was like to be a child learning to read. I could see through my own daughter how very long it takes for children to learn to read. I realized how patient my teachers had been with me. How patient my parents had been. I saw the struggle that average children experience as they learn this reading process and imagined how much more difficult it is for children with challenges.

Maybe it’s obvious to everyone else, but…

This is what it must be like to learn to read music!

How many years does it take for a child to learn to read music?

Learning the sounds of each letter, learning to put the sounds together, learning to pause at the periods and commas, learning to put the words together into the rhythm of a sentence, learning to emphasize the right words and syllables. All of these tasks take years for children to do properly!

Yet, we are often impatient with our piano students when they haven’t learned their note names in just 6 months of piano. We get frustrated and baffled when they aren’t “reading” music in a rhythmic and perfect way after only one year of lessons or less.

But that fact is, it’s natural for a child to take years to learn all of their letters, learn the sounds, and learn to read music.

Let me say that again in a visual way:  It takes yeeeaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrs for a child to learn to read!

How long does it take to learn to read music? | ComposeCreate.comSometimes it might seem like it might only take 1 year for a child to learn to read. They enter Kindergarten and then by first grade, many (but certainly not all) might be reading fairly easy books well. But what we don’t often think about is all the things that the parents and teachers of those children did prior to kindergarten to help them be ready:

  • They taught them their letters and sounds. This may not have been done formally through preschool. But most kids know a lot of letters and sounds before they enter kindergarten, either by direct or indirect exposure.
  • They read to their kids. They exposed them to words that had meaning and that uncovered a story.
  • They encouraged them to talk.
  • They let them use as many words as they could.
  • They taught them new words.
  • But most of all, they didn’t require them to learn to read words before they could speak the words. Speaking was always first.

All of these things must be factored in when determining how long it takes a child to learn to read. And this list certainly bumps up the number of years to at least three years, probably more!

It’s going to take even longer for kids to learn to read music.

I don’t have any scientific evidence for this, but pure logic would tell us that if it takes a child 2-3 years (actually more when you think about all the exposure to words in infancy) to learn to read well, then it’s going to take even more for a child to learn to read music well.

Why?

Think about these two facts for a moment:

  • A child goes to school 5 days a week and is with a teacher 5 days a week. A piano student only comes to lessons 1 day a week and then is “on their own” to practice those same things over and over again for 5 days. Of course, their progress is going to be slower.
  • A child is exposed to talking, reading, and words almost every day of their life. By the time they are 5, they will have experienced 1,825 days (5 years) of words. How much exposure to hearing music, seeing music scores, and playing music do most children have when beginning piano lessons? Definitely less than 1,825 days.

So what does this mean for teaching students to read music?

I think it’s okay to take a deep breath and relax a bit about students who are struggling to read music. It’s going to take time and it’s going to be bumpy in the process. Our students are going to forget notes names and locations of notes on the staff just as my daughter seemed to forget the three sounds of the letter A for a long time (a, āe, ah in case you are curious).

Even now, though my daughter is reading quite well, the syntax and rhythm is not quite there yet. There’s still the pause before the difficult word. There’s still the hesitations and awkward pauses in inopportune places. There are still those hard words that she can’t figure out. There are still those words that she just mumbles through because she doesn’t want to take the time to sound them out phonetically!

And of course, I still struggle to be patient with her when the same word has appeared on the page four times and she still doesn’t remember what the word is.

But I keep letting her talk, of course. I keep reading to her and pointing to the words as I read. I keep having her read to me even though the rhythm of the words isn’t perfect. And she keep getting better. Slowly but surely, she is getting better.

Is there more to it than just flashcards and notespellers?

More than just flashcards! How long does it take to learn to read music? | ComposeCreate.comBut what other things besides flashcards, note name apps, and fill in the blank workshops are we doing to help our students during this very long process of reading music. Are we letting our students “speak music” (i.e. play) without being tied to a score? Are we reading music with them and showing them what it’s like on the page just like parents do while reading books to children?

That’s why I think the concept of rote teaching is powerful when combined with teaching students to learn to read music. Just as it doesn’t do students any good for us to restrict the words that they use when they haven’t learned to read words, so it doesn’t do any good to restrict the music that students play when they haven’t learned to read music notation.

Could it be dangerous not to use rote teaching?

As a matter of fact, I think it might be dangerous to restrict students to playing only music they can read!

You don’t have to look far to find studies about the benefits of reading to your children when they are little (when they can’t even form words for that matter, much less read them). And the dangers of not reading to children, not letting them talk, or restricting them to speak only words that they can read are obviously disastrous and even ludicrous.

In addition, the effects of restricting students to play only music they can read is even more detrimental to older beginners. These beginners may already feel self-conscious about starting later than their peers, and certainly requiring that they play every piece in their book including the “I Am a Princess” and “Silly Troll” songs are demoralizing. Using rote piano teaching with these students is even more important to help them achieve their goal of playing and to achieve your goal of teaching them to play musically and learning to read.

How can we do better at teaching our students to read music?

How long does it take to learn to read music? - Using Rote pieces like these can help! Now of course, there is always a breakdown in every analogy, so not everything about learning to read music is like learning to read. But if nothing else, I think this analogy can teach us that:

  • It’s okay and important to use rote teaching.
  • It’s okay and normal when students forget their notes.
  • It’s okay if it takes a long time for them to learn to read music.

Besides just keeping at it, here are some things you can actively do to help students learn to read music:

  • Remind parents that just as their child has to read every day at home and school to get better, so they must also read and practice their note names every day (or 4-5 days a week) to really make much progress.
  • Make it easy for parents by giving them a set of flashcards to use with their students or suggesting apps to download to help. Parents are busy. They would love for you to hand them something they can use immediately.
  • Do the obvious things like teaching landmark notes to help with intervallic reading, use flashcards that actually require students to find the notes on the piano, not just name the notes.
  • Use rote teaching pieces. Let them “talk” music with forcing them to read it. You can do this by teaching the piece by rote and then showing them the notation of what they just played.

Rote Teaching Pieces that can help!

There are many rote teaching pieces out there these days so let me direct you to a few of them. First, there are these that are available on ComposeCreate.com:

Other rote and reading pieces that you might be interested in include: Pattern Pieces 1 and 2 on the Piano Safari Blog as well as Paula Dreyer’s book Little Gems for Piano.

What are your thoughts on how long it takes children to learn to read music? I’d love to know! Please leave your ideas in the comments below. Many teachers read these comments and your ideas may be just want they need!

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7 Comments

  1. May September 26, 2017 at 8:14 am

    If you haven’t read Edwin Gordon’s Music Learning Theory, you should do so! He’s got a lot of research to back up all of the observations that you made in this post. You hit the nail on the head so eloquently – I’m cheering aloud while reading your post! We can’t expect students to accurately sight-play things that they’ve never internalized aurally, just like we can’t expect little kids to successfully read words they’ve never heard in conversation. That’s true for all aspects of music, not just reading pitches on the staff. It’s true for rhythm, it’s true for dynamics, it’s true for articulation, everything. Rote teaching is a great way to bridge the gap, as is improvisation.

    I think it’s also important to consider how we expect students to practice their reading pieces. 16 measure pieces are too long for most 1st and 2nd year students to sight-read. Their eye-tracking isn’t developed enough to do this well. We shouldn’t ask them to “practice RH alone, then LH alone” at home. Without specific instruction, the child will try to play from beginning to end, RH alone, then LH alone, and fail. They’ll pause and stutter and all sense of rhythm will go out the window. Forget dynamics and articulation! Instead, we can draw brackets of [2 measures + 1 note] and ask them to learn each individual bracket RH alone, then LH alone, then put the bracket HT. It’s small enough that they can read it and master the musical details in a relatively short amount of time. Once the child has mastered the small chunks, the next week they can do [4 measure + 1 note] chunks. If that goes well, try [8 measure + 1 note] chunks, then the entire piece. As they get older and their sight-reading abilities improve, the size of the initial chunks can grow. How small should the chunks be? However small the student needs to be successful within 3 attempts.

  2. Jason Gallagher September 26, 2017 at 8:15 am

    I think this is a great article! It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Coffee With Ray (Nick Ambrosino): “You don’t need patience if you have understanding.” I think it really helps to step back and take a look at how involved the process is of reading language, and then to adjust our expectations of reading music.

    I do think it’s important to add, under activities we do to help learning to read, is to encourage the students to look at how the notes move rather than what the notes are. If a student is diligently looking at the score and not at their hands, knowing that the next note is D is not very helpful, but knowing that it’s down a third – that’s something the student can use! We want to encourage a working vocabulary of intervals and fingerings for those intervals. Later on, we want to develop that into a working vocabulary of chord shapes and arpeggios and scales.

    I also like to ask students to transpose, even at the very beginning. By transposing, we’ve taken away the possibility of using note names, so students instead must study the shapes on the page and use their ears to verify. I also think that transposition is a much more musical way to introduce sharps and flats (too often it’s just: this is a sharp. Sharps mean you should play the very next key on the right. Blah blah blah…).

    Lastly, I wanted to add Amy Greer and Dennis Alexander’s Repertoire by Rote to your recommendations. They’re easy to play, and all of my students love them. Even better, the book contains detailed instructions for teaching each piece, and a memory map. It’s a wonderful resource.

    Thanks for writing this! I get really passionate about the topic of learning to read, so I love reading such good advice.

  3. Melinda September 26, 2017 at 8:29 am

    After studying Dr. Feierabend’s curriculum and research, I am convinced I need to start doing this in earnest, and I’m finally at a financial place where I can invest. Dr. Feierabend was a student of Edwin Gordon, so his philosophy and approach combines MLT, Kodaly with a specific American Folk Song approach and subsequence rhythm and tonal set sequence, and a literacy based approach to music literacy with a 12 step sequence of rote-reading-writing. I have a lot if beginners since I just moved, and I am thinking I’ll get the Little Gems intermediates ok for my older daughter, since even though she reads well, I think she can still benefit. Could you tell me if you have a specific sequence, pattern, or routine you use when you teach a piece by rote? In addition to not feeling like I had enough resources to do this (whether through available content or my ability to purchase them), I’ve not been confident in ability to present this in the “right way” (if there is one?) because I was never taught thi in this manner. Can you help me?

  4. Christy Kimball September 26, 2017 at 10:00 am

    Rote teaching, I have found, is actually quite natural to do. It does require that I memorize the music, but I only have to do that in small pieces. I video my students playing with me so that they have something to help them practice at home during the week. I use rote teaching throughout most of my teaching. If there is a tricky portion in a piece of music I have assigned, I make up a little exercise that the student does with me. I show them; they play it back. We sing it, play it, count it; we even play it with exaggerated dynamics or tempos! They think I am a bit crazy. But when they come to that in their new music, they have a better chance of success. The more I learn from my students, the more I learn how best to teach. I have been teaching 40+ years, yet my teaching changes every year as well as from student to student. This is a quality I think that we need to work on all the time, that we become better and different teachers every day. Life is a constant learning curve. If we try rote teaching with our littles, we have happy kids and happy parents. As we show them the music, they learn that music isn’t hard, it is interesting. “I can’t” are two words I have not heard in my studio for a long time. What a great career we have, being able to assure children that they can be successful in what they undertake. We teach them to take things in smaller pieces, that success does not happen the first time we try anything, and that thinking about different ways to accomplish something broadens their horizons about what is possible. Hurray for music teachers everywhere!

  5. Marilyn Lowe September 26, 2017 at 11:29 am

    When I started studying with Edwin E. Gordon in 1992, one of his statements stopped me in my tracks: “Asking children to learn music from notation stifles audiation.” This immediately answered all my questions about note-naming, counting, stumbling, lack of flow in performance, fear of improvising (playing without notation), why professionals could not play songs to sing (like America, or Amazing Grace) without notation, and so forth.

    The discovery that music learning uses the same process as language learning: listen, speak, improvise/audiate, read, and write made a huge impact on my thought processes about teaching piano. With Gordon’s assistance and with parents and students as helpers/guinea pigs, I wrote Music Moves for Piano. It was difficult to figure out how to put an aural approach on paper. Vocabulary words were needed — and accepted by children who knew a large descriptive vocabulary about dinosaurs, bugs, plants, etc. Students learn the words and use them to define differences. Words like major, minor, triple, duple define context and provide aural discrimination.

    My 25 years of working with and teaching an audiation base approach has led to three discoveries: 1) Students do learn to read very well when they have a strong aural foundation coupled with keyboard skills and lots of improvisation experiences 2) Students read well when they apply what they know as abstract thinkers. Music notation is abstract. Abstract thinking develops around the age of 11-12. 3) Students who have a strong categorized/functional/contextual music vocabulary become excellent accompanists and composers/performers as older students as adults.

    Yes. Many of the teaching material that we consider to be important actually stifles musical growth. We need to rethink how children learn when they learn music

  6. Kerri Turner September 26, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    Very fascinating Wendy! I’ve actually been reading “about reading” this week as I’m concerned for my 6th grade son, and my little one who has just started kindergarten. It seems reading is taught much differently in the public schools that it was when I was in school, and I wonder if that can contribute to the way children learn to read notation. I only have a very small handful of students who even have a music class to go to each week as well.

  7. Lisa Lewis September 27, 2017 at 3:32 am

    I haven’t really found that children have too much difficulty in reading notation. Where they do have problems is more likely to be in recognising the lower notes on the bass stave. I think it must be much more fun, however, to learn to play by rote in conjunction with note reading as children would be able to play more interesting pieces earlier, using more of the keyboard. Hopefully being able to do this would not deter them from learning to read notation as I’ve had pupils come to me for lessons who can play impressively without music but when faced with a new piece are quite at a loss and need to be shown. They can’t play duets at sight or accompany instrumentalist friends and it takes them longer to learn new pieces. My mother told me I had to learn an octave of the treble and bass stave notes before she would pay for piano lessons so I did this at 7 years old and while I would never suggest this idea I’m using it to make my point that for most children I don’t think it’s quite as difficult as this article makes out. Probably a combination of both methods would be ideal.

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