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!
Sometimes 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.
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?
But 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?
- 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:
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!