teaching students to read music

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    I have a few students that I would like to further help with proficiency in reading notes so we don’t spend 3/4 of the lesson figuring out the notes to a simple piece of music, leaving no time for anything else.


    I am an older adult who started taking harp lessons about a year ago, and I could not read music. My teacher told me to let the harp lead me, so with each measure I do learn the notes, but don’t always remember- so learn the first note of the measure and look at spacing of notes, if a space skip a string, if all notes are in line then play each string. Look for a pattern, especially with the beginner books – measure one may be the same as the second or the third. There is two web sites that are like flashcards one is and the other is It still takes me awhile to learn music with new notes, but knowing that the harp will help has made it much easier to learn the notes.


    What you’re talking about is learning music theory. I.e., learning not only to read notes, but rhythm as well. For students who need that, it can take up an awful lot of lesson time, as you are finding out. In France anyone studying an instrument also, and separately, takes solfege lessons, which is a whole system for learning music theory. The best solution, which may or may not be an option, is to deal with music theory separately from the lesson.

    What you might consider, particularly if you have several students who need this, is to offer a separate theory class where you can have them all come just to learn theory, without the harp being involved. They could all come together and so pay a much smaller fee individually to participate. if this is an option you could also make this available to anyone who wants to learn how to read music. You might have piano students, clarinet students, etc. that would be interested in doing it.

    If that’s not possible, you might give a new piece to a student and tell them that the first week they are not to practice this at all, but to sit at the kitchen table and learn to say the notes in rhythm, and that you are going to go over the piece this way the following week. When the student can say the notes in rhythm to your satisfaction, (or spell out chords, etc.) then they can start learning it on the harp. If it’s a piece they really like, this will give them an incentive to learn the notes well first without playing them.

    Misty Harrison

    The main thing with teaching notes identification is that sometimes the student is good at identifiying the notes individually (like on cards) but all jumbled in to a piece they have a hard time.

    The real, true solution for this is practice. In other words, time. They have to take time to try to read little songs at the harp each day, because this way they will get faster at figuring out the notes until they internally memorize it. I think one challenge is that this not terribly fun so most people don’t practice doing that each day.

    I try giving the students really small, easy songs where the notes are next to each other and then where they have sensible spaces. Sometimes that helps too. Like the Songs for Sonja books. They may be too easy in some eyes but if you’re getting someone to read, they are great.

    Dennis McKenzie

    Online there is a great note trainer which I learned to read music from At least the treble cleft, I have still to master the bass cleft. But this site really helped me out. Googole


    I agree with the suggestions above to emphasise reading by interval relation to the previous note, and to rub this in with daily sightreading, even if all the notes are fingered with the 2nd in the first case.

    Misty Harrison

    Great suggestion! I love the Grossi because they’re great and really short so I know my students will do them every day because they are short enough that they won’t get bored or overwhelmed.


    The solfege system taught in France produces awesome results. When I was living there, I lived with a French family for a while, and their 12 year old daughter was studying harp and taking solfege classes at the Paris Conservatory prep division every Saturday morning. She came to me one day and asked me to help her with her solfege assignment. It consisted of a two or three page piece with a vocal line and piano accompaniment, and the girl wanted me to play the piano part while she sang the vocal line.

    The piece was written specifically for solfege study, and the vocal line used 15 clefs; the G clef on all 5 lines, the C clef on all 5 lines, and the F clef on all 5 lines. A different clef was used on each measure of the piece(the piano accompaniment was written entirely the usual way). This 12 year old girl, who I can tell you was no prodigy, read this piece with no trouble. I was dumbfounded at her ability. Those are the results that you can get when you study theory separately from the instrument.


    I would suspect that they are not practicing, if they can identify notes, but not read them in harp music. It is a delaying tactic. If you use the ABC of Harp Playing, it teaches basic reading skills, and if the students are not having genuine difficulty, it will show. The basic approach of having them play the note, name it, and point to it on the page at the same time should burn them into consciousness. Repetition is the other part. Perhaps you can have a class apart from lessons just to work on reading skills.


    This is a truly vexing problem because in many instances, general music teachers avoid teaching rhythm reading, either because they don’t fully understand how to read rhythms accurately or because they do know how to read themselves but consider it “too hard” to teach.

    The best choice for a music teacher is to accept only students who have had Kodaly training from nursery school through grade 12.

    Oh well, there are a couple things that a private teacher can do to make life easier for themselves and their students.

    First, at the very beginning of rhythm reading instruction, make a clear distinction between “tempo” and “duration”. Never refer to 16ths as “fast” and whole notes as “slow”. 16ths are “short” and whole notes are long- in fact, sixteen times longer than one 16th note. The reason this is such an important point is because It’s so much harder to know where the notes actually are in the measure if you’re thinking of some as slow and some are fast, instead of knowing that there is an underlying pulse to the music and that the motion of the short and long notes in the measure changes as the tempo changes.

    Another thing that helps nonreaders is the association of a word pattern with a rhythm- “pie-pie-apple-apple-huckleberry-huckleberry” chanted over a constant pulse.

    if a few minutes of each lesson is devoted to this, it sinks in. Unfortunately, this is loads of fun for 6 year olds but a great big bore to adults, and the fact is that missing out on being able to read reduces the student’s ultimate enjoyment.


    A small clue not yet mentioned, would be to be able to sing easy songs in numbers, which will then depict the distance from the key note (do) of the song on the printed page, not only with the vocal cords.


    Although not exactly the same that sounds


    I learnt bass clef on the harp- my teacher just expected me to be able to read it as well as I could treble.


    Heidi that is really horrible, i hate such a kind of students and lessons, i had the last year an adult girl wanted to study the harp , she was very bad in solfege and ryhtm she got me crazy, as Carl said they should get a separate solege lesson, we are harp teachers not solfege….. there are many things to teach about the harp in the lesson ,no time for solfege.

    Liam M


    As a total novice to music, I have struggled considerably. To sight read music I spent some time to create music sheets using MS Excel and I have the Letter of the note embedded in each one. I then set up a few tunes to use for practice. Working with those, I learn a lot faster to interpret on the fly by the visual picture.

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