How “Decoding Music” Can help a Struggling Student to Confidently Read Music

I would love to be able to figure out why some students can latch onto reading music easily and quickly, while others take more direction, reinforcement, and time.This past year I had a couple students, who had been studying with me for a year, that were still struggling to recognize landmark notes as well as if it was a step up or skip up. Struggling with something basic can lead to a lot of frustration and stagnation in lessons.

Whenever a student struggles with a concept, I first assume that something was lacking in my instruction. And then I look to find ways to re-introduce and reinforce the concept.

This summer, I researched different ways to teaching students to read music on the staff. During my reread of the teacher’s guide for Piano Safari, I found the authors’ suggestions for students marking the music in specific ways to help them read music more proficiently. For example:

I had two initial reservations about doing this. First, we already did this verbally together before starting a new piece. We started this a month ago, and by now the students can independently analyze/decode their own music. From a month ago to now, those students can now go to the piano and confidently play through a piece mostly correct on their first try. I had to fight back tears I was so proud of these students. It made me feel a bit sad, too, that it took me so long to find a strategy that worked for them.

My second reservation was, “Oh my goodness they are marking up their music! How will they become independent readers?” I got over that reservation pretty quickly when I realized that it allowed the students more independence than to have me ask them all the questions.

From the ideas in the Piano Safari Teacher Guide for Book 1, I created a process we follow before we ever try and play a new piece.

This strategy is simple, yet effective. The following is our process to  “Decode Music.” Each step gets a new color. Frixion erasable pens are the best for this activity!

  1. Color treble clefs red. Highlight Landmark Line G. Label it.
  2. Color bass clefs blue. Highlight Landmark Space C. Label it.
  3. Circle time signature.
  4. Label first notes of RH in each phrase.
  5. Label first notes of LH in each phrase.
  6. Circle repeated notes. (Some students circle individual noteheads and then draw a line connecting them. Others circle the entire notes in one large circle. Each student does what makes the most sense.)
  7. Put a “V” connecting notes that skip.
  8. If needed, draw arrows where the direction of notes turn around.

Here are two examples. (The music is from the Piano Safari Sight Reading Card.)

Allowing the students to mark their music lets them analyze it before they ever play it. It puts the brain work before the finger work. It also allows you, the teacher, to evaluate what they are easily seeing in music (can they see that the notes are repeating?), and what they need more direction on.

If you have a student that is struggling to read music, I would encourage you to try this strategy with them, and then come back and tell me if it helped or not. If you adapt it, please tell me about that as well. I would love to hear how everyone makes it their own.

Free PDF Decoding Music Printable: Decode_Music_Steps

Source for Piano Safari Teacher Guide: