If you want your music students to read better, don’t do this!


(or 2 or 3 months)!!!

CC BY-ND by Dark Dwarf

CC BY-ND by Dark Dwarf


How are they supposed to read better if they don't start by reading?

Is she crazy? (that's a whole other topic for another discussion!)

This question always provokes a lot of controversy. (No, not the one about me being crazy – no argument there, that is true 😉

There are those teachers that teach the “traditional” method where playing technique and reading are taught at the same time.  A vast majority of method books are designed this way.

There are others who feel it is best to teach the playing technique without adding the extra stress of reading notes. Those teachers spend the first few lessons focusing on playing technique and using simple fingering charts for the first few notes.

(For those of you who are parents, this blog does apply to you. Just as it is important to know how your children are learning math, science etc in school, it is equally important for you to know how your child learns music.)

Many music teachers (and administrators) believe that the ultimate goal for their students is to perform music by reading it.  Reading shows true comprehension.

Is that really true? If a student in an English class reads a passage out loud with perfect pronunciation of all the words do they truly understand what they read? Doesn’t comprehension come from explaining what one has read in one’s own words, drawing conclusions and finding comparisons and relationships to other ideas? Isn't that what Common Core is trying to achieve?

How does this relate to reading music better?

If you look at the songs in any beginning band method book, you notice that they are not notated the way they are traditionally sung.  As a result, when the student learns to read and play the song, he/she doesn’t recognize it and has difficulty performing it. Once the student realizes what the song is, he/she tends to play it the way they know it (with the more complicated rhythms). Band teachers try to fix the “wrong” rhythms, but to no avail because the popular song is ingrained in the student’s mind.

If a student performs the first notated version of Hot Cross Buns below, can they feel that the song is in a duple meter (small beats felt in sets of 2)?  Does it sound the way they know the song is sung (example #2 below)? Can they hear the relationships between the notes and the different chords (Tonic and Dominant)?

HCB-Most Method Books-Learning by Rote Part 1000 Learning by Rote Part 2000

What about the teacher that focuses on the playing technique first?  When they give their students fingering charts for simple songs, are the letter names or pictures in the order they appear in the song? Or is it just a simple fingering chart and they ask the student to use their ears and figure out how to play the song? Writing letter names in the order they appear in the song evokes the same issues of comprehension. The student is not learning to be an independent learner. These students tend to wait for the teacher to tell them how the music is supposed to sound.

Let’s use another analogy. Would you consider sticking a 400 page novel in front of a 5 year old and expect them to read and understand it? Even if they were brilliant, would they truly comprehend the material? The child needs to be exposed to a vast vocabulary by his/her parents reading and speaking phrases, sentences and stories. Then the child babbles back, eventually speaking words and complete sentences. Years later, the child learns to read based upon all the vocabulary acquired.

How can we expect a beginning instrumentalist to physically manipulate a new, heavy expensive instrument while attempting to read black dots on a music staff with minimal exposure to a musical vocabulary? This is the equivalent of the 400 page novel being given to the 5 year old.

Comprehension in music starts when students have listened, moved and sung many songs in different meters (duple, triple, compound, etc) and tonalities (major, minor, Mixolydian, etc).  By participating in this way, students build up a musical vocabulary they can draw from when figuring out how to play songs by ear, and eventually learning how to read them. Wouldn’t the learning be more effective if, for example, the students listened to a quality performance of a song on their chosen instrument, could hear the song in their head afterwards, sing it back by themselves, figure it out using a simple fingering chart of the notes in the song, and perform it with a piano or guitar accompaniment so they can hear the chord changes?

Think about how Jazz or Rock musicians learn to solo or improvise. They listen to a recording many times until they can sing it back.  Then they figure it out on their instrument, a little bit at a time with all the nuances of the performance. After doing this for a number of different solos, they have built up a “vocabulary” that will help them create their own solos.

True comprehension really occurs when a student can improvise and compose his/her own music. This is equivalent to students understanding words well enough to carry on an intelligent conversation with others.

So……..Which method is best for beginners? Can one approach work for most students? If you are a teacher, think about your own method of teaching.

Are your students always asking, “How does it go?” 

If you are a parent, is your child performing songs the way they are supposed to sound, or is it unrecognizable?

Let me know in the Comments section below….

By the way, some of you may be thinking, “How can a true beginner play songs right away? They need to learn technique first.” I will address that issue here!

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  1. I agree with learning by ear with technique basics first.
    My piano teacher quit on me because I would hear what he played and
    Then play it without looking at the music.
    I would play songs I wrote and this infuriated him.
    I was 6 years old. At 18, while on tour in SE Asia with
    Big band charts, I complimented my conductor
    For being able to write these charts. He in turn
    Complimented me and said that he wished he could
    Play by ear and write songs! This startled me, as my whole
    Career thus far, I had felt lesser for not being able to
    Read notes. I had no problem as the youngest soloist in the choir
    At age 5. I played violin in 4th grade but had to be 2nd chair
    As I needed to see what page 1st chair was on
    To make the roaming teacher believe I was reading.
    Dyslexia and needing glasses may have kept me from
    Learning to read. But I am happy the way I am today!

    • That’s a great story Marilyn! I truly believe most people who learned by reading first wish their ears were better! Thanks for sharing….

  2. Steve Buerer says

    Great article.
    Your next to last paragraph asked the one I had before I even read you blog.
    I believe God made use each unique and as individuals. I believe that some strategies work best for one type of learner and others for other individual children.
    I used a method book in beginning band as a student and a teacher. But as a learned I seldom stayed with the material very long. I started playing trumpet at about 6th grade with private lessons, using a method book. But I was given the opportunity to play with the congressional singing at church in about two months.
    The advantage I had was my family went to church and sang using the hymnal. Dad gave us general direction i.e. note goes up, the pitch goes up. I feel Blessed.

    I believe giving the students the opportunity to try things, as in after school free play time, is extremely helpful.


  3. Ian Baker (NSW, Australia) says

    I have run successful beginner concert bands in Australia for the last 10 years. Average child age is about 8 (year 3 in OZ primary school).
    I have found that at this age & mental capacity, as entry-level music students, their highest priority is to ‘make music’ and to have fun doing it.
    They should not be reasonably expected to ‘understand’ what they’re doing (as 8 year-olds). To them as beginners, concepts of chord relationships, meter, technique & those other (to us) musical essentials don’t exist. That stuff comes later once they’ve had fun playing that ‘song that you can eat’ and many others like it.
    There are some old sayings – ‘Inch by inch, everything’s a cinch’, and ‘make technical haste slowly’…
    The children build their internal successes/confidence by having many positive experiences with each next slightly harder band piece. You know things are working when, about mid year, you introduce a relatively simple piece for them to play & they say ‘Hey! This is easy!’
    This approach makes their year a positive one for them. If they continue in band next year, you’ve won.

  4. Yes, your thoughts are very important. That leads back to the roots of every learning. I think though that without reading learning would last much longer and would never go as far. I remember, that I used to play glockenspiel as a little child long before I could read notes. (I read the newspaper long before I went to school). I played, what my mother used to sing all day long.
    But when I finally (beginning in the age of nine) was tought to play trumpet I was glad to learn to read music, for it would be rather hard to memorize everything I wanted to play.
    I think, as teachers should we try to have children play (and sing!!!) as much as possible by heart and never stop them, when they start improvising. But most children from a certain point like also to read (and even write), what they play.
    It’s a long way to find out, what’s right, and it’s different for every single pupil.
    Greatings from Good Old Germany
    (maybe you enjoy some things on my Website: http://www.schumusik.de)

    • Thanks for the comments Bernhard! With the method I use, we do definitely read. I am just building up a rich musical vocabulary so that the reading will make sense. I love your statement, “I think, as teachers should we try to have children play (and sing!!!) as much as possible by heart and never stop them, when they start improvising.” EXACTLY!

  5. I agree completely! Kids should not be burdened with decoding complex musical notation when first learning to play an instrument. Since it was so hard to find a method that doesn’t focus on sightreading right off the bat, I have created my own method that starts with singing simple folk and children’s songs–then we learn the solfege patterns and how to hear when the notes go up, down, or repeat, then they learn to play the songs they have already sung. Once a child knows how to play a few songs, we start dictating the rhythm and melody to the songs they are already familiar with. This follows the principle of learning from familiar to unfamiliar. Very different from so many method books which introduce unfamiliar symbols before the child has any real musical experience with them. The first 60 lessons of my method are online as video lessons and free for anyone to watch: http://www.hoffmanacademy.com Looking forward to your next blog!!

  6. I enjoyed this article. You raised some important questions. As a music teacher I believe that one has to be mindful of how one’s students learn and use the approach that suits each student’s learning style. Building up a musical vocabulary is so important to musical comprehension and enhances creativity in composing and performance. Learning by ear should definitely ` be allowed'(I’m from the old school where this was not allowed) so as not to stifle the student’s creativity. Getting the student playing as soon as possible encourages them to keep coming to music lessons and to grow but looking at the little black dots on a page as an initial method may somehow frustrate the young learner. I look forwad to your next blog

  7. Colleen Branson says

    Interesting article and comments. The Suzuki method is based on the same principles, I believe. We hear and speak long before we read and write. I myself learned the “classical/old fashioned” way by learning to read from a method book. I was too busy learning music for the exam process (pianist here) to ever have time to improvise or learn chording/accompanying, etc. I teach using two excellent method books which both try to incorporate improvisation, sense of key, chordal accompaniment into the learning process. I teach one-on-one using method books which teach reading right from the beginning and for most of the students who come to me it works really well. I do improvisation duets, ear training, playing by ear, playing from lead sheets, though, as soon as possible with all my students.
    I would think that beginning the process of learning music strictly by ear would be a lot (more) work for the parents and teacher of your average (lol) student.

    • Yes Colleen, both methods are very similar. Sound before sight helps us to understand the “sight” (notation) so much better. I wish I had that kind of training growing up.

  8. Donna Schwartz says

    Richard, your comment reminded me that there was a recent article by Noa Kageyama from bulletproofmusician.com on changing up the elements of your practice session to build greater flexibility and keep interest. Your book sounds interesting – good luck, and thanks for your comment!

  9. Great post Donna! Even though I am a very proud partner and co-founder of dlp Music Books I have no problem saying that no single method is perfect for everyone. We have many folks who absolutely love our ‘discover, learn, and play’ series while others find it too academic, too easy, too difficult, too much ear training, not enough ear training, not traditional enough, too traditional..lol and on and on it goes.

    I was lucky because I made music on all sorts of instruments before I started formal training. When I finally started reading music it ‘made sense’ to me and when songs were not written like I had heard them, I knew what was missing and either added it on my own or just shrugged and played it as written. The fun part about teaching is discovering how each student learns best and then presenting them with some of the myriad of options that are available today. .. and there are LOTS of options.

    I like the idea of focusing on musical ‘concepts’ (like we do in dlp music books) rather than repertoire – but lots of students simply want to play tunes by ear or they want to play a few familiar tunes. Generally this means they don’t have the wherewithal or desire to understand the theory or practice the technique needed to play these ‘songs’. But that’s ok, our goal is to create more music makers, lovers, and consumers of all ages and levels of ability. It’s a bit like cooking, we have those who deep fry, and those who deglaze…but in the end, everyone eats!

    • That’s true Eugene – we all have different learning styles and the best teachers can identify their student’s learning style and adapt the instruction to fit that. I do think though that musical concepts can be taught while learning rote songs. For example, when I teach Hot Cross Buns, the students learn to sing the song independently while hearing chord functions and moving to the big and small beats of the tune. I may label the the concepts a little later, but with a solid background of tunes in the “toolbox”, the concepts make more sense.Thanks for your comment!

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