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How young beginners learn to read music.

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

While this article is primarily about how children learn to read music, it must be noted that reading music must go hand in hand with listening, and that a multi-sensory approach to teaching and learning music is ideal. There is much to say about a multi-sensory approach to music education, however that will have to be for another article!




Music literacy in the early years (ages 4 to 8)


Children are individuals


Teachers of young children are very aware of each child as an individual with her/his own unique personal profile of characteristics: personality, interests, abilities, and ways of learning.


However, most young children follow a similar or typical broad developmental pathway as they grow and learn throughout childhood. There is a broad typical sequence in children’s learning of musical literacy and technical skills. Learning music involves both acquiring musical knowledge and music performance skills, that is knowing and doing.


In areas of learning such as musical literacy and technical skills, a child may find some aspects easy and develop quickly in these, while other aspects are more challenging. Thus, each child travels along an individual “learning journey” towards long term goals. By observing children, teachers can gain insight into their processes of learning music literacy.


Early efforts are “approximate”


When children begin to learn literacy for reading and writing music notation, it is typical for their early performance efforts to be somewhat inaccurate or “approximate” as they try to coordinate melody, rhythm, fingers, reading, and expression to play small pieces of music. They are learning a very complex skill and there is considerable reliance on memory of the piece as a whole, to help in this complex task.


At first, performance is conscious and effortful. Acceptance of their approximations in this phase of early music learning, helps children to build a sense of themselves as learner of music and an emerging musician. As basic musical knowledge, reading and technical skills increases, playing becomes more accurate and connected.


Development of reading


The purpose of music literacy is to be able to create and perform music compositions. Music literacy begins with learning that sounds can be represented by written symbols. This is the fundamental principle on which all literacy is built. Listening activities are important at all stages of learning to strengthen aural awareness and sound-symbol links.

Music notation is a complex system involving reading left to right and top to bottom, and locating notes specifically on the staff/stave.


There are four broad developmental phases in learning to read accurately, fluently and with ease to support confident and expressive playing.


1. Initial approximations


Children begin reading with initial approximations. When looking at the staff/stave, it is typical to begin by guessing what they think a note is based on the small number of notes they have learned to play on their instrument. They often do this without much thought or recognition of where the note sits on the staff/stave. With repeated exposure to written musical symbols, these approximations become increasingly more detailed and closer to accuracy. For example, a child may recognise that G and B are both line notes in the treble clef, but not be clear about which line is for B and which line is for G.


2. Becoming accurate in a particular context


With repeated exposure, knowledge and experience in reading music, children progress to accuracy in a particular context, supported by their memory or by prompts and hints from a teacher. For example, a child may have learned the song Hot Cross Buns and know that it starts on the note B. The child may be able to recognise that the first written note in Hot Cross Buns is a B, however they may not automatically recognise the note B when it is found in a different song, for example the jump from G to B at the end of Au Clair de la Lune.


At this stage children can work out what the notes are and name them accurately, but with real effort, and often need the support of prompts and hints from a teacher. As children play these pieces many times, they can become fluent in some of them.


3. Becoming accurate in multiple, similar contexts


This involves transfer of reading knowledge and skill. Children progress to reading with accuracy in new pieces that are similar to those that are now familiar, for example songs that use the same key, notes and/or finger patterns. Children will recognise notes and play pieces of music they have not previously learned, but with effort and often supported by hints and prompts from a teacher.


4. Automaticity in applying reading skill


The long-term goal for music literacy, is automaticity. That is, reading with immediate accuracy and fluency in any context, with little effort.


As children progress along their learning journey, they acquire automaticity that is constrained by the level of difficulty or complexity of the pieces they can play. For example, at first a child may be able to read pieces with automaticity only at a beginner level. Further development of aural skills, musical knowledge and understanding of more features of sound-symbol notation contributes to enhanced literacy.


As reading is a skill, practice is important to maintain, strengthen and extend automaticity to more varied and challenging compositions. This is best done through regular opportunities for sight-reading and playing small, manageable and enjoyable pieces at a manageable level of difficulty.




Technical mastery


When children are learning to play a musical instrument, they are simultaneously going through the four phases described above, both for learning to read music, and for learning how to play a particular instrument. The four phases leading to automaticity in music literacy described above are similar for the development of technical mastery on an instrument.


In the beginning, technical mastery will be focused on making a sound on the instrument, holding the instrument correctly, and remembering a limited number of fingerings. Every time a student learns a new technique, for example tonguing, double tonguing, or fingerings for high notes, the student, supported by their teacher, will work through the same four phase process towards automaticity in performance of that new technique. It is important to connect the new technique with previously learned technical skills. This enables children gradually to become able to play pieces of increasing levels of difficulty, with automaticity and increasingly refined technical skills.


The goal is the development of strong and flexible technical skills that can be applied to perform expressively and musically. From the earliest phases of learning, opportunities to listen to expressive performance and to try this for themselves helps children to internalise an holistic sense of music and musicality.


Initially, children will be able to play very simple pieces within the limits of their reading and technical skills. However, at this and all subsequent levels of difficulty, it is important to encourage children to aim for expressive, musical performance and to accept with enthusiasm, their best efforts to do so.


As noted earlier, each child will develop at her/his own pace. Some may move very quickly through each phase while others may need more support and repetition, in order to become familiar and comfortable with each new element of musical performance on their instrument.


Developing automaticity/fluency


Fluency is achieved when reading and technical skills are connected to enable performance of a piece in a smooth and connected manner. In the early phases of learning, familiarity and memory support fluent playing. Repeated exposure to the elements of music through engaging activities and a carefully selected repertoire of pieces are key to developing familiarity and memory.


Teachers may feel pressure, either from parents, school band programs, or the students themselves, to advance students quickly onto increasingly difficult repertoire. However, easy pieces that can be played fluently are very important for students to internalise the “feel” of fluent playing, and to build awareness of what the learning goal is: that is, to be able to play each piece fluently and expressively. Children also find it enjoyable to play fluently, and this builds confidence and a sense of self as a musician.


Manageable challenges


Interesting activities invite children to attempt the challenges of initial learning, and new challenges should be manageable. Challenges that can be managed with some (not too much) effort, and guidance from others (teachers/parents), provide opportunities for developing problem solving strategies and persistence. As children master the many small steps in learning the skills of music literacy and performance, the accumulation of success experiences music builds a growing sense of competence.


From overcoming manageable challenges children gain a sense of genuine success and control over their own progress, and this maintains motivation. However, when challenges are too many or too great, children can easily become frustrated, discouraged, lack enjoyment, and are unlikely to play their instrument for pleasure outside of their lesson.


“Practice”


Learning is consolidated when children “re-visit” key ideas. This includes re-visiting known material in subsequent lessons, and also in “practice” at home. The most effective practice is “small and often” with an emphasis on enjoyment and sharing with others.


For young children, negotiation of short and enjoyable practice sessions between lessons gradually builds a routine of home practice that supports learning progress. By showing interest in what they are learning, listening to their children play, and by providing encouragement parents can support learning and promote a positive attitude in their children.

Children are encouraged when the significant adults in their lives show interest in their learning activities, acknowledge challenges and recognize small steps towards mastery. Encouragement and recognition of achievement, rather than over-emphasis on correction of errors, are important for maintaining motivation and effort. Motivation is promoted by adult acknowledgement of children’s efforts and the success achieved through effort.


Typically, young children are learners with many ideas and a great deal of interest. While they may be inexperienced, they are willing to try new things and like to engage in and learn through doing things. Teachers can make the “learning journey” of learning to play an instrument one of the exciting experiences of childhood.


By observing children and recognising which phase a child is at in her/his learning journey, teachers can adapt lessons to support and promote ongoing learning progress. Teachers can plan the “next step” in a child’s learning journey. They can pinpoint challenges, help students overcome them, and they can choose compositions that provide the appropriate balance of familiarity and challenge to build automaticity and promote ongoing improvement in literacy.




For further reading:


Choksey, L. (2001). Teaching music in the twenty-first century. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice_Hall.


Cogdill, S. (2014). Applying Research in Motivation and Learning to Music Education: What the Experts Say. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, pp. 1-9. National Association for Music Education. Available from: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.1009.3786&rep=rep1&type=pdf


Flohr, J. (2010). Best Practices for Young Children’s Music Education: Guidance From Brain Research. General Music Today 23 (2) 2010. Available from: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.926.3347&rep=rep1&type=pdf


Smithrin, K. & Upitis, R. Eds.) (2007). Listen to their voices: Research and practice in early childhood music. Toronto: Canadian Music Educators Association.


Many thanks to Beverley Broughton, lecturer in Child development and learning at University of Queensland for information about early childhood development and education.

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