Tuesday, 18 March 2014

You need to learn the note names now. No really.

If you have been learning piano for a few years and you still have no idea where two D’s above middle C is on all those lines and spaces you’re not alone.  Learning the names of all of the lines and spaces can seem like an overwhelming task and lots of people hope they can somehow learn piano without ever learning the note names. They get other people to show them how to play their pieces, use mnemonics, convince themselves they'd rather "play by ear", write in the note names, or count up lines and spaces rather than learning the name of each individual line and space. 

It is impossible to fluently read music beyond easy pieces that stay in a five finger position if you can’t instantly recognise the notes individually, and if you can't do that then you are preventing yourself from ever gaining independent access to the many, many, many pieces you know you would love to be able to read.  

As a piano teacher it is really sad to see people cheat themselves in this way.  They could be enjoying much greater success at piano with far more ease, and suffering a lot less frustration if they’d just put 2-3 minutes a day into getting the names of the notes into their long term memory. 

Committing the note names securely to memory won’t happen without short, consistent bursts of effort over a long period of time, so don’t put it in the too hard basket if you don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere after only a few days or weeks.  Expect it to take at least a year (which is nothing compared to a lifetime of being able to read music).  Keep putting in that 2-3 minutes a day and eventually your note recognition will become automatic and effortless, which is what you’re aiming for.

Mnemonics – drop those training wheels right now

Mnemonics are memory tricks you use to help remember information, and a common mnemonic used in learning how to read music is to memorise sentences where the first letter of each word is the names of the lines and spaces in order from bottom to top.  “All Cows Eat Grass” or “Good Boys Deserve Ferraris Always” are common examples.   This is okay to help you work out where to put your fingers in your first few months of learning piano, but these sentences are not going to help you in the long run.  You aren’t going to sight read very smoothly if you have to go “Every-Good-Boy-Deserves….Deserves!  D!” every time there is a jump to a new note.  

Mnemonic sentences are like training wheels on a bike.  When you first start to ride a bike you have a lot of new skills to concentrate on – you are learning a new gross motor skill with your body, you have to steer, you have to work out how to get the pedals to go around in circles, and you need to be able to brake safely.  Training wheels take away the need to also balance the bike so that you can concentrate fully on learning how to do those other things.  Once you can do everything but balance the bike yourself, the training wheels are taken off.  If you saw an adult riding around the streets with training wheels on their bike you’d think it was a bit odd.

Mnemonic sentences to help with note names aren’t meant to be used forever either.  They are only meant to be used while you are learning finger numbers, how to sit at the piano, how to move your fingers independently and with the right hand shape etc.  If you keep using them beyond your first primer book instead of learning the note names they will hinder your progress significantly.  In fact, there is even an experiment that proves that it is slower to use mnemonics then to just work out the note by using a note you already know and then stepping up the lines and spaces to the note you don’t know.  You can read about that here.

There are fewer notes to learn than you think.

You should be able to name all of the notes from 2 ledger lines below the stave to 2 ledger lines above the stave by the end of your first two years of piano lessons.  It looks daunting I know, but it’s less than one a week for a year. 

While there are 88 keys on the piano, you really only need to learn 32 notes names to get all the way through to the highest grades on the piano.  36 of the 88 notes are black notes, which are represented with a symbol (a sharp or flat sign) in front of a note rather than their own line or space, and the notes at the extremes of the piano a) aren’t used as often as the keys in the middle three registers and b) are usually written on the page within the 32 notes I’m suggesting you learn, and then have an 8va or a 15ma symbol to tell you to play one or two octaves higher or lower.

But it will still take some time.

It will take a while for the notes to find their way from your short term memory into your long term memory so don’t panic if after a few weeks you have only learnt one or two new notes.   Keep drilling them and they will eventually stick to the point of you not needing to strain your brain to name the note.  You need to get to the same level of instant recall that you have with the alphabet.  You look at a “b” and can instantly say what it is without needing any clues, and that’s how firmly ingrained into your memory the names of the lines and spaces need to be.

Don’t psych yourself out by trying to learn too many at once.  This is not something you can accomplish in a few days or even weeks.  Expect it to take at least a year to build up your bank of notes that you can instantly recognise.  Attack it in manageable chunks, adding 3-5 new notes a week, and drill yourself on them at least 5 days a week.  Put your learning materials somewhere where you normally spend time waiting around, and use that time to learn the notes. Some ideas are in the car to use while you’re driving to and from school or waiting for your sisters dance class to finish, on the back of the bathroom door, on the coffee table to use in between ads while you’re watching television, in your school pencil case, near the spot where you eat your breakfast, as a note in your phone etc.

It will be easier to get into the habit of working on this if you do it at the same time each day, preferably early in the day before you get distracted with other things.  Work out a time that is best for you and do it.   Place a reminder alarm in your phone, a note on the fridge, or ask someone you live with to remind you.   You only need to work on it for 2 or 3 minutes every day to make a huge difference to how much you enjoy and succeed at learning the piano.  It’s worth it!

Getting started – some ideas for how to start working those notes into your memory.

 Flashcards are a good start, especially if you are a visual learner.  You can use flashcards to drill yourself over and over.  Make them yourself, or buy a set of Piano Adventures Flashcards-In-A-Box.    It is important to memorise not only the name of the note, but where it is on the piano.  Try to match up the note on the card to the key on the piano.  Use middle C as a guide to work out what octave the note is in.

Once you understand that when notes move from a line to space (to a line to a space to a line to a space...) they are moving by a step on the piano, you can step up or down from the notes you know to work out the notes you don't know.  For this reason it's a good idea to start out with 3-5 guide notes that are far apart from each other so that you don't ever have to do very many steps from the note you know to work out a note name.  

Some good notes to start with are all of the Cs from two ledger lines below the bass stave to two ledger lines above the treble stave, G on the 2nd line of the treble clef, and F on the 4th line of the bass clef.  The C's are easy to remember because they are symmetrically placed on the grand staff, G is easy to remember because it goes through the circle of the treble clef, also known as the G clef, and F is easy to remember because the F line goes through the middle of the two dots of the bass clef, also known as the F clef.     

If you’re an aural learner you might memorise faster by describing out loud where the position of the note is on the staff i.e. “the space note under the first line of the treble clef is D” or “the third space of the bass clef is E.”  Get someone to quiz you.  They don’t need to understand music – just explain the line and space numbers and give them flashcards so they have the answers, and away you go.

If you are a kinesthetic learner you may prefer writing the note names down.  There are a couple of ways you can do this.   If you would prefer to methodically work through a book you can use a notespeller.  These are available for different ages and levels, and drill the information in a worksheet format.  If you would rather work out at your own speed, you can write them on manuscript paper, or if you would rather not churn through loads of paper I highly recommend buying a small grand staff whiteboard.  These are wonderful for working on other music theory later down the track like intervals, scales, arpeggios, chords, key signatures, time signatures etc without wasting a lot of paper.  All you need to replace is whiteboard markers.   

Another method for learning the note names that is good for kinesthetic learners is by playing games on a computer, mobile phone or iPad.  You can download Staff Wars onto your computer for free here.  It allows you to choose the range of notes you include in the game, and whether to play with treble, bass or alto clef.  If you can touch type, play using the keyboard rather than the mouse.  It’s much easier.

Apps I would recommend for improving sight reading skills are “NoteWorks” and “my note games”.

If you don't have a device you can play games on you can still turn learning the note names into a competitive game against yourself.  Time how long it takes you to correctly name the flashcards you're working on, and keep a record of how many seconds or minutes it takes.  Keep trying to beat your record.

Once you start to learn a few notes, attempt to teach someone else.  Trying to explain the position of the notes will solidify your own knowledge.  Remember these pointers in your demonstration.  You could even read it like a script as you point to or draw what you are talking about:

1.      The treble stave and bass stave each have 5 lines and 4 spaces, numbered from bottom to top, and together they are called the grand staff.

2.  Usually the left hand plays notes written on the bass stave and the right hand plays notes written on the treble stave.

3.  The treble clef is sometimes called the G clef, and the G line runs right through the middle of the circle of the treble clef.

4.  The bass clef is sometimes called the F clef (which rhymes - easy to remember!)  and the F line runs between the two dots of the F clef.

5.  Small lines called ledger lines are used to notate lines above or below the lines and spaces of the grand staff.  Middle C is one ledger line below the treble stave, and one ledger line above the bass stave.  Even though it can be written in two different places it is exactly the same note on the piano.

6.  There are only 7 letters in the musical alphabet – A,B,C,D,E,F,G .  Stepping up the piano, once you reach G the musical alphabet starts over again at A.

7.  Notes with lines through the middle are called line notes, and notes without a line through the middle are called space notes.  Moving from a line note to the very next space note is one step on the piano, and one letter name up or down.

8.  All the Cs are symmetrical.  Two ledger lines below the bass clef and two ledger lines above the treble clef, two spaces from the bottom two spaces from the top, and middle C is one line above the bass stave and one line below the treble stave.

9.  The first letter of the musical alphabet - A,  is the top line of the bass clef and the bottom line of the bass clef is the last letter of the musical alphabet - G.

10.  The notes in the bass clef are one skip below where they are in the treble clef.

Mix it up to keep your mind active and to challenge your brain in different ways, and hopefully you will start to see results that make learning the piano easier and more enjoyable for both you and your teacher!


  1. Thanks a lot for all the good advice, I've got to really get to it. ;)

  2. Yes! The sooner you start the closer you'll be to nailing them. Update me on your progress :)