What are your favorite teaching aids for music reading?

Craig Sale

Craig Sale is the co-author of The Music Tree 3: Activities and The Music Tree 4: Activities (Summy-Brichard/Warner Bros.) and is an Educational Consultant for the Frances Clark Library for Piano Students. He has presented workshops for piano teachers throughout the upper midwest and served as panelist for MTNA’s "Pedagogy Saturday". He has written a course of theory study for intermediate students called Projects in Music Theory (Books 1-3) and has contributed articles for Keyboard Companion and Lutheran Education. He appears regularly as soloist and collaborative performer and frequently serves as adjudicator for various music teacher organizations. He is a member of Music Teachers National Association (MTNA), Illinois State Music Teachers Association (ISMTA), and Chicago Area Music Teachers Association (CAMTA).


Reading Editor, Craig Sale
Summer 2007, Vol. 18 #2


Whenever I visit the exhibit hall at MTNA and other music teacher conventions or browse through the advertisements in publications for teachers, I am always a bit overwhelmed at the number of teaching aids available. For me the bottom line is whether or not the product has pedagogical value, specifically in the teaching of music reading.

I asked three successful teachers to share their experiences with the use of teaching aids and was impressed with the range of responses. As you read the following articles by Rebekah Maxner, Stephen Reen, and Emily Parker you will discover that teaching aids can come from a variety of sources. They may be products currently on the market, they may be homemade, or they may use simple household items. In Rebekah Maxner’s case homemade products have evolved into products now available in the marketplace. For more information on these products, please visit www.notekidds.maxner.ca. Whatever the source, the aids chosen by these teachers meet specific needs in teaching music reading and help keep students motivated to become good music–readers.

Teaching aids provide a universal language of learning

by Rebekah Maxner

Rebekah Maxner is the author of the Notekidds Enriched Piano Program, a new method for beginners that combines group and private teaching. She has an independent piano studio in Hantsport, Nova Scotia and coordinates Notekidds through Acadia University’s community music school. Rebekah is an active lecturer and workshop clinician, and her compositions have been published in several collections of Canadian works. She lives in Hantsport with husband, Paul, and children Nathaniel (7) and Heidi (5)

When you want to develop better reading skills in your students, teaching aids are like tricks up your sleeve. Nothing can replace the fun and effectiveness of games, cards, and puzzles. Children connect with learning experiences that engage their senses in combination. Because each child processes information in a unique way, teaching aids provide a kind of universal language of learning that all children can understand. The ones that I will describe for you - Animal Alphabet Cards ©, Notes that Fly, Notes that Swim ©, and Puddles and Sticks © (Notekidds Enriched Piano Program by Rebekah Maxner) - connect the visual, auditory, and tactile senses. Each game is presented with an imaginative guise that compels children to learn and to remember, and each is specially designed to develop better readers.

Directional reading with the music alphabet

Arranging Letter Cards
Nathaniel and Hannah, Haruka and Julia arrange letter cards according to what they hear.

To learn the music alphabet, my beginners play a game with letter cards. In our group lesson I give each pair of students an envelope in which they find a shuffled deck of Animal Alphabet Cards, A to G, one letter per card. Together, each pair discovers the music alphabet by arranging their cards in order - A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Rather than telling them what the music alphabet is, they have the challenge of using a sense of logic to figure it out, then they tell me what it is.

In order to help build good reading skills, my students use the alphabet cards to learn the spatial relationship between letters and pitch. On the piano I play the white keys A to G ascending, and the children arrange the letters in alphabetical order, with each card placed higher than the last. Then I play G to A descending. The children figure out that as pitch goes down, the music alphabet goes backwards and each letter card looks lower than the last. Besides teaching them how to say the alphabet letters forwards and backwards, the visual impact of this activity helps students understand how to read by direction.

Musical Alphabet Movie Icon
Mpeg4 movie, 3.3MB.

Connecting the Grand Staff to high and low sounds

Using Notes That Fly
Rebekah Maxner watches Nathaniel use Notes That Fly.

When it is time to introduce the grand staff I use a poster called Notes that Fly, Notes that Swim. It has transformed the way my students learn to see, hear, and understand the grand staff. The poster creates a complete visual picture of sound that children can readily understand. The treble clef is the blue sky for high sounds, and the bass clef is the green sea for low sounds. A child who learns to see the grand staff as a gestalt, with lines and spaces divided high from low, is more likely to read with pitch perspective (read by sound) and avoid common note confusion between clefs.

The following piece illustrates this concept

One way to use the poster is sideways on the piano bench, so the sky and sea line up with high and low keys, the wave in line with Middle C. The student stands to the left side of the piano bench so he has a proper pitch perspective of the grand staff. One at a time the mobile notes are placed on the lines and spaces, and the student plays the matching keys on the piano.

Movement activity for reading skips

Puddles & Sticks Musical Alphabet
Students build the music alphabet with Puddles and Sticks.

Puddles and Sticks is a floor puzzle that teaches children how to read skips through movement. The teaching aid itself is a collection of large puzzle pieces (some look like puddles and some look like sticks), each one with a music letter on the front. As a group, students are challenged to build the music alphabet, alternating sticks and puddles. When fully assembled on the floor it looks like a giant staff with the sticks representing lines and the puddles representing spaces. By standing on skipping letters children discover that skips go stick-to-stick or puddle-to-puddle. With this analogy in mind, it is much easier to read skips in music.

Puddles And Sticks Movie Icon
Mpeg4 movie, 3.3MB.

Pony Boy helps reinforce the reading of skips:

Students use Puddles and Sticks to learn about skips.

A child can develop confidence in the early stages of reading by associating something they already understand - a creative visual image - with something they are coming to understand-music notation. Teaching aids create these associations. Children like them because piano lessons suddenly feel more fun when colorful cards and floor puzzles come into play. A fun activity engages the child’s attention more effectively than a simple explanation or a page of theory. I use games and aids because of the pedagogy behind it all - students are curious by nature and a hands-on activity can awaken their innate sense of discovery.

For more information on the the kinds of products described above, please visit www.notekidds.maxner.ca.

It’s not what aids we use, but rather how we use them

by Stephen Reen

A winner of the 2001 MTNA Group Piano Teaching Award, Stephen Reen holds the D.Mus. in Piano Performance from Indiana University, and B.M. and M.M. degrees from SUNY at Buffalo. A member of the Early Childhood Music and Movement Committee for the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy, Dr. Reen has been a presenter for the MTNA National Conference, the NCKP, and the World Piano Pedagogy Conference. Founder and Director of the Columbus Academy of Music, Dr. Reen teaches early childhood music and movement classes and group piano to over 100 students throughout Southern Indiana and Ohio

Each of us must choose the pathway to music literacy that we are most comfortable teaching, and each of these pathways needs its own set of materials. I believe it’s not what aids we use, but rather how we use them, and in what order we introduce them. To use an exercise analogy: just as a barbell only makes your muscles stronger if you lift it properly, flash cards are only effective if used properly. We use barbells in different ways to strengthen different muscles. How many of us have barbells under the bed or sofa, collecting dust because we’re not comfortable using them? We must be comfortable using note-reading cards in a variety of ways. The aids that we use must be introduced in sequential order, not before the students are ready.

Audiation before reading

Since my approach is to teach the students to audiate before reading, I never label a sound that the children have not first experienced through singing and moving. Students are only shown the symbol for a sound if they can label what they hear using a tonal language (such as solfege) and a rhythm language. (For more information on audiation, visit The Gordon Institute for Music Learning website at www.giml.org. See “Learning Sequence Activities” under Music Learning Theory).

According to Suzuki, reading must be introduced after aural skills are developed. If we want our students to speak the language of music fluently, we must teach them to sight-sing the symbols before playing the keys. This can be accomplished by using a carefully sequenced pathway to music literacy, with age- and developmentally-appropriate accompanying materials.

Flashcards and other games

Rhythmic Notation Cards
Rhythmic Notation Cards from Music Makers: At the Keyboard, published by Musikgarten. Used by permission.

When my groups of children, usually age 4 or 5, can correctly identify tonal patterns using solfege and rhythm patterns using a rhythm language, I know they’re ready to see staff and rhythmic notation cards. I show the children two of the rhythmic patterns and ask them to correctly identify which pattern they heard, allowing the children to visually discriminate between the two (see Example 1). After students are able to chant longer patterns, I play a detective game. I tap a 2-4 measure pattern as they read, and ask them to find my mistake. Another game is to give the children several notation cards and ask them to put them in order as they listen.

Melodic Notation Cards
Melodic Notation Cards from Music Makers: At the Keyboard, published by Musikgarten. Used by permission.

I use 5 ropes on the floor to introduce the staff. We make a game out of jumping up and down the staff, to demonstrate tonal patterns such as “Do, mi, sol” (skipping), and “Do, re, mi, fa, sol” (walking). I sing the pattern and they “jump” it, then I jump a pattern and they sing it. Next, we play the game using paper plates to represent notes. When I introduce melodic flash cards (shown in Example 2), I sing one of the patterns using the neutral syllable “bam”. The children echo using solfege and identify which card they heard. Later, melodic dictation can be done on clefless staves (I use a dry erase board) with the first note given on the third line, allowing space for the melody to go up or down.

Group Solfege Singing Movie Icon
Flash Video, 1.2MB.
Rhythm Flashcards Movie Icon
Flash Video, 2.2MB.
Solfege Listening Movie Icon
Flash Video, 1.45MB.

When the children have built a large repertoire of patterns (both tonal and rhythmic) which they can read, sing, play, and improvise, we begin to memorize the letter names of the staff. I prefer the “Middle C-outward” approach. To accomplish this, I use flashcards in class and a computer game at home. I found a free game called Notecard, which students can download from http://www.familygames.com/freelane.html. Notecard begins with Middle C and adds one note per level. This game is reinforced in class with flashcards. First, the students quickly name only two cards: C and D. Then we add E, and so on. Next, the students play the flashcards on the piano. When they can quickly identify two octaves of notes, I use a stopwatch to time each student playing 16 cards. This friendly competition in class creates a desire to practice the game at home.

When students have been prepared aurally by singing solfege and chanting rhythms, they will understand what they read. I believe that the teaching aids I use have value because they truly represent sound. When students know what the symbols will sound like, they become more fluent and versatile musicians.

Teaching reading can be slow and frustrating for some students

by Emily Parker

Emily Parker teaches piano at the Preparatory and Community Piano Program at Concordia University Chicago and at the Northwestern Music Academy. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Missouri-Columbia. She enjoys working with students of all ages.

Knowing how to read is considered one of the most critical skills for success in our society. Accordingly, knowing how to read music is a fundamental skill for most successful musicians. By helping students decipher notation, teachers provide an invaluable tool towards musical independence. Unfortunately, teaching reading can be slow and frustrating for some students. In order to keep learning fun and enticing, I use several reading-centered activities, especially in group lessons. The following are teaching aids and activities that I have found to be successful and enjoyable for students.


A Wrap-Up ©, by Learning Wrap-Ups, Inc., is a piece of plastic with questions on the left and answers on the right. Students wrap a string around the plastic connecting questions to answers. Students check their answers by turning over the Wrap-Up to see if the string lines up with the answer key (shown with raised plastic lines) on the back. Topics include identifying keys, notes, and intervals and chord building. Each student works at his or her own pace.

When I first brought Wrap-Ups to a group class, I was unsure how they would be received. I was pleasantly surprised to find that students who otherwise are unsure responded very positively. I have since used them several times. While they can be challenging, students have a great sense of accomplishment after completing them.


I frequently create Tic-Tac-Toe games to reinforce rhythm and sight-reading. Mostly, I use flashcards and resources already available. My favorites include Hal Leonard’s Music Flash Cards and Alfred’s Piano Camp series by June C. Montgomery. The rhythms on the flashcards use a wide range of rhythmic values. The Piano Camp books include short sight-reading examples. I appreciate that pre-reading examples are included so that students become accustomed to sight-reading from the beginning. By cutting and pasting these examples onto index cards, I create the questions for my Tic-Tac-Toe game. Students are divided into two groups. Each group takes turns trying to correctly play the examples in order to get three in a row.


One of my colleagues introduced me to this simple, wonderful game. In this game paper “questions” are taped to the underside of canning lids. These canning lid “fish” are spread out, paper-side down. The children sit in a circle and use a child-size fishing pole with a magnet attached as a “hook”. Each student waves the fishing pole above the fish until the magnet “catches” one. The student must answer the question on the paper in order to keep the fish. For beginners, questions can be as simple as note identification. Students can then find the note on the keyboard. As students get more advanced, they could be asked to name the note a second above the one named on the fish. Later, the challenge may be to play specific pentascales or to describe certain key signatures. While the Fishing Game is usually used with young students, older students may ask for it. Simply adjust the questions to make it appropriate and applicable.

The Fishing Game Movie Icon
Mpeg4 movie, 8MB.

Music Twister

Music Twister
Playing Music Twister.

I don’t have nice floors in my studio, so I feel comfortable using masking tape on them to create a giant staff. I make sure the lines of the staff are spaced widely apart to allow enough room for students’ hands or feet. No clef is necessary. Landmark notes can be designated with a large paper note. I create paper slips with each interval or note name that will be included in the game. I draw slips one at a time which direct students to move their hands or feet to the various places on the floor staff. Students whose elbows or knees touch the floor are eliminated from the game. Those that are eliminated can be kept involved by watching to make sure the remaining students move to the correct position without falling.

This game can get chaotic, but it’s a fun way to assess students’ understanding of intervals and notes. I have students that ask for Twister at every group lesson.

Go Fish

One of the most versatile resources I’ve found is a set of Crazy 8ths © cards by TKDesigns. Each box has 56 musical notation cards. There are three of each type of card, e.g. there are three Middle C’s. One is green, one is red, and the last is blue. In Go Fish, students ask others for cards in order to complete a set. The student with the most sets of notes at the end wins. Crazy 8ths cards can be used for other games like Crazy Eights, Old Maid, and several solitaire games. Each game is explained inside the box.

Many of these activities and resources may be familiar; others may be new. I hope that by exploring these options, other teachers will find effective ways to engage students in learning to read music.

In the next issue:  How does experience before definition apply to your teaching of reading concepts?

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