Let’s Make Music (forget reading it for now)!

Perhaps because we, in our western ‘classical’ culture, tend to regard instrumentalists primarily as interpreters of other people’s (composers) ideas, learning to read music has become ‘part and parcel’ of the process of learning to play an instrument. Often from the first lesson, letter names, note values and fingerings are taught alongside technical matters such as hand position and/or grasp of the instrument, embouchure, breathing, fingering… the list goes on.


To so many music teachers, it seems blindingly obvious that if you want to play an instrument you are going to need to learn to read music. As the director of an instrumental music teaching service, I interviewed hundreds of teachers over the course of eight or nine years. One of my regular questions in these interviews, with a view to gaining an understanding of how the prospective teacher aimed to motivate his/her new students, was about their objectives for the very first lesson.  Most, and by that I mean 80% or more, said – and note the words carefully – “well, obviously, to get them reading music”! Obviously.

More on this and all aspects of instrumental teaching


This really set me thinking. It set me thinking because all I had to do was think back to my first piano lesson at the age of 8, my first guitar lesson at the age of nine and then, my first brass lesson at the age of 11! Only in the last did I feel as though I had achieved something remotely musical, so I didn’t give up!

But I mustn’t be too unfair: in both my piano and my guitar lessons, I learned that ‘Every Green Bus Drives Fast’!

 Let us think about the claim that reading music is an essential component of musical success – in its performance or its creation. Would the majority of the guitarists or drummers in our most popular rock bands agree that the first thing a beginner needs to do is to learn to read music?  Would the thousands of jazz celebrities who improvise their music or the blind singer/pianist Stevie Wonder agree and what would Ravi Shankar,, the celebrated Indian sitar virtuoso, have had to say?

The problem is that many music teachers are ‘classically’ trained and so tend to regard anything that is not notated, as opposed to much popular and jazz music that is not, as unworthy of consideration.   The people who hold that view are entitled to hold it of course, but I think they would do well to stop and ask some searching questions about the supposed necessity for reading music in the early stages of instrumental playing, and to weigh the perceived advantages against the possible disadvantages, in terms of instrumental skill development and musicianship, of introducing it too soon.

Musical literacy has come to be regarded as important because it allows composers to encode their musical creations in such a way as to enable their repeated and consistent realisation.  As western music developed, musical notation also evolved into a highly sophisticated symbolic system by means of which composers were able to specify their intentions as to how their music should be played with increasing degrees of precision. Because of the resulting complexity of this code and, consequently, the commitment of time required for its mastery, it has tended to remain generally incomprehensible: laymen often regard the deciphering of the elaborate, though often beautiful and beguiling, hieroglyphics as completely beyond them. On the other hand, there are countless highly successful musicians, working today, who do not use, and never have used, notation. If we were to list them, the list would include many highly respected – even celebrated – performers from the fields of Rock & Pop, Jazz, and Folk and Ethnic music. Likewise, there have, throughout history, been innumerable musicians, accepted as masters of their art, who have, at no time, had occasion to read or write music.

From a historical perspective, music, as an essential component of many kinds of social or ceremonial activity, can be traced back thousands of years to ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians or the Aztecs. What little we know of this music comes perhaps from contemporary writings or illustrations rather than from notated music. Musical ‘literacy’ is then, a relatively isolated phenomenon in terms of both history and locality.  It is more or less confined to western societies over the last millennium or so.  Taking rock and pop music plus the music of non-western cultures, it is probably true to say that even today there is more music that is improvised or transmitted via aural tradition than there is notated. Looked at from this point of view, it might begin to seem rather curious that by far the most widely accepted approaches to instrumental music teaching in present-day western societies are so tightly bound to the practice of reading notation.

Efed up musicxpecting beginners to learn notation alongside the basics of their instrumental technique can, in fact, impede musical progress. Most people who take up musical instruments do so because they want to play them, not because they want to learn them.  This may seem obvious, but the distinction is important: the desire to make music is uppermost. So the insistence on learning letter names and note values before being able to do anything which feels like actually playing music is not going to help their motivation either – quite the opposite is likely.  Even if their motivation survives, a conspicuous barrier to fluency and expression will have been formed if the accurate reading of notation takes precedence over the production of truly musical results, i.e. those that embody awareness and sensitivity.

More on this and all aspects of instrumental teaching


15 thoughts on “Let’s Make Music (forget reading it for now)!

  1. Thanks for the post and the interesting ideas. I’ve been slowly working on a paper that makes a related claim, that we need to develop conceptions and pedagogy that prize music education disconnected from standard Western Notation. Too often right now approaches that ignore notation are second class in the curriculum. From DJs and those who make beats, to ukulele sing-along events, to blues and jazz jams, there are so many vibrant approaches all around us to celebrate, and posts like yours help to move the profession forward—thanks again!

    Matt (matthewthibeault.com)


  2. As an author of early childhood music education material, I totally agree with your article. My work revolves around children from 3 years old to about 10. Student’s enthusiasm can easily be squashed by a teacher demanding music literacy and technical perfection. I endeavor to introduce visual symbols incrementally so that a child is never faced with notation he does not understand. For example, I have several exercises dealing with the very situation you mentioned, stem direction. These are discussed and explored before the child would ever see them in written music. The early notation I use would not be recognizable as music but it works because it is based on symbols and characters young children can interpret.

    Inspiring the children to creation is my goal. Its the whole point of learning an instrument isn’t it? Music symbols are only necessary to record composition. Music is art not regurgitation.

    I could go on and on but that’s enough here. I’m posting a series of music composition lesson plans on my blog the next couple of months if anyone is interested. My work is sort of “Sesame Street on the keyboard” aimed at the same demographic.

    Thank you for your article.


    • Thanks for the feedback Karri. I absolutely agree about children’s enthusiasm being squashed by being overloaded in the very earliest stages. I would go so far as to say that our primary goal with young players just starting out is simply to keep them playing! None of the debate about when we start on musical literacy counts for anything of they give up, as many do, because it is ‘too hard’. I will be taking a look at your blog since you describe some very interesting ideas. In the meantime you might like to look at my other article here which suggests a few ‘ways in’ to exploring notation Demonstration, Imitation, Improvisation, then Notation!

      Thanks again for your comments.


  3. Another way of looking at this is to do what the Hungarian composer and educator Kodaly advocated: get children singing from the very beginning; then when kids have a big repertoire of songs, including many very simple songs, introduce aspects of notation e.g. simple pitch differences shown in relation to one or two lines, to differentiate between two simple songs. I do this with large felt notes on a felt board; kids have their own felt notes on their own felt board. We invent simple melodies to any words, and push our felt notes around to show what we have invented. Then in a different lesson we play percussion or make body percussion while looking at very simplified rhythmic stick notation for various configurations of tas, ti tis and sas (crotchets, quavers and crotchet rests, or quarter notes, eighth notes and quarter note rests) – stem direction can be discussed at this point, very early! Kids can happily read these simple rhythms, and clap or tap an ostinato while singing a known song. We make rhythm cards, about the size of playing cards, and put them on the floor, or on two desks pushed together, and play all sorts of games with rhythm recognition and rhythm invention. After a few months of these sorts of reading being applied to known simple songs, the two aspects of notation can come together (the rhythm cards can be placed above the felt notes on a stave, and kids will say, “Wow! I’m reading real music!” After about two years of lots of singing from this sort of notation, and creating our own songs and notating them, any instrument can then be approached – and the instrumental teacher will be very happy that he/she can focus on making good sounds, as the reading isn’t an issue.


  4. Would anyone advocate for teaching newborns to read the words “Mama” & “Dada” while learning to make the sounds? I didn’t think so. Music learning & language learning share interesting parallels that must be regarded in order to avoid hindering our students’ acquisition of skills. Keep up the good work!


  5. I think your article really brings up some important points in teaching music. I have been teaching elementary music for 27 years, and finally came to some of the same conclusions while teaching recorder. I am an Orff trained teacher, so much of what I taught was based on listening, and patterns. NOTHING written as far as harmonies were concerned. Yes, rhythms. But it took so long to teach the 3rd – 5th graders to play AND read the music, that I finally made a decision to focus on making music, and not so much emphasis on knowing what line was what letter. I gave them the actual music, but wrote the letters under each note to help them play the song faster. It worked. And the end result was that they could read music by the end of 5th grade. I am a classically trained musician, so reading is very important to me. At my grade levels of teaching, though, reading the letters was less important than actually learning how to play the songs. I feel that the kids need to love making music, and if they are really interested in middle school, the rest will come if they choose to get into band or orchestra. I wish I would have had more experiences and learning opportunities just improvising when I was a child. I am so stuck on reading the notes, that improvising can be really challenging for me.


  6. Sound comes first. And thus, in my humble opinion, snging or making sounds on an instrument should precede learning notation. Only then can a child know what all of those litle marks on paper are really about. Age should be one criterion: a 3-yr old is quite diffrerent from an 8-yr old. The older the greater need for matchng sounds with notation.


  7. I teach flute to a young person-part of our lesson is spent learning fingerings and reading notes, and then we have a time of making up little “songs”….part of her assignment this week is to compose something and play it for me next week…she is excited…I think that making music is a combination of learning notes and having fun with our instruments.


  8. Very interesting blog and I, too, have learnt much from the principles in George Odam’s excellent book and have continually returned to it over the years.

    In my experience, across 3 decades of teaching children and adults to play and sing, sound before symbol has always worked best for me and for my pupils. By that, I mean that experiencing the music before trying to tackle abstract concepts of how to represent or communicate it, seems to increase understanding, the rate of learning and the fluency in performance by my students.

    While I have sympathy with those who suggest that musical literacy is not so important (having learnt entirely by ear for the first 5 years of learning to play, myself) my own view is that, ethically, it is not my choice to make.

    I’ve learnt that if I can equip my students with a broad enough range of skills, it empowers THEM, not me, to make the decision about what they may or may not be able to do, musically. By not teaching notation, I may be able to speed pupils through whatever curriculum I may devise for them, but it may leave them wanting later in life, should they want or need to play from or even communicate by writing their own music in traditional notation.

    So I took the decision, some time ago, that, instead, I would find fun and effective ways to teach notation, usually shortly after learning a piece of music by ear. By making sure the gap between by-ear learning and encountering the notation is not too long, it also overcomes the problem where pupils play at an advanced level by ear but sound like a beginner when playing from notation.

    Pupils then at least have the choice as to whether they work with notation or not.


  9. This was an interesting conversation I thought worth sharing on a blog a long time ago.
    Please respond if you’d like.

    I respond after each “++.”

    Someone tweeted:
    Music lesson Plan “Naming Notes” worksheets “If they can’t name notes then they can’t build scales and chords” #mused

    ++[Seeing this tweet prompted me to respond right away—essentially because I hold off teaching theory such as lines/spaces and durations (quarter/half/whole, etc.)—until I can’t go any further without it. Which is pretty far. Dare I say, sometimes further than many music teachers can go musically. It’s true. What are the changes to Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack?]

    ++@musicteachstuff But a 2 y/o child can speak well but can’t tell you how to spell. Theory, intervals and note naming is overrated and needs to come later. #musiced

    @rizzrazz I agree that you don’t need theory to enjoy and create music but you do need theory to understand it? 😉

    ++@musicteachstuff That’s exactly what I’m not saying. A very young child doesn’t necessarily understand the alphabet, but does understand his language. Art Tatum may not have known theory. I know Erroll Garner never read music and was self taught to improvise at a stellar level.

    @rizzrazz So are you saying that children should not be encouraged learn to speak at a more advanced level that when they were 2 years old?

    ++@musicteachstuff That is silly to say. I’m saying that knowing the alphabet doesn’t increase vocabulary or understanding.

    Someone else:
    Understanding theory doesn’t help you understand the meaning of music, the Melos. Music theory is important for composers, not listeners.

    @rizzrazz I would tend to disagree but I think that curiosity is way more important than knowledge? Music theory is not “rules” but options?

    ++@musicteachstuff Music Theory is a way of explaining *in language* what works and doesn’t work in music. “Rules” are always broken. Ear is more important than everything.

    @rizzrazz Music theory is a framework that we can adhere to or disregard at will. It’s just a way of helping us to understand if req’d?

    @musicteachstuff The best I can say is through the kids. No theory involved here.


    @rizzrazz @craigdab Just because good things can happen without theory surely does not mean that good things can only happen without theory?

    ++@musicteachstuff Totally agree with you, with the caveat that audiation is coupled with it. @craigdab #seethelasthashtag?

    @rizzrazz @craigdab Seems fair to me!:) Goodnight folks!

    ++@musicteachstuff Goodnight and thanks for the shop talk. Love it.


  10. Hi and thanks, Robert.

    My reply just above was not a direct response to the blogpost, but rather was intended to frame the conversation from my experience regarding music theory (which tends to be notationally based) and understanding music by ear (audiation, and can include notational audiation).

    Regarding a response to your post:
    I do believe in much of what you stated in your post—certainly its premise. The alphabet is not a way to have beginning speakers (babies to toddlers) best learn their language. There are many parallels to language development, just music is such a small proportion of the experiences most children are acculturated in relative to music. I think you strike a great chord—one that needs to be considered by those who teach lines and spaces, and note durations, from the get-go. It’s a serious problem institutionalized in much music education. We assume that because we could learn that way, that others will too. It’s sad to me that only a few of us musicians of average or above ability can jump the “code-deciphering hurdle.” This is NOT the way to music literacy for many fine musicians.


  11. Music is first and foremost a form of spontaneous expression of the heart . Therefore I think it is very important to let the student discover and feel an instrument through its timbre and tone and then prepare him to express himself spontaneously through the instrument. He should be given enough time to find joy in the learning and playing of an instrument as this process can bring out the hidden talents or the genius in him . Theory has its importance and one should know when to add it in the process of learning ; theory doesn’t necessarily make you a better musician but enriches your understanding of its movements .


  12. Pardon my questions–I’m a young music teacher, and I don’t mean to be contrary. I’m not posing these questions in disagreement, I just want some more information. My initial reaction is to worry that if reading notation is delayed too long, that it will be difficult to ever truly learn it. I also teach early childhood music classes to kids under 5, and of course I don’t introduce notation to them, but I imagine that if a 6, 7, or 8 year old were taught by ear, by rote, and by improv for too long without introducing notation, they might rely on those skills so much throughout their musical lives that they’ll never truly have the same depth of understanding of notation as a child for whom notation was included in their learning process from the very beginning. Of course, this is pure speculation, so if there’s research (or lived experience) that contradicts me, I’m totally open to it. A good ear is priceless, of course, but I worry it would become a crutch, and hinder their sightreading down the line. I also wonder if the comparison to language is really all that useful, since most kids start speaking (albeit in fragments) within their first year or two, but most kids don’t start formal music-making until they’re at least 5, usually older. I’m all about play-based, informal, non-notated music making for young children. But first graders and second graders are already (relatively) adept at reading written language–why shouldn’t they also learn to read musical notation? (Again, these are genuine questions asked in good faith, not disagreements.)


  13. Speaking as a ‘non-trained’ musician I would like to thank you for a very interesting article.

    I wholly agree with the view that the ability to read notation enhances a musician’s musical experience, but the enjoyment to be found in playing music should not be totally dependant on being able to read the dots. As a ten-year-old I taught myself the basics of how to read music (Middle C up to top A) from simple recorder tutor books, but after getting bored with the books I discovered that I could pick out simple popular tunes of the day myself on the recorder (Z-Cars being a favourite!). A friend’s piano then provided me with a different experience in the tune-picking-out stakes, and I still recall the pleasure I felt when I worked out which keys made up a tune. Yes, this was only single-note stuff, but the most important thing I learned was that playing music could be FUN, and I didn’t actually need to know the names of all the notes I was playing. As long as I could sing a tune I would try my utmost to pick it out. I even managed to play ‘Three Blind Mice’ on a cello, the only time I ever laid hands on one.

    Nowadays, with musical knowledge and sight-reading skills that have progressed very little from when I was ten, I show people – adults and children – how to play the hammered dulcimer, encouraging them to think of a tune, such as a nursery rhyme, and pick it out on the strings. No notation in sight. I can have a professed non-musician, or a child who has never played any instrument before, playing ‘Twinkle Twinkle’ inside 10 minutes (in different keys!), and the pleasure on their faces is a delight to behold. There was one child who went even further & began banging out ‘God Save the Queen’! I emphasise to them that the ability to read musical notation is not necessarily an essential requirement for beginning to learn an instrument. So the following statement is something that I obviously do not totally agree with:

    “Many teachers working with beginners regarding it as nothing short of essential to get their students pupils reading music as soon as possible. Sometimes they worry that if pupils learn tunes that they know by ear, they will be playing what they remember and not what is written – and that’s not good!”

    What is so wrong with playing ‘what they remember & not what is written’…? I feel that it is the teachers who might be the unconfident ones here. Yes, I agree that there are circumstances when it is necessary to play strictly according to notation, but beginners in particular need to feel a sense of pleasure and progress very early on in their learning, so surely the ability to play by ear is a skill that should be praised and encouraged! After all, it is a skill not possessed by many ‘trained’ musicians.

    In the folk/traditional music world I come across classically-trained musicians who go out of their way to take part in instrumental jam-sessions. And the main reason they take part in such sessions is to learn how to play by ear. Yes, such players could of course play all the tunes from written music, but in a jam session there is no written music at all, in fact some of the players there wouldn’t know a minim from a crotchet but can make their instruments sing!

    I would advocate teaching children ‘by ear’ from the start. Get them playing, from the word go, some good tunes on their instrument, then gradually begin to introduce theory and notation showing how it is relevant to what they are enjoying playing. And progress from there. After all, how many children have given up learning an instrument simply because the experience was not enjoyable…?


  14. Robert Lennon,
    thank You for the scientific article
    “Many instrumental music teachers insist on teaching students to read music from the very first lesson. Is this really such a good idea?”

    For beginners the exploring of notation as a generally accepted grammar
    may induce great difficulties in perception of music pattern, unwanted mental ,emotional strain
    and ,as a result , increasing of the possibility of appearance of negative attitude towards the teaching process.
    In reality it is good constructive concept.

    We would like to introduce for You the scientific research ” Reflection “. Our activity is mainly focused both on investigation of child’s neurophysiological peculiarities ( perception of the information from the sheet ,and syntheses of the perceived patterns , realization of the neuro motor function of hands on the keyboard of an instrument ) and on the development of the child’s IQ .
    Considering the Benefits of Digital Grammar in a Music Educational Program .

    Entire description on related research You can see at the websites :
    http://educationinjapan.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/considering-the-benefits-of-digital-music-grammar-in-a-music- educational-program/
    http://www.m-piremagazine.com/Sergey.html review by Joe Gentile


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