A Holistic Approach to Reading Music

A Holistic Approach to Reading Music


An expert guest post from Musical U’s Andrew Bishko looking at reading music. 

Reading Music

How did you learn to talk? What, no book?! Yet all too often, music education starts with reading music rather than playing music.

And speaking of reading, how did you learn to read? Simply by looking at letters on a page? In every educational system I’ve heard of, learning how to read goes hand-in-hand with learning how to write – in fact, children can often write the alphabet well before they can read with any fluency.

Music? Very rarely do we expect our students to write a note.

Oh sure, there’s always the trace-the-quarter note exercise on page 12, and maybe even a fun step-by-step on page 22 for drawing the treble clef. But once we’re rolling through the method books, the pencil busies itself with circling this repeat sign or that piano marking – or writing slow down in giant letters, or today’s date on the page… No time to bother with actually writing musical notes.

The Creative Loophole

Then here comes we creative piano teachers. We’re hip to the language metaphor. We have our students improvising, chording, playing by ear. But do we really want to spend their well-spent lesson dollars watching them struggle with stem direction?

Ok, at the risk of destroying my credibility in this blog, guilty as charged.

Well – not all the time! Maybe less guilty than some. (I hope!)

I’ve found that some students actually (gasp!) thrive with the more ‘old school’ method. For them, I can go by the book and reserve my creative ‘interventions’ for other issues. But there are many others…

So why read music?

Many of us first-generation creative piano teachers began with the traditional method-book learning, and then discovered for ourselves that there was a whole world out there of playing by ear, chording, and improvising.

But just like reading a language, reading music opens up worlds of beauty for us to enjoy and communicate. So let’s break down this complex task and see what we can add to the process to make it more effective, creative, and fun.

Active and Receptive

Much in life can be looked at as an interplay between these two modes of experience. Looking at active and receptive principles of the music reading process can provide an important clue for better teaching:

Receptive and Active principles of music reading

The way we usually do music reading is pretty much a one-way street. But what if there was a way to include active and receptive aspects all the way through? Wouldn’t that create the opportunity for a more whole learning experience?

Towards the end of this post, I’ll introduce an exercise that integrates composing, writing, reading, playing, and singing – which I have found to be extremely effective in helping students to master reading pitch (and, potentially, rhythm) very quickly.

Read more: The Piano Studio Growth Roadmap – Your Ticket to Teaching Success

Music Reading Components

Of course the two main components of music notation are rhythm and pitch. Of the two, rhythm is the more complex and difficult for our students to grasp. Then there are dynamics, articulation, tempo markings, repeats, etc.

I addressed important rhythm reading concepts and tips in 5 Ways to Help Your Students Master Rhythm. I touch upon rhythm briefly later on, but in this post, we’ll focus our attention on what’s supposed to be the ‘easy’ part of music reading: pitch.

The Music Reading Process

When we approach reading music as merely rhythm and pitch with a few other directives thrown in, we’re leaving a whole lot ‘up in our heads’. Remember, that stimulus from the page has to travel through our eyes into our brains, be processed into signals to our arms and fingers and produce sound which travels through the ears to then be reevaluated by the brain, which then suggests the next step to the body and so on.

In other words, the reading music is a whole body, whole brain, multisensory extravaganza.

If any of these parts of the process are less than complete, the whole of the music produced is deficient.

That’s why it’s important to observe how our students function in all areas of this process, and why focusing all the attention on the abstract concepts of intended pitch and rhythm symbolized by dots and squiggles on a page only tell a small part of the story.

Different students will require support and ‘smoothing’ of different parts of this process at different places in their development.

Let’s take a slightly more detailed look at reading music from a multi-sensory perspective.

Multi-sensory Music Reading

Our amazing music notation system has the ability to elegantly encode a tremendous amount of musical information in a variety of graphic symbols. These symbols are first encountered by the eyes.


When our major sources of information outside of our immediate environment came from reading, our eyes became well-trained in moving from left to right (in the case of most written languages) and returning to the left to begin a new line. Peripheral functions developed in a limited way to take in the words before and ahead for a more complete synthesis of the ideas and mind-pictures evoked by the text.

Today’s hyper-visual technology world has had a profound effect on how we assimilate information. Reading is just a small component of the time-released capsules of visual stimulation bombarding us from our multiple-screen world.

In a way, the screens often take control of the pace and timing of information being presented – unlike simply reading, where this pace is up to the reader.

While often we might be tempted to address a single interpretation of a specific symbol on a page when a student makes an error, often the problem is really the difficulty of tracking the information sequentially on the page from left to right and line to line.

Pro Tip: A simple bridge to teach students to take responsibility for visually tracking the notation is simply to move a pencil or pointer under or over the music as they play. Then practice taking the training wheels off, on, and off again until they’re ‘flying solo’.

Perhaps this is something you do as a matter of course, but I’ve found it very useful to keep the background to this technique in mind, so I can more quickly assess and act when needed.


Ok, we don’t normally consider of the brain as a sense organ, but as a place that processes sensory information. But let’s for a moment think of the brain as a ‘thought sensor’ – a little out there, I know, but it fits in the context of the process we are describing.

Once the symbols reach through the eyes to the brain, we first must begin to interpret them. Once we understand their meaning, we must then evaluate the call to action, and then direct our bodies to respond.

So next time we expect ourselves or our students to instantly match our wiggles to the squiggles, remember that – in the brain alone – this is at least a three-step process.

From speaking…

When reading language, we first learn to read out loud, which is directing our physical apparatus of vocal production to execute the actions required to produce the sounds symbolized on the page.

At first, our learning is phonetic, associating symbols with sound and the means to produce that sound. Eventually, we begin to recognize whole words and larger constructs. At first we read simple stories, but later use our skills to take in new mind-pictures that we’ve never experienced before.

…to piano playing

Remember now, the vocal apparatus evolved in conjunction with the brain for millions of years to express language. But only a tiny proportion of humanity throughout history has had the opportunity to spend time with a piano keyboard.

So when learning to read music, first we are much more focused on what the dots and squiggles are telling our fingers to do, rather then what, eventually, they’re going to sound like.


This difference highlights what I consider to be the most crucial hidden component of music reading – indeed, piano teaching in general – namely kinesthesis, what the actions we take with our bodies to produce the music feel like.

In How to Conquer and Make Complete Sense of Finger Numbers I wrote of the kinesthetic connection between the brain and the fingers. This, of course, is complicated by the whole right-hand/left-hand thing, finger numbers going in opposite directions.

Which translates in music reading to, ‘What is so darn difficult about the bass clef? Why can’t I get it to stick in my student’s brain?’

Palm Reading

So what does this have to do with music reading?

Our music notation system originated with the hand:

Guido d'Arezzo's Musical Hand

Before the keyboard, Guido of Arezzo taught his monks to associate sounds and symbols with their hands – when parchment and ink were rare and expensive. The hand analogue remains deeply embedded in our system, which benefits we piano players.

Yet it’s not always obvious.

Let’s look at one of the most popular mnemonics for learning pitch in the treble clef:

Every Good Bird Does Fly – or not…

What about emus? Ostriches? Kiwis?

I must confess, I feel a brief pang from the bottomless abyss of guilt each time one of these ‘flightless birds’ walks into my studio – week after week, month after month – and cannot even remember Every Good Bird Does Fly, or ‘the FACE in space’ for that matter.

For the earth-bound cassowaries of the world, there has got to be a better way.

At first, it baffled me that a student could learn one piece of music perfectly, then turn the page and not know what note to start on. Then I realized that most students rely much more on intervallic reading then on note reading.

It seems that the intervallic spaces on the staff are a closer corollary to the kinesthetic experience of fingers on the piano. A “G” on the staff, however, doesn’t look or “feel” like a G on the piano.

So we move on to that fabulous sense that we’ve all been waiting for…


It’s what music is all about, right? That’s why it’s so amazing to think about how far that simple circle on the second line of the bass-clef staff has to travel – through the eyes, brain, hands, instrument – before the ears can feast upon that rich low “B”.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our students could just look at the page and hear the music? Despite various attempts at more widespread sight-singing training, most of our students aren’t privy to that experience. And besides, they’ve come to us for piano lessons.

Pro Tip: Yet even a little on-the-spot sight-singing on a more rote level can do miracles for a difficult passage, and is very stimulating to the brain-part of the process, since our voices are infinitely more intimately connected to sound than our hands are.

It is quite possible to integrate ear training into your piano studio, and it will have a powerful effect on your students’ reading as well.

Eventually, many pianists begin to associate finger movements with sound patterns, and even seem to “hear” with their fingers. Maybe this is off topic, but here’s a tongue-in-cheek video about “air piano” and other weird things that we do:

Active and Receptive – revisited

Now that we’ve detailed the music reading process, how can we activate a higher and more effective learning for our students?

Let’s first of all see how we can balance active and receptive experiences in this process. The key here, as hinted in the intro of this post, is turning the reading process inside-out – from reading to writing.

Writing music, (ideally) begins with the active principle of audiating, hearing music in your head. The receptive principle of reading the notation becomes the active principle of writing. Composers will then sit back and receptively listen to a musician playing the composition, or actively play it themselves.

While beginning students may not have developed audiation and ear training to the extent of composing from their heads, simply the act of writing notes with a pencil and paper adds a whole new dimension and connection to the process of reading them.

So now let’s combine all the ideas and principles we’ve been discussing up to this point into…

One Music Reading Exercise to Rule them All!

Across the past 25+ years, this simple, powerful and versatile exercise has proven to be super valuable for helping my students learn to coordinate all the various operations that comprise reading music:

Step 1: Learn to draw the treble and bass clefs, brackets, bar lines, and time signature – by hand!

It might seem like an unimportant experience. Why not hand them a sheet of staff paper with the clefs already drawn? Or do it with a computer notation program? Who wants to waste half a lesson on that pain-in-the-patootie treble clef?

But there are at least four strong benefits that come from this experience:

  1. The deeper understanding of the treble clef’s origin as a letter “G”, the bass clef’s origin as a letter “F”.
  2. How these clefs “point” to the G line in the treble clef and the F line in the bass clef (Strong emphasis should be placed on the correct placement of the dots in the bass clef and the curlicue in the treble clef.)
  3. A closer look at the connection between the treble and bass staffs. (Students tend to think of the bass staff as something different, odd, and unrelated to the treble.)
  4. And do not underestimate the soothing, calming, meditative calligraphic experience of creating a beautiful form on paper.

It might well be tempting to knock this up on a computer program like Noteflight, but so valuable to draw it all by hand! The whole experience will add yet another aspect of kinesthetic and visual stimulation.

The end-goal in this step is the creation of a two-bar score with a repeat sign:

2 measures 4/4 with repeat sign

Step 2: Eight Quarter Notes

At the top of the page, write the C major pentascale in both staffs with finger numbers, like so:

Now have the student draw the two-bar score. (You might want to do it yourself as an example and to save time in the first lesson. Alternately, you may give the student a week to practice all the drawing stuff before launching into this step.)

RELATED: How to Make Scales Fun and Important

Then have the student choose random notes from the pentascale. After each choice, they write a quarter note on that pitch in both the treble and bass clef. (Again, you may want to demonstrate in the first lesson). Repeat until the two 4/4 bars are filled.

Pay attention to details of stem direction, which side of the notehead the stem is on, and make sure that the treble and bass clef notes are lined up. The more attention you pay to all the details, the more the student will appreciate the notation that they’re reading in their lessons.

Step 3: Play it and Sing it

First, announce that the student has just written their first song! Then the student plays it and repeats it, preferably with both hands. Tell the student it’s ok to ‘cheat’ and look up at the pentascale at the top of the page, but not to write finger numbers or letter names on under the notes.

Now, announce that this is the magic key that unlocks the power of this exercise.

While the student is playing, s/he will now sing the letter names of each note. If the student is uncomfortable with singing, it’s fine for them to recite the letter names instead.

Step 4: Homework and Practice

Each practice day, the student writes a new set of two measures, and practices the new set and all the old sets. So the first day they have one to practice, second day two, etc. Then they play and sing them all at the next lesson.

Step 5: Move Around the Staff

Once the C pentascale is mastered, move up one step to D minor and repeat. Then E minor and so one. Once I reach G, I usually jump the bass clef down an octave, unless I’m specifically targeting inner ledger lines. (At this point, I recommend you stay on all white keys.)

Continue until the whole staff is covered.

Variations and Extensions of the Eight Quarter Note Exercise

While this exercise is very powerful if carried through to its completion, in practice it can be difficult to keep interest beyond a few weeks. But even one or two rounds of this exercise can have long-lasting effects on the student’s retention of music reading skills due to the whole-brain/body approach.

There are many ways to customize Eight Quarter Note Exercise for specific applications. Here are just a few ideas I have tried:

  • The exercise is quite versatile, and useful for targeting specific areas – for example, if a student is having trouble with certain areas of the bass clef, or could use some help with ledger lines.
  • While it’s best at first to limit the rhythms to quarter notes, some enthusiastic students may want to try their hand at other rhythms. Writing rhythms is one of the most effective ways for students to really amp up their rhythm reading skills.
  • You might want to work on pentascales in different keys, using key signatures, etc.
  • Move beyond pentascales to various other hand positions – arpeggios, displaced thumb, pentatonic scales, etc.
  • While the original exercise is quite effective at promoting intervallic reading, and connecting it with actual notes, you can spotlight intervals by having the student sing interval numbers rather than letter names.
  • Having the right and left hand playing the same notes is very helpful for bass clef reading issues, but at some point you can explore counterpoint by having the hands play different notes. Sing the right-hand pitches on the first run, then left-hand notes on the repeat.
  • Though the two measure limit makes the homework and practice more manageable, eventually your students may be inspired to extend their compositions.

As you can imagine, the variations are endless. However, that common thread of limiting the exercise to specific parameters ensures targeted pinpointing of the student’s most relevant learning step.

Writing to Read

While there’s lots of research to back up more holistic approaches to learning, the proof is in the success of the students and teachers who’ve experienced them. I hope you and your students enjoy the Eight Quarter Note Exercise and the understandings it brings, along with your own creative variations.

Who knows? You might just mentor the world’s first flying emu!

Andrew Bishko, Musical U

As Content and Product Manager for Musical U, veteran piano teacher Andrew Bishko helps others unleash the true musicality they have inside with the development of educational content and learning modules. Andrew also plays the accordion and leads Mariachi Flor de Missouri.

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holistic approach reading music
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  1. Great article and easy to do! More writing…makes so much sense!

    • I’m so grateful that Tim has given us sensible piano teachers a place where we can make sense to each other 🙂 (Yes, “creative” just makes sense 😉

  2. This is an incredible article, and I haven’t even finished it yet! I did not learn to read music using acronyms, and I always hesitated to use them with my students, as I wanted them to understand how the staff works. I picked up some great ideas thanks to this article and the YouTube video!! Thank you!

    • Thank you so much, Karissa! It floors me how difficult it is for many students to remember the acronyms from week to week – music is learned so much better as music 🙂 I hope the rest of the article is useful for you and your students.

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