Part 3 of 3 on Finding Music For Teaching Kids

See Part 1: The Top 11 Sites for Public Domain Free Sheet Music

See Part 2: Where To Find Easy Sheet Music Arrangements

I have always felt comfortable rearranging sheet music and stripping out elements that are not completely necessary to get the song across. As a composer/arranger, I have a comfort level that not every music teacher has, but I want to show you that it is not as hard as you think.


You can use these to simplify any piece of music. Whether you are writing out the notation by hand or using a software package, the same rules will apply. These guidelines are from my point of view in teaching children. Many of these can apply to teens and adults as well.

1. For piano, strip out octaves in the left hand. Most young children cannot stretch an octave!

2. Consider shifting the key of the song. Many songs are written in keys that are scary to read but when shifted, become rather simple. For example, a piano song like Ray Charles’ Hit The Road Jack was originally in Bb minor because of the horn section. But it is much easier to read in A minor. On guitar, the capo makes transposition so easy!

3. For piano, consider block chords in the left hand and a single note melody in the right hand. Many pop song arrangements divide the voicings of chords between left and right hands. This is pretty difficult for young learners.

4. Simplify the rhythm. I think rhythm is probably the biggest opportunity to simplify a song. You can see some pop songs where the singer is obviously adding inflections and improvisations that are then notated exactly in the melody line. This makes for a very complex rhythm notation! And it’s completely unnecessary. It’s similar to notating jazz with dotted eighth and sixteenth notes – it makes it overly difficult to read. Just indicate swing eighths!

5. Limit the range. My students want to sing and play along to many of the songs they want to learn. But because the range is so wide, it makes it impossible. You can judiciously choose alternate notes for the high notes or see if you can shift the whole key to better accommodate your student. Guitarists really have it made with the use of a capo! For some of my students who have digital pianos/keyboards, I will often suggest a transposition using the electronics of the keyboard. This enables them to play the song in the way they have learned it but then be able to reach the vocal notes.

6. Change the meter. Many pieces of music are written with speed inherent in their choice of meter. The use of sixteenth notes can be intimidating to a beginning music student. By changing this to an eighth note, it somehow makes it easier. For younger students, I’ve made eighth notes into quarter notes.

7. Format the page with natural breaks. If you have a song with 4 measure phrases, try to keep that all on one line. You can also help students understand structure by paginating the piece so that each page contains a full section: A A B A, etc.

8. Use a larger staff and note-heads. I use gigantic staves for my preschool students learning to read music. An 8 measure song can be on two full letter-sized pages. As my students get older and able to read more, the sizing diminishes.

9. Use English rather than Italian. For tempos and dynamics, you can decide where and when to introduce these terms. But if you’re creating your own arrangement, you can decide to use more naturalistic language like, “getting faster” or “getting quieter.”

10. Use notation software on a computer or tablet to make it easier to reuse and edit for corrections. It will also look cleaner and more legible unless you have beautiful hand notation skills! There are many modern notation software systems that range from super easy to complex but powerful. I will be writing a separate article on this in the near future.

I hope you find this helpful. Feel free to forward and share this article with your colleagues.


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  • Very common-sense solutions, Andrew–thank you! I think the thing that makes it hardest for young learners is #4. That syncopation is so hard for them to read and harder for them to produce. And then the publisher labels it “Easy”!