How does one teach children to read music on a staff?  

Well, first of all, it’s not done in the first lesson, nor is it even in the first month!

It’s a long gradual process that needs to be broken out into bite-sized chunks. This lesson usually comes after 3 or 4 months of lessons. They have already been playing songs and have usually amassed a repertoire of over 15 songs. They are playing songs with two-handed parts but have not really read any music on a staff.  This is achieved via demonstration and use of the Musicolor notation.   

Teach Intervals

Teaching children to recognize the intervals is the fastest and most effective way to get them to read music on the staff.

By starting at a note they know, then seeing how far it is to the next note, we can quickly move them away from having to rely on looking at their hands and to just keep their eyes on the page.

Curiosity Gap

To teach this lesson, I start by asking a question. This opens a loop in their mind – a curiosity gap that needs to be closed!

“Do you know what a ruler is?”

I then show them a normal ruler. 

“What does this measure? “

It could be inches or centimeters or whatever you have on hand.  Maybe even a yardstick.

So here’s a new measuring ruler.  This one is the music distance ruler.  It measures INTERVALS!  What’s an interval?

I explain that an interval is a distance between notes.  We can measure it on the piano keyboard AND on a staff.

A printable music interval ruler
A printable music interval ruler


We make measurements between 2nds, 3rds, 4th, and 5ths.  Most kids start to see the pattern and quickly realize they know what a 6th, 7th and 8th is.

Then I explain that the 8th has a special name. To remember the special name, I ask,

“Do you know what an octopus is?”

They’ll usually already know and say something like it’s an animal in the ocean.  

“Well, how many legs does it have?”


“Right, so the first part of the word octopus is OCT which means 8.”  So here we have 8 notes and we call it an OCT-ave.  Can you say octave?”

I then draw them a few illustrations to explain the notes played at the same time or harmonic intervals.

“This is what the notes on the staff look like when played together.”

Screenshot 2016-02-26 12.52.12

“For a 2nd, I call this the Googly Eyes.  Doesn’t it look like two eyeballs looking in different directions?  Listen to it.”


“For a 3rd, this looks like two rocks stacked on top of each other.  Kind of like stacked stones!”

“For the 4th, it’s like one rock is sitting and another is floating above.  Ooh – mysterious!”

For the next, I go back to making the stacked stones and I then say,

“What if we put another rock on top of that so we have 3?  

It’s like a snowman!  This is a chord!”

And now, for the 5th.

“The 5th is like a snowman with no belly!”


This is usually where I end my introduction to intervals for now.  

Later when I introduce chord inversions, I like to explain that

“the snowman has lifted up his head and shoulders for this one.”

Screenshot 2016-02-26 12.54.08

And is stretching down with this one.

Screenshot 2016-02-26 12.54.48

This activity is from the Musicolor Method™ online training. The course offers comprehensive lesson plans, activities and professional development for music teachers, especially those working with young children.  Learn more here.

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