Reading music is similar to learning a second language, and to a young child just starting the process, music might just be a bunch of dots or circles with lines sticking out of them. Many children start learning an instrument, typically piano, at ages 4 or 5, and they often are taught musical notations from the first lesson. Learning musical notations is much like stacking blocks, and your child will build upon basic concepts to more complex ideas. By pacing lessons and making them fun, your child could master this new language.
Less is More
Because learning music is like taking in a new language -- and just like you wouldn’t want to study verbs, sentence structure and pronunciation all at the same time, your young child can’t handle everything about musical notation all at once. For example, you can’t start a music notation lesson by talking about middle C -- this lesson requires knowledge of the musical alphabet, the staff, clefs and even placement of that note on an instrument, most likely the keyboard. Start simple by teaching just the musical staff.
Showing your child a musical staff and saying it has five lines and four spaces might work for an older child who doesn’t have time for silliness, but starting a lesson that way will have your young child snoozing in no time. Teach a new concept, such as the staff, by comparing it to something your child knows already. Fun Music Company suggests turning the staff into a “house” by drawing two “walls” perpendicular to the staff lines and asking your child to guess what you’re drawing -- if he doesn’t get it, draw a roof, and by then, your child will probably shout, “It’s a house!” Ask how many “floors” are on the house, shown by the four spaces in between the five lines. Count the lines and spaces with your child.
Explaining musical notation concepts to your child has its place, but you also need to mix in some activity so your child has an opportunity to practice what you’re teaching. After teaching the staff, you can draw some notes on the staff and name them -- assuming you have also covered the musical alphabet. Ask your child to draw notes as you call out the name. Also don’t be afraid to get your child moving or playing an instrument -- these strategies are particularly effective for teaching rhythms. Draw a simple rhythm on a white board -- four quarter notes, for example -- and clap and count the rhythm. Encourage your child to repeat after you. Gradually make the rhythms more complicated or add new note values. You can use the same activities, but use rhythm instruments such as drums or shakers instead of clapping.
Take activities one step further and turn them into games, which might be more motivating for your child. For example, see how many notes your child can draw correctly on a staff in one minute. Play a matching game where you match a note with the number of beats it gets -- for example, match a quarter note with the number 1. Play a listening game where you clap a rhythm, and your child chooses which notation is correct from a selection of two or four options.
Practice and Repetition
It would be nice if your young child remembered everything you told him, but like anything else, teaching musical notations requires practice and repetition to help your child remember. Practicing drawing notes or reading the notes and playing keys on a piano, for example, help reinforce the ability to read notes on a staff. Clapping rhythms and counting out loud improves recognition of note values and meter. Find different ways of explaining the same idea to give your child a new way to understand musical concepts.