Need Help Teaching Young Children to Read Music? See these 3 Simple Steps.

Teaching young children to read music is not easy. These 3 steps simplify the process with an easy-to-implement systematic approach.

Like many music teachers, I worked in isolation.. My first teaching position was in a rural district with three buildings in three different towns. The other music teacher and I were never in the same building or even the same town at the same time. I literally NEVER saw her.

The load I was carrying seemed to grow heavier every day. There were basically no ready-made resources to facilitate music literacy in the elementary grades. And, our district didn’t even have a written music curriculum. As a new music teacher, I had very little guidance.

Teaching Young Children to Read Music | Developing Music Literacy in the Elementary Music Classroom

Before the development of supportive online music communities, this isolation caused music teachers to do one of two things. We would spend hundreds of hours creating their own music literacy resources, or, give up on the idea of teaching young children to read music in large group settings.

Today, no one truly teaches in isolation. You may still be the only music teacher in your building but the world is at your fingertips and may be accessed right from your computer keyboard. There are supportive music communities where you can glean free ideas, tips, and techniques to help guide you through the process.

Table of Contents

Demystify the Process of Reading Music

Reading music is often a mystery to young (and not so young) students. Our job as teachers is to give students a systematic way to make sense out of musical notation. My students have often asked me this.

“How do you know what a song sounds like if you haven’t heard it before?”

My answer is this.

“In our library we have many books. How do you know what those books are about? You read them, of course.”

But, young children don’t know the process for reading music unless a teacher has taught them using a specific method(s). That spurred me to make our Steps for Reading Music poster for our classroom.

Steps for Reading Music

Some variation of this poster has been on the wall in my classroom for many years. My students know the process and rarely need the prompt, but if they do, it is there.

Step 1 – Read the Rhythm

It doesn’t matter what rhythm reading system you use as long as you are consistent. Kodaly, Gordon, French Time, Takadimi, all serve the same purpose. But, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, do NOT say “Sh” for rests. Rests do not make any sound.

Also, I do not recommend using the Number System of counting with young children. Usually, young kids simply are not ready to use the number system for counting.  For more about rhythm syllables, check out this excellent post on Make Moments Matter.

Young children ARE very capable of starting with standard musical notation and reading rhythms from the music staff. For more about using standard notation with beginners, check out this post – Rhythm Reading & Young Children | Stick Dictation vs. Standard Notation.

Step 2: Sing the Pitches 

When singing the pitches, I set the foundation by teaching solfege syllables with the early elementary grades. We use hand signs to add a kinesthetic element.

For the upper elementary grades, I also add the numerical pitch system during our warm-ups only. These warm-ups are mostly scale patterns, arpeggios, common intervals, etc. This helps older students develop a sense of harmony and sets them up to do some fun jazz stuff (12-bar blues) in our recorder unit.

Step 3: Sing the Lyrics

The last step is to sing the words or the lyrics of the song. I use the term lyrics, even with little ones. They learn very quickly. So let’s teach them music vocabulary right away.

Keep it Short and Sweet

This 3-step music reading sequence is a quick, simple process. The music reading portion of your lesson should be 5 minutes or less. Students should look forward to music reading songs and activities.

It is important to prioritize music reading activities and teach sequential lessons that introduce only one new element at a time. Having an organized teaching system and a sequential music reading repertoire allows you to be more effective with less time.

See 10 Tips to Integrate Music Reading into Every Lesson and Make it Fun for actionable steps that you can use immediately in your elementary music classroom.

No-Prep Music Literacy Resources for the Elementary Grades

Are you looking for ready-made, sequential resources designed specifically for teaching elementary-age children to read music? Our Guided Music Reading Bundles follow these 3 Steps for Reading Music. The prompts are embedded into each lesson.

These resources include projectable classroom presentations for use with PowerPoint or Google Slides, games, instrumental activities, printable Take it Home Pages, digital Easel Activities and more to reinforce targeted music reading skills.

The bundles below have been teacher-tested in MANY elementary music classrooms. The best resources have been created by teachers for teachers.

More Music Literacy Bundles Coming Soon!


Click to preview these Guided Music Reading Series.

Structure Lessons for Success

Developing music literacy skills & teaching young children to read music does not happen by accident. Help your students “demystify” the music reading process and set them on the path to success in your district’s middle and high school music programs.

For more info on developing music literacy in the elementary grades, check out this post about sequential lessons which build on prior learning.


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