Teaching the Notes of the Music Staff
A Progressive and Intuitive Method
Learning the notes of the music staff can be a grind for young and old minds alike. Rote memorization, as the process is (mostly) now, drains the joy from learning how to play an instrument and makes each practice session a drudge. This approach attempts to alleviate the pain.
This method is designed to work best with the way the brain processes information. The brain works well with chunks of information and symmetry. Symmetries have the effect of building chunks from otherwise disparate pieces of information. The more information that is chunked, the easier it is to learn and retain the material.
This guide progresses in intuitive steps that quickly build upon each other and take advantage of the symmetries inherent in the piano staff to make learning the notes fast and easy. Although students will need the third lesson before they will have the tools to learn the entire musical staff, it is easily attainable and can be taught in the same day as the first two lessons if absolutely necessary — although I always recommend a slow, comfortable process of familiarization rather than brute-force memorization.
This guide is written for the teacher and is meant to complement, not replace, formal instruction. It is not meant as a stand-alone method. This method is built around the piano staff (treble and bass clefs together) as that is the most recognizable of staffs for non-musicians and learning musicians alike. Once understood, the knowledge should be easily translatable to other clefs. Flashcards are recommended as a learning aid with this guide.
The Symmetrical Location of the C Notes
Start by helping the student recognize how the C notes are symmetrically placed within the piano staff. Starting from the top and bottom, they appear on the second ledger line below the bass staff and second ledger line above the treble staff; the second space from bottom in bass staff and the second space from top in treble staff; and centered at the ledger line between the two staves.
Ledger lines are the line segments above and below each of the musical staves (to include the segments between them) which indicate notes higher or lower than that particular staff.
The Symmetrical Location of the B and D Notes
Building on the C notes, it is a simple step to bookend them with the B and D notes; the B note always being below the C and the D note always being above.
Remember, with children, there is no hurry. It’s a process. Start with flashcards. Separate out all of the B, C and D notes in the flashcards, including top and bottom ledger lines, and begin a process of familiarization with them. Let the student refer to these sheets as often as they need during this process. Do it gently and have fun with them. When they are comfortable with the concept of flashcards and can name these notes quickly, move on to the next step.
At this point, we can use the learned symmetry to examine the spaces of both treble and bass staves. Using the orange Cs as the foundation, we can place the notes F, A, C, E and G (mnemonic ‘FACE-Gee’) into the staves, noting again the symmetry of the notes. Add these flashcards into the pile and allow the student to gradually become comfortable with them. Give hints to the student which relates the flashcard note back to the C note, “One space above” or “Two spaces below”. This creates a framework in their mind that will allow them to calculate the note quickly and easily until it becomes second nature.
Note that the symmetry flows from the outside of the staves to the center. This will help the student remember that on the treble staff, the G of the FACEG sits on the space above the lines, and that on the bass staff, the F of the FACEG hangs on the space below the lines.
FACEG Spanning Middle
There is also a FACEG spanning the center of the staves, this time on the lines. You can explain that any ledger lines above middle C in the bass stave are equivalent, note-wise, to the bottom lines of the treble stave and vice-versa. Add these flashcards into the stack and practice the full stack until the student is comfortable with these additional notes.
Ledger Lines Above and Below
And lastly, using the orange Cs on the ledger lines above the treble staff and below the bass staff, we can build the FACEG for our final step of learning the notes across the musical staves. Again add the additional flashcards to the stack and practice with the student.
Center Ledger Lines Explained
Multiple ledger lines above the bass staff indicate notes which should be played with the left hand. While the ledger lines are added above the bass staff between the two staves, they still retain the FACEG relationship.
The first line above the bass staff is middle C, the next an E and the third is G. Knowing that the E and the G are the same as the two bottom lines of the treble staff is helpful to the student in that it references a previously known relationship.
The same relationship holds true for ledger lines below the treble staff. The first line below is middle C, the next an A and the next an F. The FACEG relationship holds true.
At this point, you can add the center ledger lines to your flashcards to complete the stack and begin the process of familiarization with the student. They should have no difficulty with these additional notes.
All notes now are within a half-step of a note that the student should easily recognize. Add the final flashcards and help the student with hints which refer to this method as they calculate those new notes.
In the end, you’ll have a stress free way to build a student’s recognition of the notes in an easily progress-able manner.
Have fun with it.
See my guitar methods, also on medium.
These methods use a similar brain-friendly approach to teaching the guitar fretboard, the modes and scales. Rote memorization is opposite of and detrimental to learning — and it is not relied upon in either of the following methods.
Thanks for taking the time to read.