Flash cards, some open some held together with a hairband

One of the most frustrating learning experiences for many pupils is that of learning to read music. It can be hard, especially if you part of the population who don’t find reading in general easy. Unless you target those skills it can take many difficult years for it to become fluent and can adversely affect how pupils relate to their music making. It’s no fun if you’re a teacher of a child who finds it hard either.

Late in the term last summer I got particularly frustrated myself with this problem, and so just tried something new (or new to me at least). I made flash cards of the different notes and started this game with my pupils.

Note time trials

  • Pick your first batch of cards (maybe all the FACE cards for treble clef, maybe notes C – G near middle C that they’re already comfortable with)
  • Go through each card in turn, with the pupil naming the note and finding that specific harp string (e.g. not just any C on the harp)
  • Get your stopwatch ready! Press go:

    • Show each card in turn, the child has to find the exact string first time and name the card
    • If they do, put that card out of the game
    • If they don’t, help them find the right string and name. Add that card to the back of the pack and they have to do it again at the end.
    • Repeat with any cards incorrectly identified…

  • Press stop when they’ve correctly found all notes presented to them and finished their cards
  • I do this three times each lesson, in quick succession, every lesson


It’s all pretty straightforward. If you do it speedily it doesn’t take that long and my pupils enjoy the pace of it, they are playing a game with themselves. I make a note of the times and my¬†pupils can see themselves getting better, getting faster and feeling more confident. You can start to assess what they can and can’t yet read without it seeming intrusive – it’s just normal.

The trick to keeping it fun is to have the right number of cards to work on at any time. I found that the best number of cards was that which took us between 30 – 50 secs to identify. More than a 60 secs and the exercise starts to drag, and the child is often struggling and getting confused. Less than 20 secs generally means it’s time to include more notes. When we can do all of our notes on one clef (generally 2.5 octaves) within 30 secs then I stop with that clef.

I often use this just before we start working on a piece and will target those notes needed. It really helps to boost their confidence with reading for that specific piece. I never expected this but I also found that it boosted the amount of practise my pupils were willing to do without prompting – various parents reported this back to me.

I’ve found this strategy to be a massive step forward¬†for all involved and will be including it from now on for all my pupils who want to learn to read.

If you want an easy to make set of flash cards, try these:

Or you can buy similar here: