Archives for posts with tag: theory

Alphabet Song Book_1

As I explained here, the basic idea of this book is to help piano beginners (aged 7 and above) to get started with learning how to read musical notation.  I thought I’d share how I’m using this book in the lessons.

The contents are simply laid out so that students can get on with work on a need-to-know basis. The intention of this book is to help the piano beginners grasp how learning to read musical notation works, by repetition, writing and creative activities. The book also leaves enough space for students and teachers to explore other details of piano study when ready, such as experimenting with dynamics, articulations, phrasing, tempi, technique, etc.  Teachers can add a simple accompaniment to help students establish a steady pulse and also cultivate a listening ear.

Page 4
The use of four-colour strip for the piano keys is inspired by the Colourstrings. I find it the most useful tool to make the ocean of black keys and white keys on the piano looks somehow manageable. Here’s a template to create a four-colour strip, which should fit on any standard key-sized piano. Make sure to open the file in Acrobat Reader and print it out as an ‘actual size’, not ‘fit to page’).  I use self-adhesive book cover vinyl (cut to 2cm square) to paste four strips together (much stronger than standard cellotape, I find).


Page 2 & 3
Keyboard orientation.
I’d usually introduce BAG only for young children. The reason being that the first half of the book is focused on learning the melodies based on BAG.


Page 5
An example of rhythmic patterns appeared throughout the book is introduced here in a 4-bar rhythm tune. Students can experiment with it by creating a tune using these rhythms, starting with one-note playing (any note or position across the keyboard!). Then, with two notes, then three, etc. Teacher and student can try a ‘call & response’ improvisation game; for example, the first 2 bars played by the teacher, followed by the  the student playing the next 2 bars.

Alphabet Song Book page5_small

The key thing to remember here is to sing the rhythmic syllables (e.g. shortshortlong) whilst playing the notes, with a steady pulse. Each heart shown on the page represents one pulse (beat).

Pulse in music is like our hearbeat; you can’t hear it but it’s always there ticking and you can feel it. Ask your student to tap each pulse as they sing the rhythms. This is the first ear-eye-hand coordination exercise!; tapping one thing and singing another at the same time.


Page 7 (the first BAG tune!)
Start with one-hand playing, right or left hand. Find the hand position using the keyboard guide.   Remember to sing the rhythmic syllables (NOT the letter names!), this exercises the skill to be able to follow two different information at the same time. Complete writing the rhythmic notation above each letter name. From the next page on, dotted guide line for the rhythmic notation disappears. It’s students’ job to remember to write in rhythmic notation above each letter name from page 8 onwards. It encourages students to be constantly aware of the note value attached to each note.

Students also could play the tune with both hands to develop the coordination.


Page 13
Practise writing
B note on a single F (bass) clef stave. Learn to write the same note in various note values here. Keyboard guide now has the Middle C position marked in. Have students try finding the B note below Middle C on page 12. Make sure which clef stave students should be looking at, top or bottom.

Alphabet Song Book page13_small

As a practice of being aware of rhythmic value for each note, trace over each rhythm line under each letter name with a colour explained on page 5.


Page 14
From this page onwards, students can write rhythmic notation with the stem pointing downwards if they wish to. Why is the note upside down? The answer is on page 11 where students practised writing notes on the great stave. Refer to it again and have them explain why!

Also from this page onwards, students have a chance to remind themselves of the new note they’ve just learned, by spotting it amongst other notes.

For one bar on this tune, the letter names disappears and are replace by the B notes written on the F (bass) clef stave. Ask students what notes they are; they would know what to play there. Make sure students are still singing rhythmic syllables whilst playing the notes. Finally, ask students how many B note they can find in this tune.

Also I’d experiment with dynamics at this point when students are getting used to playing some tunes. Loud (forte) and soft (piano). Let students decide which bars (measures) they wish to play loud and soft and add dynamics markings accordingly.


Pattern recognition
. Can students find repeated melodic patterns in this tune? Once they recognise them, they can be aware of playing the same thing twice. Economical reading skill!

A new note, A, to practise writing on the F (bass) clef stave. I’d have students compare it with the B note and explain the difference (line note, space note, where on the stave, etc.)

Alphabet Song Book page16_small

Page 17
Time to experiment with articulation here. Legato playing. What’s legato playing? Basically, imagine your fingers are your legs doing a walking action on the keyboard; one finger presses the key, and then the next finger presses but the link between the two fingers slightly overlaps before the first finger releases the key, so that the two notes sound connected rather than disjointed. The arch marking to indicate legato playing is called slur. Write a slur marking over the first three notes to be played legato. Ask students to write some more slurs in!

Alphabet Song Book page17_small

Page 19
All the letter names now disappear! But students know which note is B, A, G note by now. Although it’s important recognise each note in letter name, it’s equally important to be able to see a group of notes as a pattern. B-A-G looks like a smooth downward slope. B-G-A is more ragged. It’s a useful exercise to drawn students’ attention to the patterns in each tune. I’d also challenge them to find BAG in the tune; circle the B-A-G pattern and sqaure the backwards BAG, G-A-B pattern), not only within a bar (measure) but also across the barline!


Page 22
page! The first 8-bar tune is to consist of two 4-bar tunes that students have learned in the previous pages. Choose 2 pages to copy or transcribe. If students choose from page 7 to 13, the notes are all in letter names, so they have to trascribe the letter names into notation, which is an exercise itself to test their knowledge on these three notes, BAG. The second 8-bar tune is to be composed by students.  This is a creative test to see how imaginative students can be to come up with yet another tune consisting of 3 notes only. Be prepare to be surprised!


Page 23
Appearance of the D note on the G (treble) clef stave. From this page on, the tunes will be laid out on the double staves (great stave). Usually, the top stave is for the right hand, the bottom stave is for the left hand. Warning here!: G (treble) clef doesn’t mean ‘right hand’ and F (bass) clef doesn’t mean ‘left hand’! G (treble) clef simply refers to the area above the Middle C. In some music, the left hand does play the notes above the Middle C on the keyboard. In that case, you’ll see G (treble) clef on the bottom stave as well as on the top stave.

Up to the previous page, students could play the tune with both hands in unison but from this page on, the both hands’ positions are set specifically as indicated.

It’s another good point to experiment further with dynamics; Soft (piano), medium soft (mezzo piano), medium loud (mezzo forte), loud (forte), gradually getting louder (crescendo) and getting gradually softer (diminuendo). Perhaps in the faster speed when ready.

It’s also a good time to introduce the real names of note values for short, long, twice as long, etc.  In my piano studio, I use American name rather than British, simply because it makes more sense and it helps students understand the concept of time signature when they get to it.

The second half of the book covers more BAG tunes with two added notes, E & D (ED). Go over (again) page 3 to get familiar with all FEDs across the keyboard. Work through the pages to the end likewise as suggested for the first half of the book.

Alphabet Song Book 2 (for piano) will explore triple time (3/8 time rather than 3/4 time), and more words, FED, EGG, Cs and A-B-C in addition to BAG, and delve into the concept of basic time signatures. 2/4 and 3/8. It’ll be available soon.

Happy reading!

I’ve been using this book with my piano beginners for some time now; some started with no interests in reading musical notation; some had some knowledge of musical notation but haven’t quite got the hang of it; some can play pop songs by rote but never tried reading musical notation, some had just started the piano but keen to learn how to read music, etc.

When they get to about page 29, I started giving them a couple of longer pieces as a challenge from various beginner’s piano books, such as Jibbidy-F and A-C-E by Hoover Ward, Music Lessons Have Begun by Fletcher, various primer level pieces from Faber & Faber’s Piano Adventures series, Hal Leonard’s Broadway and Movie Hits Level 1 (piano duet), etc.  My students’ reaction to this challenge has been quite a positive one and when they realise they can read music to play a proper tune, it certainly boosts their confidence and motivation to carry on with the rest of Alphabet Song Book 1 and beyond!

My students’ favourite part of the book is composition pages .  By the time they reach composition pages, they usually have some knowledge on flats and sharps which are covered in pieces such as Pink Panther, which I usually teach them by rote.  Although the suggested notes and rhythms for the composition work are from the book, they often tend to experiment using the knowledge they have learned outside the book as well.

This is the part I do enjoy too as a teacher; getting a glimpse of my students’ creative world that I haven’t seen before.  Some use similar patterns from the book but in a different order or their repetition; some create mysterious sounding music using suggested notes but with sharps and flats;  some show a skill of creating symmetrical patterns; some show natural sense of 2-bar phrases; some adds other musical details such as dynamics and articulations themselves without me reminding them; some play around and explore before writing anything in, etc.

So far, my students are finishing the book 1 at the pace of 6-7 months along with other assignments they’re working on.  They’ve learned how to read and write a simple music, along with the importance of dynamics and articulations.  They’ve acquired a skill to recognise melodic/rhythmic patterns and their repetitions in music.

I look forward to reporting on Alphabet Book 2 soon!

Alphabet Song Book 3 is now available from my website shop!


I had a very intuitive way of introducing a basic chord sequence (I-IV-V) to one of my adult piano beginners the other day. I thought I’d share this with you. If you’re using a series of piano tutor books, it’s usually mapped out for you when to teach about harmony, and a chord sequence is usually shown in a popular folk tune. But how do you go about it when you’re not using one of those traditional tutor books. Especially with student with no previous music learning experience, it’s important not to cram too much information when they’re still trying to get around the keyboard to play simple pieces.

In one case, I’m using Christopher Norton’s American Popular Music, Repertoire Book 1. This student of mine never had any music learning experience before and now after a year on, she can learn short easy pieces on her own with some analytical skill to tackle them in the most economical way she could manage, she can also hum the melody along whilst playing and can identify a tonic note within the pieces. The other day, I saw her struggling to put the hands together when the left hand notes are changing every bar. These changing notes happen to be the root notes of the primary chords in the piece. Now, I say this is the perfect moment to choose to show how harmony works as part of making the learning process of the piece more meaningful. I started by posing a question, “if you were to choose 3 important notes from the left hand, which ones would you choose?” To guide through to the answer to that, we tried the following:

1. Checked whether she knew (internalised) the piece by asking her to hum the melody; for the first time by following the notes in the score, then for the second time with eye closed.

2. Memorised the left hand notes and their order & positioning; open 5th on D – single note G – single note A, then back to open 5th on D.

3. Combined 1. & 2. with eye closed. Sang the melody (no playing) whilst playing the left hand note(s). But had to aurally guess when to change the left hand note(s). This is for learning to let the ear anticipate the harmonic changes.

Once she managed to get it, putting hands together was no problem any more because she could guide her hands aurally. Now, the notes in the score became just a guide to follow the music she’s playing.

Then, I revealed that these changing notes play quite an important role to create different colours and moods in the piece, which is called harmony. It’s hard to ‘hear’ what harmony actually is with just one or two note(s) in the left hand, so we turned each one of them into a triad (in root position). A little knowledge about scale and its tonic note is necessary here to be able to introduce technical names for scale notes (not all, but those that are useful to explain the most important): Tonic – Supertonic – Mediant – Sub-Domiant – Dominant and roman numerals (I, II, III…)… Then we tried this:

4. Applied 3 triads (Dm, Gm & Am) to the melody singing that
we covered in 3.

5. Created our own melody by improvised ‘singing’ whilst playing the chord sequence in the left hand: Dm – Gm – Am – Dm.

6. Tried 5. in the key of C major as well to experience the difference between major and minor tonality; C – F – G – C. (She identified it as sounding like church music)

She was slightly hesitant about improvising to start with because she didn’t think she could do it. But when she found out that the left hand chords can actually guide her ear to find the notes that she thinks could work and they naturally come out in her voice, she tasted for the first time what it’s like to create something of her own!

Now that she understands how the harmony works within the piece, we took this opportunity to analyse the piece she’s working on and marked with I, IV and V under the left hand chord note(s). Then she could finally answer the question I posed in the beginning, “if you were to choose 3 important notes from the left hand, which ones would you choose?” The answer is: D, G and A. Why are they important? Because they define particular chords and each one of them plays a role of setting different colour and mood to create harmony.

Understanding harmony often helps internalise the music quicker, which often contributes towards economising the time spent in learning the piece and gives learners something more to listen to as they practise.

As you can see, what started off as showing how to practise a certain tricky section in the piece turned into a series of extra useful activities such as aural training, understanding harmony and improvising, which no doubt will be exercised again in the next new piece but this time with some gained knowledge! As a teacher’s point of view, I think I can say that no matter how simple the piece of music is, understanding how the music is written offers enough opportunities to work on a few musical details to make the learning process more meaningful than just connecting the dots on the sheet of paper.

Theory study doesn’t have to happen only on the paper.

Aural training doesn’t have to be something you do just for the exam.

And improvisation exercise doesn’t have to be a separate activity from the currently learning piece(s)!

Let’s discover something new in the pieces we’re learning now and make practising more fulfilling and productive!