How to Teach Piano Theory to Kids

by SusanM

Tips and tools for teaching piano theory to kids

Piano theory is essential for understanding and learning piano. But piano theory can be hard to teach children because it has many math concepts younger children don't learn in school. This puts pressure on you to try and explain hard math concepts.

There are some great tools about to help you explore music theory with your piano students. Used creatively these can make piano theory easier as well as more fun.

Workbooks are Piano Theory Essentials

Workbooks are an essential for school age children learning piano.

A good workbook provides a well designed course for your student. It gets children writing music and solving theory problems. This helps children understand theory better. 

Workbooks are also helpful  because they stop you from needing to design a whole theory course for your students. Of course you'll need to add other tools and activities for learning theory but the workbook acts as the core to your theory lessons. Your role as a piano teacher is to make sure your students understand the material in the workbook lessons. it is also to link these ideas to playing piano, correct any mistakes they make and provide learning support for anything they don't understand. 

There are many workbooks available for children learning piano. I like the "Fundamentals of Piano Theory" the best. The workbooks start from the prep level which means you can start theory from the very beginning of lessons. This is much better for everyone. The activities and theory covered are also essential core concepts for young pianists rather than music students in general. This gives your student a more targeted theory education. I find this has better results. 

Theory Teaching Tip

When learning theory (or piano) many children have problems understanding some concepts - such as the value of each music note. This is because they often haven't covered the associated math idea in school. So take a deep breath and try to think of ways to explain these concepts that a child can relate to. This means rather than explaining things from a theory viewpoint try to use examples from everyday life. This means some creative thinking from you as their teacher. But the results will be much better if you can explain in a way the child can relate to then to merely repeat the core ideas of the theory concept they find hard in the same way. 

Theory flash cards are controversial. They seem like essential piano theory tools. But are they?

Flash cards are best suited to children 10 years and above, although 8 and 9 year old students can use them with success if they're very motivated. 

The good points about theory flash cards is that they are good for reinforcing music symbol recognition. This is especially so for developing fast recognition skills. These are important for sight reading. So flash cards do have their place in piano theory  lessons with older children. 

The problems with theory flash cards is they aren't suitable for young children. This is because young children learn better with hands-on and playful activities. Flash cards also don't help children of any age understand piano theory concepts. The cards help recognition not understanding but understanding should always be a focus. Once a child understands the concepts of piano theory you can introduce flash cards to help with fluency in reading music. Finally unless you create a game with the flash cards they can be boring for children. A few flash cards used as a quiz at the beginning or end of a lesson is fine. But going through every card at every lesson won't motivate a child to come to lessons. So if you decide to use flash cards keep their use to an amount that won't make your students wish they were anywhere else but in their piano lesson.

Piano Lesson Flash Cards

Color Coded Flash Cards
Alfred Publishing
Music Flash Cards
Hal Leonard Corporation

Theory Teaching Idea

Rather than flash cards I always used real piano music. I would usually choose a music piece from a slightly higher level for this activity. With this real music I would point to music signs and symbols that I had taught my students. I would ask for it's name and sometimes for an extra piece of information that they had been taught. This way my student was seeing the signs and symbols in the context of real music rather than out of context on a flash card. But it doesn't have to be an either/or choice. This activity could be used in conjunction with flash cards for a well rounded approach to learning piano theory.

A wipe off music board is a handy tool for piano teachers. These can be used in lessons to help explain theory ideas. Some music symbols like treble clefs are hard for children to learn to write. So you can also help your student learn who to write harder music symbols without signs needing to buy a lot of music paper. 

Math counters are also a good resource for piano theory teachers. Counters can be used with a big stave drawn on a piece of thick paper with a marker. (It's best to make the stave in proportion with the size of the counters you will be using.) I game I have played with piano students is to call out the name of music notes (e.g F, C, G, A) and have your student move their counter to the right place on the stave as quickly as possible. Kids find this fun because it's fast moving. They don't get bored or restless because the game includes movement. It also keeps them focused because they have to be ready to move as soon as a letter is called out. This game can be used in a private lesson (one child) or in a group lesson. (For a group lesson you just need to make a stave for every child and have enough counters.) 

Supplies for Lesson Activities

Wipe-Off Music "Paper"
Math Counters (250 Pack)

Theory Teaching Idea

Music theory wipe off boards are also a good tool for students to practice piano theory at home. I found it easier to buy a few at a time then resell them to my  students (I only asked the price I had paid for them although some teachers add a small surcharge for their effort too.) Having needed piano lesson books and tools "in stock"  works well because often families take too long to buy what is needed for lessons. Some parents are busy, some forget and some don't realize their child can't learn without the right tools. Selling items to students means they get them when they need them so learning doesn't stop. Parents don't buy the wrong item by mistake. It also looks very professional to have these things ready and waiting for students. For items that can be used from the first lesson (or within the first month) you can ask for the money at the start of the semester and give the books and tools all together as a pack. If you teach students who might find this hard money-wise you can provide them one at a time to spread the cost out a bit. 

Fractions are a hard concept for younger children. But reading piano music needs an understanding of fractions to understand things like how whole notes are divided. When you teach young students how to read music there is a good chance their school teacher hasn't explained fractions to them yet. So you will need to fill in this gap in their understanding. This is a hard job when you aren't a math teacher. It can also make it  hard to know which child is having problems with piano theory because they don't understand fractions. 

But you can work out if your piano student doesn't understand fractions? The first step is to know what grade children usually learn this in. If your student is in a younger grade it's probably safe to assume they haven't been taught yet. If the child is about the right age to learn fractions at school ask them if their teacher has talked about fractions. Then find out what has been discussed and what concepts your student understands. That way you can predict any possible problems. If your piano student is having a lot of problems with things like how a whole note is broken down into crotchets and quavers it's usually because they have a problem with fractions. 

Now you know what the problem is what can you do? You can use the same methods parents can do to help their child understanding fractions with just a few small changes. The idea of using everyday life to explain fractions works well for piano teachers. The way a whole note is broken down into smaller parts can be explained to a child by linking it to how a cake or apple is cut into pieces. Games and books about fractions can also be useful. Books can be used to help explain things to a child in lessons. Games can help develop understanding at home. You can have copies of suitable books and games to either lend to families or to add to your supplies to be resold. You will need to talk to parents about the connection of fractions to piano theory though. Otherwise parents will be confused. But they are usually very happy to help their child learn fractions and piano theory at the same time. (It gives extra value to piano lessons too). 

You can find tips on teaching fractions, as well as suitable books and games in the article "How Can I Help My Child Understand Fractions?"

When teaching piano theory to kids it's best to be creative. The more hands-on games you can think of the better your piano students will understand theory. The more they will enjoy piano lessons too. 

One idea for younger students is to make up some colorful, paper fish cards. Each with a musical symbol on them. Then have your piano student "go fishing" for the symbol you ask for. They can either 'catch' the fish with their hands or you can add a metal paper clip to the fish and catch them with a magnetic rod. You can use a rod from a store-brought magnetic fish game or make your own with a magnet. 

So when you are teaching theory think of these words and how you can apply them to your lessons. Variety. Movement. Color. Play. Question and Answers. Reading. Writing. Creating. By looking at theory from many different viewpoints you will have a better chance of providing a well rounded learning experience for your students. By creating you can become a master teacher on how to teach piano theory to kids.

Fun ideas for helping your child understand fractions
The best keyboards with the essentials needed for piano lessons.
Updated: 09/02/2012, SusanM
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