Creative Ways to Build Better Pitch Reading


An app for pitch recognition came to my attention thanks to Grace Lee, the developer. How can this app be different from the other apps devoted to drilling pitch names? For one, Lee's app includes drills for reading intervals or two notes at a time--not just one!Grace has written a wonderful post about building better pitch reading skills. Along with her suggestions, she gives tips on how to use the unique features of her app called NoteQuest. Thank you, Grace, for your terrific insight on this topic! Make sure to read to the end and learn about the special promo Grace is offering.

[Note Quest is a flashcard app designed to train note reading with an emphasis on intervals and can be used with an acoustic piano. Note Quest is for the iPad and iPhone, and may be downloaded from the App Store or found at]


We as music teachers know this:

The ability to read music is a skill that opens many doors to exploring fun and beautiful music.

In reality, many students who have note reading issues suffer embarrassment, lack of motviation to practice, and even want to quit prematurely. When you break it down, it’s not the mere practicing they dislike; it’s the loneliness of struggling through notes. Whether it’s a transfer student who can’t read well, a student who plays by ear, or a child who has trouble decoding what she sees, we all likely deal with this scenario regularly. We can easily teach this basic skill of note reading thoughtfully and perhaps with more creativity.

In my studio, when I have beginning students who continuously struggle with reading pitches, we try different approaches, but here are the foundations I usually lay down at the very beginning.

Once they get a visual on Middle C and learn to respond accordingly, they learn two “landmark notes” - Treble G and Bass F. These become the point of reference when they see a staff of five lines and four spaces. It’s helpful to highlight these lines so that students learn to recognize their position on the staff.

Remember, some students have trouble with visual discrimination. To them, the staff doesn’t appear as five lines; it just looks like a bunch of lines. Understanding that Treble G is a line note, I introduce two ascending notes, G to A (line + space).

Suddenly, they’ve learned three concepts:

  1. What an interval is,

  2. How a 2nd looks (the notes “touch”),

  3. And, that the notes move up a step - just like going up a stair step. I demonstrate this aurally and visually using my own stairs.

Next, you guessed it. Take out the left hand and do the same with Bass F-E. I ask the student to step down the stairs when they hear the notes step down. Once this is established, I ask them to pick these intervals out from a more advanced piece, like a “seek and find,” aiding their ability to recognize a 2nd from real music, not just an exercise.

Repeat the same concept for 3rds or skips, recognizing line-line, space-space. This easily takes weeks or months of reinforcement.

Okay, some of us are saying,

“I have students who have been playing for two years, and still have problems recognizing notes or the correct octave.”

They could be suffering from note reading paralysis at home, or they’re probably not equipped to practice on their own during the week. My response:

Use technology!

Note Quest flashcard app is a way to practice note reading between lessons or at lessons. Level 1 begins with Middle C and the notes immediately surrounding, up to Treble G and down to Bass F. The app’s scorecard and timer help to track progress and encourage improvement.


Each level cumulatively introduces a broader note range up to ledger line notes, accidentals, and intervals (teachers say this is the best part). Calling out individual notes is okay, but if they don’t practice by recognizing intervals, identifying single notes is pointless long-term.

Does your student say that he’s going to be traveling and won’t be able to practice? Well, now he can! Note Quest offers Real and Virtual Piano modes so they can still practice at the airport or at Starbucks. All five levels are accessible any time, so you can move up or down a level without being locked out.

Some teachers have reported that Virtual Piano Mode even helps with ear training because of the intervals and the app’s own 4-octave piano.

Another tip is assigning what I call “one-week pieces,” which are short pieces about two levels below their current level that they learn in about a week. The practice of regularly getting new music to play without mastering it is great because they feel like they’re getting some momentum, while getting exposure to more repertoire. Teachers who compose may even write a simple one-pager and use them as guinea pigs. Hey, why not?

More recently, I like the idea of occasionally teaching by rote. This is a welcome tool for students who play naturally by ear, but feel stunted by reading.

Learning by rote is another whole topic of discussion, but I’ll just mention that it can also reinforce note reading in unexpected ways. Here’s how it works:

  • Teach a couple of lines of music by demonstration and they learn some bits without the music.

  • Then bring the music back and they play with the score. In a backwards kind of way, students start to connect the notation to what they just played.

Paula Dreyer has released a delightful series of rote books called Little Gems for Piano. My students enjoy these “little gems” and I’ve recently discovered that doing things in reverse from my norm can be a good thing sometimes.

[FYI: here's my past post "Is it Cheating to Teach by Rote?" and includes a video of how I teach the AMBach Musette by rote and "reading in reverse." -Leila]

Learning the piano doesn’t need to be synonymous with reading music.

If we can help lighten the load of note reading at the early stages, we can focus on the deeper aspects of music teaching and performance, leading to a more satisfying experience for students, and a better teaching experience for us as we groom future musicians and music lovers who are piano literate.

Learn more about NoteQuest here.


Grace Lee (B.M., Piano Performance, M.A., Music Education) teaches from her private piano studio in Los Gatos, California. She was raised in Dallas, Texas, but has lived in Southern and Northern California, as well as Seattle, Washington. She taught music appreciation and group piano classes at Orange County School of the Arts, an acclaimed arts magnet school, and on the adjunct faculty at a local college, teaching group piano and music theory. Once her family transitioned to the Bay Area, the Silicon Valley environment of tech geeks helped give birth to her idea of a technology-based solution to help students learn notes--initially, for her own students. Note Quest is a flashcard app designed to train note reading with an emphasis on intervals.

Note Quest is for the iPad and iPhone and may be downloaded from the App Store or found at

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