Setting Up a Note-Reading Challenge

We want our students to love playing music!  And, we don’t want them to be stuck figuring out the basics for Every.  Single.  Sound.  It’s annoying.  It’s frustrating.  And, that goes for both student & teacher.  So, how can we help them move beyond the basics?

Reading the notes on the staff is akin to phonetically sounding out the letters in a word.  Students need to know what the letter is AND the sound linked to it.

Intervallic reading is akin to a reader that has internalized the phonetic rules & sight words to easily read whole sentences … even whole stories!

Just as reading literature takes more than just understanding the flow of the information, reading musical notes takes many different skills.

Note reading & intervallic reading are linked?


If students don’t know how to read the notes on the staff they are unable to find or name the:

  • Starting note of a song or section.
  • Notes that jump away from the established melodic or harmonic line.  (ie. over an octave jump).

If students don’t know how to read intervallically they are unable to:

  • Follow the flow of a phrase.
  • Read ahead in the music … they are stuck reading note by note.
  • Play without having every note name written in the music.

Neither option is ideal &, as teachers, we need to help our students learn BOTH sets of skills.

How to link both in a note-reading challenge

We have been doing a 1-minute note-reading challenge in our studio for the past several weeks.  Students have tried to beat their scores week to week in order to earn bonus points.  Many have even got their parents to purchase one or more of the top note-reading apps to help them increase their scores!

And while there are many ways to remember what the notes are on the staff (i.e. acronyms, landmark notes, etc.), students will forget what a note is.  Especially in a timed situation like a 1-minute challenge.

When a student freezes, there are a few options.  You can remind him/her of:

  • The landmark notes locations
  • The acronym for that particular clef

OR … you can pull the card they just named & get them to see the intervallic connection.

Especially for my beginner readers, this has been hugely helpful in getting them to name & play notes that they seem to get stuck on.  The 2 questions I ask are:

  • Is this note higher or lower on the staff?
  • Is it a step or skip?

Then, I get them to find the previous note on the keyboard & then play the note they were stuck.  (And, let them name an extra card after the minute is over to make up the time we spent figuring out the note.)

The benefits of this approach are that students:

  • Still memorize most of the notes
  • Have another strategy for finding the note they need to play
  • Start looking at the cards (individual notes) as a progression … much like their music.

When we can help students see the connections between activities & their playing they are invested in their learning!

Setting up a 1-minute note reading challenge

There are very few things needed to set up this type of challenge.

  • Note-reading cards
  • Tracking sheet
  • Timer (cell phone works great)

The note-reading cards & tracking sheet could be physical or electronic versions, depending on what you prefer.

We have been using physical cards & students love seeing them getting counted at the end. “Have I beat the number of cards from last week!?!”  We make it into a bit of celebration each week!  And when a student is able to name all the cards in their level,  they are graduated to the next level of cards along with a bonus set of points to celebrate their accomplishment.

For tracking the numbers from week to week, I just went old-school paper.  It’s became a little like a game show with students waiting for me to look up & say “You got more cards!”  Though, now some of my students are starting to remember from the previous week & are able to tell me whether they beat their number.  It makes me smile at how invested they are in improving week over week!

Keeping it simple 

To help you make out (most of) the planning for your 1-minute challenge, just remember to keep it simple.

Decide your:

  • Level options
  • How long to hold the challenge
  • Points system
  • Tracking sheet (up to 30 students)

Let me know how your 1-minute note-reading challenge goes in your studio in the comments below.


  1. Love this! Thank you for sharing it. I can’t find the freebie PDF mentioned for this. Where can I find it? Thanks so much.

    1. Elizabeth, I’m so sorry! I thought that this was fixed this morning & I must have been mistaken. The form should be showing now. If there are any more issues, just let me know. Glad you loved the article & I hope the challenge goes awesome for your studio!

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