Fun and Engaging Ways to Teach Treble Clef in Elementary Music
Updated: Mar 12, 2022
Note-naming is a foundational skill for music students. But introducing it- treble clef, in particular, where they usually start- can be daunting! So how do you teach the treble clef to kids?
In this post, we'll talk about how begin teaching treble clef to beginners in an accessible and scaffolded way to make sure they understand it and can build on their knowledge as you move on in your curriculum.
In my experience, kids can become overwhelmed or confused pretty quickly when we begin learning our treble clef notes.
At the same time, I often have a small group of students for whom it clicks almost immediately. That's when it becomes tricky to manage your class- the levels of understanding vary so much within the first lesson. It's crucial that we music teachers present the concept of the staff, lines, spaces, and the musical alphabet in a clear and scaffolded way.
Fortunately, I have a few tips for you on just how to do this! My kids enjoy learning this new skill, and I have a lot of fun teaching it. Let me know in the comments if you have any other strategies or modifications you use in your classroom.
Tip 1 - Define your vocabulary right away
The most important vocab words I want my kids to know by the end of my first note-naming lesson are:
- Lines and spaces
- Musical alphabet
When I define staff, I show them a picture of a staff, then have kids hold up their own hands sideways, palms facing them. "The staff", I explain, "has five lines and four spaces. It kind of looks like your hand right now. Your fingers are the staff lines, and the spaces between are the staff spaces." I explicitly show this too by pinching each location while saying "line" or "space." Another tip here: always start from the bottom and go up, since that is how the naming strategy will work. (For me, my pinky is the lowest finger, but some students will orient their hand so that their thumb is lowest. If it matters to you, ask them to switch their hand. But as long as they're going from bottom to top, the orientation of their hand doesn't really matter.)
Once they understand what we've labeled as lines and spaces, they can turn and quiz each other by pinching a finger or a space and asking a partner to identify it.
Lines and Spaces
Translating the lines and spaces from your hand to the actual staff needs some practice too. For a while, it didn't occur to me that to kids it might not be obvious whether a note is on a line or a space, so I didn't explicitly teach that. Sometimes, it's not clear to students. So that's something I teach and we practice.
Kids don't need to know note names in order to do this. So even if they can't identify the note as being on second line G, I want them to be able to say it's on a line; I want them to be able to say third space C is in a space. I use that exact phrasing: on a line, in a space.
So up a note goes on the staff. Before we identify it as line or space, I actually represent it using my own head as the note! I ask if it's on a line- then I hold my hand up horizontally through the middle of my head like it's on a line- or if it's in a space- then I hold both my hands horizontally above and below my head like it's sitting in a space. Usually, they can match the picture to my head. If not, I help kids individually or ask a peer to help. Kids love to be helpful- take advantage of that!
This is an important scaffolding step. Even if some kids don't "need" this strategy, building a solid foundation for everyone guarantees better understanding as you move on. Kinesthetic strategies, especially, are not just engaging, but they help students internalize meaning.
The goal is that eventually this step is removed and kids can identify line or space at sight. But you can spend as much time as necessary on this, since knowing line or space is key to being able to name the note in the future.
"What's that squiggly thing at the beginning of the staff?" "It's called a treble clef, " I say.
And that's about it for clef.
I don't have kids draw it immediately, I don't point out there's a swirl around the second line, and if they don't remember the word "treble", I'm okay with it.
Once you introduce bass clef, the details become more important. For now, I don't want to pile on information that they don't need yet.
Students need to know that the musical alphabet has seven letters, that they go alphabetically, and that after G comes A again.
As simple as this sounds, to practice this, we all sit in a circle or go row by row saying the musical alphabet letter by letter. Each student says the next letter, and whenever a student says A after G, I make a huge deal out of it. My third graders LOVED this.
If you want something a little harder (okay, this is considerably harder), try the game Pass the Beat, but use the alphabet letters (A B C D E F G (rest) instead of "Pass the beat a-round the room (rest)." Never done Pass the Beat? Check out this video for an explanation. A word of advice: for some kids, this game presents a LOT of pressure. Go easy on kids until you think they're ready for more strictness about a steady beat.
Tip 2 - Pick a fun mnemonic device
Every Good Boy Does Fine. That's what I learned. And it works.
But. This video has been my go-to for years. It's called Every Good Boy Deserves Football, and it is memorable and informative, if just a bit Three Stooges-y (think people getting hit in the face with a soccer ball a few times). Kids LOVE it.
Before watching the video, I explain a few things. One, it's super catchy- as in, your kids will probably want to get up and dance as they watch. Set your expectations beforehand. Two, it's a video from Britain or the UK, so the song references football (which is American soccer) and the stave (our staff). Three, they also introduce middle C, which I personally don't cover right away.
By the end of the video, kids remember Every Good Boy Deserves Football for the lines and FACE for the spaces.
Alternatively, watch the video and have kids write their own sentences! One of my favorite from a previous group of kids: Elmo Gobbles Big Delicious Falafels.
Tip 3 - Slow, step-by-step practice
Now, it's your job as the teacher to a) break the mnemonic devices down into individual letters going with particular lines and spaces and b) reinforce which mnemonic to use with a line note vs. a space note
1. Put a note up on the board and begin by asking line or space (ask them to use their heads- literally!)
2. Then use your hands and say the correct sentence, stopping in the right spot. Let the kids tell you when to stop. You might need to explicitly say that it's on the third line, or the second space.
3. Double-check it so you have the opportunity to model diligence if it's correct, or acknowledging mistakes and persevering if it's incorrect.
4. Do several of these as a class.
5. Quiz them by giving them a note and naming it, then asking them to verify. Build them up first by giving the right names for a few notes, then say the wrong note. Often, kids will jump at the chance to show you what they know with their new skills.
6. Have the class do individual or small group practice with worksheets (I have themed worksheets here and a blank version here if you want to fill it out yourself), online games, or other activities (my Treble Clef Donut Shop Google Slides is a simple, introductory activity good for in-person or virtual learning).
a) Speed is unimportant as this phase. Using the strategies correctly to arrive at the correct answer is far more important.
b) For some kids, this will click immediately. For others, it will not. Pairing a student mentor with these kids can help. But check in with them personally too.
c) Every Good Boy Deserves Football will get stuck in their heads. Fact.
Common mistakes/confusion students show in the beginning
- The most prevalent one is mistaking line notes for space notes and vice versa. It's crucial that they can identify where notes are before moving onto naming.
- Counting notes from top to bottom. Explain that we go bottom to top because the notes go low to high in pitch as we ascend.
- Along those lines, kids can show confusion when they realize that E and F exist in both line and space form. The difference is their pitch. You can use a barred instrument to demonstrate the difference.
- Some kids are very confident that they understand how to name notes. Sometimes they will name every note correctly in group practice, then mistake them all on individual assignments. Don't forget to check in with all your students, even if they seem like the get it.
- Note stems can be confusing, too. Have you ever heard your student ask, "Why is this note upside down?" It's just something to quickly explain away, but I don't explicitly teach stems at the beginning.
With proper preparation and scaffolding, your students will be on their way to being treble clef note experts!
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