Can Labeling Your Piano Keys Help You Learn Faster?

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Struggling to remember which key is which on the piano? One common learning strategy is to label the keys. Read on as St. Augustine, FL teacher Heather L. shares her thoughts on the method…

 

Can labeled piano keys help you learn faster? This is a highly controversial topic and hotly debated in the music education world.

Having come from a high-pressure, formal music college, at the beginning of my teaching career I disliked the idea of any labeling for any age, either on the keys or in the sheet music. And I had previously spent years teaching myself music on the piano, labeling notes on the page with their letter names. It would take me forever to learn a piece of music, because the labeling caused me to focus on individual notes instead of larger chunks of music, like chords. As a young piano teacher, I was afraid that labeling piano keys would handicap my students in a similar way. Over the years, however, the non-academic reality of teaching students of all ages and meeting their challenges has set in.

Strong memorization skills are part of a successful piano career. It’s essential to memorize the letter names of all of the piano keys, eventually. In the meantime, though, for young children up to about age 10, for beginning adult students, and for any student who finds him or herself feeling frustrated over which key is which, labeling your piano keys may help you learn faster.

So, what’s the best way to label the keys?

My professional opinion is that labeling the piano keys with coded colors is superior to labeling with letter names or with images of a note’s location on the music staff. All three kinds of labeling encourage memorization, but with color coding, the labeling becomes not such a big crutch. You still have to remember other descriptions of the note that you’re reading and playing. For instance, if you label your piano keys with color coding (e.g. green dot stickers on all Gs, red dot stickers on all Cs), you have to remember, still, which color means which letter name. That, in itself, is building memory skills. Labeling with images of a note’s location on the music staff, in my opinion, handicaps a student. It discourages the processing of new information in large chunks. Science has shown that people with the greatest memories memorize in that way, so I’d rather my students learn where all of the Cs are, where all of the Gs are, and so on, and not to focus primarily on where each individual note is on the music staff.

Below is an example of how you can label your keys with letter names on simple, blank circle stickers from any major office supply retailer. What you see here, the letters C through C, should be repeated all the way up the keyboard.

labeled piano keys
And here is an example of how to label the keys with images where they are notated on a music staff:

labeled piano keys 2

Yet another way to label is to use only certain letter names. For instance, label only Cs, Fs, and A’s, leaving the rest of the piano keys blank. This further encourages memorizing in groups of information.

Finally, with the guidance of a piano teacher, students can be weaned away from the labels by gradually removing them, perhaps two or three every week. Eventually, the notes will be memorized and reading piano music will become much easier.

HeatherLHeather L. teaches singing, piano, acting, and more in Saint Augustine, FL, as well as through online lessons. She is a graduate of the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and has performed with the New York and Royal Philharmonics, the New Jersey and Virginia Symphonies, the American Boy Choir, and the internationally renowned opera star Andrea Bocelli. Learn more about Heather here!

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8 replies
  1. trevor white
    trevor white says:

    Hey Heather, an interesting post, thank you.
    I agree that labels can be useful, but the most important aspect is not leaving them on too long – as soon as familiarity is attained they should be removed. I think the position on the staff is helpful – students often need help with which “c” is where on the keyboard even when they know what a “c” looks like. I’ve tried a few different approaches and now use some labels called “keynotes” which I get from the UK via ebay. Unlike many others they show the grand staff. Showing a single staff can be really confusing where the bass clef stops and the treble clef starts – try explaining to a beginner why the notes stop going up and drop to the bottom of the staff again, even though the pitch of the notes keeps getting higher! Some others are worse than useless – obviouosly not made or checked by a musician as they have notes and clefs in the wrong places and all sorts of superfluous symbols.

    Reply
  2. Gary snyder
    Gary snyder says:

    Hi I’m in my early 60’s,I want to learn piano but don’t know where to start.I’m going to teach myself.so would the stickers on the notes be a good start or what.I do need some guidance.
    Thank-you Gary

    Reply
    • Brooke Neuman
      Brooke Neuman says:

      Hi Gary-Labeling the piano keys is a great way to memorize the letter names. We highly recommend it for beginners-no matter how old! Good luck in your piano studies!

      Reply
  3. Richard C.
    Richard C. says:

    I have worked with very young students for over 15 years and working with the-year-olds in kindergarten for the past six years, I’ve come to understand that children learn by replacing old knowledge with new knowledge and relating the unfamiliar with the familiar. I insist on never writing in the book or labeling the piano. In fact, I believe labeling and markings on music should not come into play until the piece is mastered. We do use finger markings on the violin but that is more to help with hearing the note than remembering where to put the finger. On the piano I identify the bass and treble clefs as F clef and G clef because of the line that runs between them. The note common to both is middle C. My first lesson is mostly saying, “When you see a note on this line, play this finger and when it’s here, play that finger.” It’s not long before “play this and that” becomes “play the G or F or Middle C.”

    I use the analogy of a child going in the lunch room with a hundred other kids on the first day of school. They don’t know any names, they only know where kids are seated relative to where they are seated – they have not yet learned to distinguish the sounds of their voices. If while at the grocery store with mom, that child saw one of their lunchmates, he would not be able to say “Mom that’s Billie Edwatds,” even if did have on a name tag at school, but he will be able to say, “That’s the kid that sits next to the girl with the freckles at the table across from where I sit.”. After repeated interactions he would not only know his name but he would know his voice and how he got that scar above his eyebrow. No labels needed.

    Reply
  4. MARY LOU CARR
    MARY LOU CARR says:

    Hi, I’ve composed a few songs, lyrics and music, and I want to learn to play the notes and be able to print the sheets, to my original songs.
    I’m 85 years of age and I want my families to be able to play these, for themselves. This may give them a better way to know how I feel, deep inside, on several subjects. I have macular degeneration and need removable, sticky labels
    with only the letter, nothing else, because it confuses my sight. Any suggestions? I have a Casio Lighted Key Board

    Reply

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