Are your students musically literate?

Are your students musically literate? And by that I mean able to read, sing, internalise/audiate, play and create.

Now before you wander off thinking that Sally’s talking about beginners again, I don’t just mean those students who are at the more elementary levels but at all levels and standards.


To help us get clearer on just what is meant by musical literacy here are a few definitions:

‘Association for Music Education (NAFME) states that a person with music literacy is able to understand and engage with music in a number of different ways, including the creative, responsive and performative artistic processes. He or she is able to perform music in a manner that illustrates careful preparation and reflects an understanding and interpretation of the selection’. [1]

In a similar way Dr. Julie Knerr and Katherine Fisher, authors of Piano Safari state that: ‘Complete music literacy includes understanding and creating music in addition to being able to read music’. [2]

In their seminal book, The Child as Musician, Professor Gary McPherson and Janet Mills list the characteristics of someone who is musically literate (in relation to Western classical music): ‘Literacy …occurs as a result of children having developed their capacity to make music, reflect on the music in which they are engaged, express their views on music which they play, hear or create, speak about and listen to music in order to form judgements, and read, write, comprehend and interpret staff notation’. [1]

Becoming musically literate therefore isn’t something that should only happen in beginner lessons as children start to get to grips with staff notation. So today, rather than continuing to look at the starter end of the musical literacy continuum we’re going to head right up the levels. The development of musical literacy is just as vital for advanced students as it is for beginners and yet somehow I think we often forget this.

Here are three starter activities for a student learning a sonata that will help to develop their musical literacy. To give examples I am using Mozart Sonata in G KV 283, 1st movement (which happens to be an alternative piece on the Trinity 2018-20 Grade 7 Piano syllabus).


In this sonata I suggest using the 2nd subject which, with its descending stepwise melody makes an appropriate choice. This could be played in its entirety:

musical literacy

or reduced to something like this:

musical literacy

Students start by listening then singing with scale degrees, note names or solfa as appropriate. This is followed by writing at least part of the phrase down before playing, ideally from memory. This is just a starter activity and can lead onto many others.


The sonata is of course punctuated by many cadences and these provide great opportunities for refining understanding of cadential progressions. The student might write out b. 50:

musical literacy


as a simple chord progression:

musical literacy

The same can be done at b.117. The chords can be labelled and inner hearing encouraged before the notes are realised at the keyboard. Furthermore, the similarities and differences between the two progressions can be compared.


From b. 62 to b.67 the bass line consists of a repeated D pedal over which Mozart adds a descending melodic sequence. After identifying the pattern students could explore continuing the sequence on further or inverting it or creating their own melodic sequential progression.

musical literacy


Musical literacy is about so much more than just learning to read staff notation. It can and should be happening at all levels of the learning process.

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piano students

This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart, Co-Founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers

[1] Click HERE for article this was cited in
[2] Redefining First Lessons, Dr Julie Knerr and Katherine Fisher – Curious Live, February 19/24 2018.
[3] p. 154. McPherson, G. & Mills, J. Musical Literacy in The Child as Musician. CLICK HERE

One thought on “Are your students musically literate?

  1. Angelus

    Great quotes about the importance of musical literacy at advanced levels and fun ideas.

    I’m finding that providing opportunities to see and notate aspects directly related to listening type questions helps with understanding/ put a label on what students are listening for/ have heard and can give them more ownership re: practising.


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