Can a child learn piano when they don’t know how to read yet?

May 22, 2021

Music Lessons for kids - Piano Lessons NYC


Learning how to read and interpret music is an important part of music lessons, just as regular reading is an important focus in school. Children who have already learned to read in school generally will have a very productive time from the start of piano lessons. Can a child learn piano when they don’t know how to read yet?

Kids who can read can easily understand all of the elements that go in to learning how to read sheet music!But what if your child is younger and doesn’t know how to read yet? You may be wrestling with whether or not beginning piano lessons is a good idea for your young child.

Let’s explore a few factors which influence whether a child can learn to play piano if they have not learned how to read yet.

Is your child ready to participate?

Playing piano (as well as any other musical instrument) is not a sedentary activity. Music lessons are very active and require consistent participation from the student for the entire class.

Toddler gym classes, for example, are designed in such a way that a child can do a focused movement or exercise and then relax for a while waiting for their turn to do the next task. Private piano lessons are different:  your child will actively participate by playing the majority of the time. A great piano teacher makes the activities during the lesson playful and exciting while keeping the full attention of the child.

Is your child developmentally ready for piano lessons?

Children enrolled in piano lessons need to be ready physically! Piano requires a variety of large and fine motor skills to be developed over time. One requirement is to be able to play keys with individual fingers. This means that the child should be able to isolate each finger with dexterity to press one key – without making the rest of the fingers into a fist. Additionally, while piano is probably the easiest instrument to produce a sound on, it still requires a certain strength in the hands and forearms.

Based on the two facts above, we do not recommend starting piano lessons before 3.5 years old. If you are interested in a music lessons for your young child, enroll in a group music class for toddlers! There are many wonderful classes where your child can learn the basics of singing, music rhythms, and playing with simple music instruments like toy drums, shakers, toy recorders, etc. They’re super fun! If you are a New Yorker, our favorite is Kids at Work – check them out!

When your child is in their late threes – early fours, then they most likely have enough finger strength and dexterity to be able to press different keys as explained above. At this age, they might even identify some letters, which will come in handy for learning the names of the notes, but not really read yet. Is your child ready for piano then?

Will the piano teacher accept young children?

Before we explain what your pre-reader can do in piano lessons, here’s another factor that comes in play: every piano teacher has different preferences as to what age they will teach! Some piano instructors will accept students who are late 3’s-early 4’s and some will politely ask you to wait until the child is 5 or 6 years old.

Traditionally, up until the 70’s or 80’s, children would start piano around 6 years old at the very earliest. Many wonderful traditional piano method books like Thompson are designed for first graders and up. Consequently, many piano teachers continue this tradition and consider working with children younger than 6 simply unnecessary.

Another reason for not taking younger children is that working with this age group requires more energy from the teacher during the lessons and more experience and understanding of child psychology. Many teachers are simply not fit or do not want to work with this age group. This is not a sign of an unprofessional piano teacher, but is rather an understandable and acceptable personal choice each teacher makes.

If the piano teacher agrees to work with your 3.5-4 year old,  it is a good idea to inquire if they have  experience successfully teaching that age. If so, then the lessons will work better.

What can children do in their piano lessons before they learn to read?

As we mentioned earlier, the ability to read music notation is essential to playing any musical instrument. While music notation is very mathematical and logical, it takes a lot of effort to understand it and make connections between what you see on the page and what you play on the keyboard.

If your child doesn’t read yet, it is much more difficult for them to grasp the concepts of note reading.  This doesn’t mean you should avoid enrolling your young child in piano lessons! There is a way to start playing simple but enjoyable songs by finger numbers instead of note letters.

For piano playing the fingers are numbered from 1 (thumb) to 5 (pinky) on each hand. Notating easy songs with numbers or adding finger numbers to music sheets will do the trick to start your kids playing. This is not cheating but an effective way to make your child excited about making actual music!

There are also an array of musical activities, that a young child can do to learn the basics of music theory while having fun! At Riverside Music Studios, we call these “Piano Games”  and they are a part of our piano lessons for little kids in NYC offerings.

Piano games allow your child to begin to associate music notes with piano keys. This helps them to easily transition to the traditional music reading when they are ready.

So, can a child learn piano when they don’t know how to read yet?

YES! With the help of a capable piano teacher, kids age 3-4 can have fun and learn how to read music.

Ultimately, there is only one way to know if your child is ready to learn music – schedule one trial lesson and see how it goes! If you’re interested in piano lessons in NYC, click here to schedule a trial lesson with us!



To sign up for music lessons in NYC or to contact us with any questions please use this form:

(212) 247-4900
Riverside Music Studios
1727 Broadway, Suite 2
New York, New York 10019