Music Notation Lesson Plan

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

With this lesson plan, your students will be introduced to musical literacy. They will learn the basics of reading and writing music notation and will attempt their own basic transcriptions.

Learning Objective

Upon completion of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • Identify and explain the use of music notation symbols
  • Demonstrate the way that pitch is transcribed in music
  • Demonstrate how note duration is transcribed in music


45-60 minutes

Curriculum Standards


Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.


Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language of a court opinion differs from that of a newspaper).


Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; and clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions.



  • Ask students to try and remember what it was like learning to read - or at least to imagine what it felt like. Ask them the following, and write their answers on the board:
    • How do we translate a spoken language into a written language?
    • What were the steps of learning to read a written language?
    • How did you learn to associate the symbols on a page with a sound?
  • Hand out printed copies of Music Notation: History & Theory and explain to students that learning to read music is a lot like learning to read any written language.
  • Select three students and have one read aloud the section ''Painting with Sound'', ask one to read aloud ''History,'' and ask one to read aloud ''The Canvas: Staff.''
  • Draw a musical staff on the board. Do not add the clef or time signature yet.
    • Ask students to consider the metaphors of music like painting or reading. If the staff is like the canvas, what could we compare that to in writing? (Examples could include things like the page of a book).
  • Select three students to read aloud the four paragraphs of the section ''The Colors: Pitch.''
  • Ask the first student has read the first paragraph and then demonstrate the concept of pitch. Play a note on the piano and indicate that note's position on the staff. For now, mark notes with a simple dot since we haven't explained note shape yet. Play a higher note and show that it is higher on the staff. Play a lower note and indicate its position.
    • If pitches are like colors in painting, what are they like in writing? (Answers could include letters or words - these are the ''sounds'' of a language).
  • Ask the second student to read the second paragraph. Draw the treble and bass clefs and play a few notes on the piano in each register.
  • Ask the third student to read the last two paragraphs of the section. Draw sharps and flats on the clef and use the piano to demonstrate the difference between a natural note and its sharp/flat positions.
  • Ask students to independently read the sections''The Shapes: Rhythm'' and the ''Lesson Summary.'' Once they are finished, ask them the following:
    • If rhythm is like a shape in painting, what is it like in writing? (Answers could include things like the sentence or paragraph.)
    • What defines the shape of a note? (Its duration)
    • What do each of the notes look like? Draw them on the board.
    • What does the time signature tell us?
    • If the time signature is 4/4, how many beats are in a single measure?
    • How many whole notes would be in a measure of 4/4 time? How many half notes? How many quarter notes? How many eighth notes? Draw a measure on the board with one whole note in the top bar, two half notes in the second, four quarter notes in the third, and eight eighth notes in the fourth.
  • Establish a beat by tapping on the desk and ask students to drum along. Play a single note on the piano for different durations. After each one, ask students how long that note was, what kind of note it was, and what it looked like. Draw those notes on the staff so students can begin to associate the sound with the note. Once students have become comfortable with this, you can select students and ask them to draw the notes on the classroom's staff while you play the rhythm.
  • You can test student understanding with the Lesson Quiz.

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