Five Unconventional Ways To Use Flashcards

There are many skills that need to be taught before trying to teach note names. That’s when I use flashcards. 

The green dots represent the tiny piece of the flashcard the student is supposed to actually look at and process. Everything else, though distracting, is irrelevant to their task.

The green dots represent the tiny piece of the flashcard the student is supposed to actually look at and process. Everything else, though distracting, is irrelevant to their task.

Stop for a moment and imagine you’re a child looking at this set of flash cards for the very first time.

Notice how challenging it is to focus in on that one little tiny note. The changes from card to card are so slight.

Here are five non-traditional ways to use traditional flashcards:

Start with 10 flashcards - two of each note.
Start with 10 flashcards – two of each note.

First, create a small deck of ten cards. You can use any set of notes you like, but it works well to have five pairs of notes. If the notes are wildly different, it makes it easier. More similar notes are harder to differentiate.

I used Middle C, D, E, F and G in treble clef, (partially to show how difficult it is to tell the closely spaced notes apart.)

Note that I have placed the flashcards so that they overlap – hiding the multiple treble and bass clefs. This is a great way to make comparisons easier. If you’re feeling really ambitious you could even extend the staff lines. I’ve never gotten that far.

1. Lines and Spaces – Simply Sorting

Note that I have placed the flashcards so that they overlap - hiding the multiple treble and bass clefs. This is a great way to make comparisons easier. If you're feeling really ambitious you could even extend the staff lines. I've never gotten that far.
Flashcards sorted into line notes and space notes.

Ask your student to sort the cards into space notes and line notes. If you’re starting with off-the-staff reading, (as we do in Piano Town)it’s a great time to get some of the basic skills of staff reading solidified. If you find that your student has trouble distinguishing between line notes and space notes, take the time to make it clear. It’s not as easy as it looks. Sometimes it helps to say “In the space between the lines” or “With a line THROUGH it.”

New readers often have trouble with the terminology. It’s not intuitive.

2. “Being” Lines and Spaces 

Hold up a flashcard and have the student SHOW you whether it’s a line or space note.

Mady "being" a line note.
Mady “being” a line note.

Lines:     Put their arms straight out to their sides and say “Line!”
Spaces:  Put their arms in a circle over their head (like a ballet dancer) and say, “Space!”

Mady "being" a space note.
Mady “being” a space note.
  • You can also reverse the roles and act out the lines and spaces yourself. Make mistakes. See if they can catch your errors. Same learning task, a silly way to do it! Students LOVE to catch their teacher’s mistakes. This is especially fun in groups. 

Matched pairs. It’s worth noting that when I was setting up the cards for this picture I matched an E with a G and didn’t discover it until I found myself with a mismatched pair!

3. Making Pairs

  • Ask your student to match up the pairs of notes. (The cards are much easier to compare if a student slides the cards together. Students may need some help sliding them at first.)
Matched pairs. It's worth noting that when I was setting up the cards for this picture I matched an E with a G and didn't discover it until I found myself with a mismatched pair!
Matched pairs. It’s worth noting that when I was setting up the cards for this picture I matched an E with a G and didn’t discover it until I found myself with a mismatched pair!

4. Concentration

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Note matching Concentration.

Note matching Concentration.

  • Create a miniature “Concentration” game. Mix up the flashcards and place them face down. Try to make matches by turning over only two cards at a time. It’s interesting to watch the difficulty change the learning taking place. This forces the student to internalize and remember what each note looks like. If you must, you can introduce letter names, but it doesn’t really make the learning any more substantial. What you’re trying to teach is the ability to distinguish between the way different notes look.

Remember to cover up the note names on the back with post-it notes.

5. Going Up, Going Down

Here are five cards arranged going up.
Notes going up.

Here are five cards arranged going up.

  • Have the student arrange a few flashcards in ascending or descending order.
  • Reverse the order
  • Mix them up and see if they can find the one that’s out of sequence.
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Notes doing down.

This is a great way to solidify the way notes are printed higher and lower on the staff.

You can combine this with playing the notes, or keep it as a flashcard exercise. Adjust the level of the difficulty by adding more cards.

You may need to start with as few as two or three.

Make the sorting task more interesting by adding  puzzle erasers . Experiment with doing the animals first, then placing the cards and vice versa. Every time you change the task, the brain has to function in a different way.

Make the sorting task more interesting by adding puzzle erasers. Experiment with doing the animals first, then placing the cards and vice versa. Every time you change the task, the brain has to function in a different way.

Variation: Start with only space notes or line notes. Using a larger selection of cards, have your student line them up in order. You can do this behind the keys, as pictured. The skips up and down the staff make the differences larger and easier to see. 

You can also do this with random cards, as shown in this video. There’s plenty of learning going on. Notice the mistakes Nadia makes, and how she corrects HERSELF.

Let the student use a  Kangaroo  to practice skipping over the line or space notes.
Let the student use a Kangaroo to practice skipping over the line or space notes.

Learning to “see” the skips can be followed by learning to “feel” the skips on the keyboard. All of this can happen before the child has been asked to actually read any music. 

If you still enjoy using flashcards in their more convention ways, please continue to do so. But for me, I’ll be hopping around with kangaroos and yelling, “Space!”