How to Teach Your 3-Year Old to Play Piano

Even 3-year-olds can learn basic piano skills.
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Perhaps your three year old isn't busting out compositions the way Mozart did at age three, but she may love sitting at the piano and banging on the keys until the cows come home. Capitalize on this love and interest before she turns into a grade schooler who is always trying to negotiate her way out of piano practice. By using a variety of games and activities to introduce your three year old to piano, you are setting the stage for a lifelong love and appreciation of piano and music.

  • Rhythm instruments (triangles, egg shakers, wood blocks)
  • Piano
  • CD of nursery rhymes

1 Rhythm and Listening

2 Teach as many musical concepts

Teach as many musical concepts as you can away from the piano, because chances are, your wiggly preschooler isn't going to sit still for very long at the piano bench. Rhythm is something you can teach without using the piano at all. Play a favorite collection of songs and march or clap along with a steady beat.

3 Keep time

Keep time with the music using a rhythm instrument such as an egg shaker, castanet or triangle.

4 Using quarter- half-and whole-note rhythms

Experiment with your rhythm instruments and actions using quarter-, half- and whole-note rhythms. Teach one-beat quarter notes by saying, "Walk, walk, walk" as you walk to the beat and play along with the instrument. Half notes can be taught by saying, "Stand-ing, stand-ing" and whole notes by saying, "Sleep-ing-ba-by" as your child holds the note on the instrument while saying the words.

5 Ensure that your child

Ensure that your child is ready to take piano to the next level by teaching her to visually recognize letters A to G and numbers one to five.

6 Show her pictures

Show her pictures of the written symbols that go with the rhythms you clapped and played. A quarter note is the easiest for three year old minds to grasp, so begin by showing her a picture and having her play the rhythm on the piano as she says "Hop, hop, hop."

7 Teach your three year old some half notes three year

Teach your three year old some half notes by showing her the picture symbol for a half note. Point out how the half note is different than the quarter note because it has an "empty stomach." Because its stomach is empty, it is slower than the quarter note. She should hold the key down the whole time she says her two-beat word, "Stand-ing."

8 Show your child

Show your child a picture of a whole note. It looks like a donut with a hole in the middle, which, of course, is why it is called a whole note. It, too, has an empty stomach and no stem to help it move, so it is the longest, laziest note. Help your child hold down the key for four beats as she says, "Sleep-ing ba-by."

9 Help your child

Help your child develop her musical ear by playing music for her on the piano and asking her questions about it. Was the song you played fast or slow? High or low? Loud or soft? Did the notes go up or down?

10 Keyboard Geography and Note Reading

11 Teach your preschooler

Teach your preschooler the patterns of black keys on the piano, since she will eventually use the black keys to help her find the white keys. Point out how the black keys are in a pattern of two keys, three keys, two keys, three keys — all the way up the piano. Have her accompany a familiar song on a CD playing the two black keys or three black keys and keeping a steady beat.

12 Use a D-centered approach

Use a D-centered approach when teaching the white keys, since D is the easiest key in the octave for her little eyes to find. Spend a few days just playing rhythms on the D keys, experimenting with low and high sounds.

13 Introduce the other keys gradually

Introduce the other keys gradually. Reintroduce keys G and A when she is closer to age five, as they are the easiest keys to mix up.

14 Teach your child

Teach your child to read patterns on the page. Hold off on music written on the lines and spaces of the staff, instead just focusing on your little one's ability to follow a pattern, using spatial awareness of steps and skips. Write or purchase music using three notes that are next to each other on the piano for best success — using five fingers requires more dexterity, and your three year old may need another year or two to develop her fine motor skills. Point to each note on the music so she begins to understand left-to-right, top-to-bottom progression.

  • Resist the urge to go Tiger Mom on your child and make unrealistic demands -- focus on giving her plenty of time to "free play" at the piano and encourage and instill a love of music.
  • Each "lesson" with your child should include a few minutes at the piano and a few minutes practicing musical concepts away from the piano to maintain her interest.

Carly Seifert has been a piano instructor since 2001. She has also covered adoption and introducing children to the arts for "Montana Parent Magazine." Seifert graduated from University of California, Irvine with a Bachelor of Arts in drama.