The piano has a major advantage over other instruments when it comes to learning music theory: a clear visual layout on which many concepts can be physically demonstrated and mentally retained. Of course, I’m biased, but that doesn’t make it less true. Most other instruments rely on memorizing fingering for specific notes, which often makes the notes’ relationship to each other harder to see. On the other hand, all of the available notes on a piano are laid out before the player in an easily recognizable pattern.
Being able to see abstract theory concepts physically laid out in front of you can make a huge difference, especially to those more visually oriented. Which is why I like to take advantage of learning at the keyboard as much as possible.
One concept in particular that is generally easier to learn on the piano is the interval. For those who may be unfamiliar with the word, and interval is simply the distance between two notes. That distance is given a numerical value–for example, the interval of two notes that are five notes apart from each other, such as A to E, is called a fifth. Pretty straightforward.
Since the piano keys are laid out in alphabetical order, this makes locating intervals a breeze with just a little practice. In my own experience, I’ve found that most students have an easier time visually identifying intervals on the keyboard than on the music staff. Of course, they should be taught to do both from the start. I’m just saying it’s easier at first to see and feel an interval on the keys than it is to count the lines and spaces in between the notes to figure it out. So making the connection between an interval on the staff and on the keyboard can help students more easily and quickly understand it.
I developed a game with this very idea in mind, and I would like to share it today with you. I’ve sort of worked it out through a process of trial and error, with my own students being my play testers. Much to my surprise and delight, this simple game has become the most popular one among my students, who frequently request to play it at their lessons. So I think I can safely say it is a success.
The game has a beginner version and a more advanced version. Its basic goal is very simple: players start with place markers on the low end of the piano and race to the other end. The first player to reach the highest key wins!
Furthermore, it requires very little supplies, and what you do need you can make yourself or find around your house. Supplies include:
- Small slips of paper with letters A-G written individually on them for the beginner version, or intervals 2nd-8va for the advanced version. These are called “coordinates” in the game. Be sure to make multiples of each coordinate, so there’s plenty to draw. Or, you can download this PDF file and simply print and cut: Interval Race Coordinates. **The file also includes optional Special Events I created to make the game a little more interesting. I’ll explain those below.
- A bag or similar object from which to draw the coordinates. I like using a quart-sized Ziploc bag since I travel teach–that way, I can keep it in my teaching bag and pull it out as needed without fear of everything spilling out. I also keep the beginner/advanced versions in separate bags so they’re both ready to go.
- Place markers for each player. I just use a different piece of candy for each player, since I already have that on hand at every lesson. You could just as easily borrow real place markers from other games you own–I just don’t trust myself to not lose them. 😉
Beginner–Key Name Identification
For beginning students who are still learning the names of the keys, I play a simplified version which focuses just on locating the keys–no interval identification yet. However, the mere act of finding keys in relation to each other sets the student up for understanding intervals later on. How? Whenever they draw a new letter, they have to first locate their place marker, remember what key it’s on already and then find the next highest key from their current position that matches the new letter. So they’re already thinking in terms of distance and relation. Plus, there are a couple Special Events in the game that require the player to move backwards instead of forward, so they get practice locating notes in both directions.
It’s easy enough to pick up. Players take turns drawing a “coordinate” from the bag and moving their place marker up to the nearest matching key. Then they return the coordinate to the bag and their turn’s over. That’s it.
To add a little more variance into the game, I also made a few “Special Events” which are mixed in with the letters. Some help you, some deter you. But they all make it just a little more interesting. Here’s a list of the events and what they do:
Shortcut: You found a shortcut! Draw a coordinate and add 3 free spaces to it (Example: if you draw a C, move up to F instead).
Slow! School Zone: You’re driving through a school zone. Draw a coordinate and subtract 2 spaces (Example: instead of C, move to the A before it–sometimes that means you’ll go backwards, depending on how close you are to the letter you just drew).
Traffic Jam: You’re stuck in traffic. Lose 1 turn.
Flat Tire: Oh no, you have a flat tire! Lose 2 turns.
Road Closed: Draw a coordinate. That coordinate is “closed” for the rest of the game. From now on, every time this coordinate is drawn it is removed from the game. The player cannot move to that key and must stay where they are.
Detour: Draw a coordinate, but reverse the direction for that turn only. (In other words, go back instead of forward to the closest matching key).
Toll: Save this “Toll” money and cash it in on any following turn to avoid a detour. (In other words: if you draw a Toll, you get to keep it. That’s the end of your turn. But, the next time you draw a Detour, you can turn in your Toll to ignore the effect of the Detour. Go forward as usual).
Speeding Ticket: You were caught speeding! Lose all “Toll” money in your hand and return to the bag unused. Ouch!
These Special Events help to keep the game unpredictable. So even if someone pulls ahead by drawing really good coordinates, there’s more of a chance for others to catch up and pass them. Personally, I have the curse of the Flat Tire. My students think it’s hilarious.
I tried to create a good ratio between coordinates and Special Events, to make sure the coordinates would be drawn more often. So there’s a little more than 3 times as many coordinates as Special Events. Otherwise, the game could start to drag on if no one’s making any progress.
Normally, for students new to the game, or for those who struggle more with figuring out the names of the keys, I leave out the Special Events to keep it simple. And by “leaving them out,” I don’t mean I take the time to pull each one out of the bag beforehand.
Instead, I just tell the student if they draw one to put it back and draw again. Much easier.
That’s all there is to the game: Draw a letter, move, repeat. Short, simple, yet surprisingly fun. It only takes on average 5-10 minutes to play, especially once the student knows what to do and their identification skills improve. If you’re really short on time, try starting on middle C instead. That way, you only have half the distance to cover.
For more advanced students, we play the second version of the game which replaces the letters with interval numbers 2-8. Otherwise, game play is exactly the same.
I will say that this version required more trial and error. Originally, I had a mixture of intervals with “up” and “down” arrows in front of them to draw. What I quickly realized, however, is it isn’t very efficient in terms of quick game play. It’s fine if you have plenty of time–or if the student has their own materials to play at home with a sibling or parent. But often we couldn’t finish a single game before the end of the lesson because there was too much back and forth movement. So I stick to forward movement with the coordinates. After all, there are still the Special Events which occasionally mix up the direction anyway.
This is a simple base game with a lot of potential for flexibility, so feel free to change it up to suit your needs and preferences!
Once the student masters identifying the keys/intervals from low to high, try starting at the opposite end of the keyboard and racing from highest to lowest instead, so they have to think backwards more.
You could also add flats/sharps into the mix, as well as major/minor/perfect intervals for more advanced students.
If you teach siblings, you can have them play together. Most love competing with each other, and since this game relies entirely on luck-of-the-draw, no one has an unfair advantage based on skill level. My students take particular pride in beating me. 😉
I hope you enjoy playing this game as much as my students and I do. Now go forth, and make learning music fun!