Ukulele for Beginners: Chords first, or reading music?

by | Aug 9, 2013 | Beginners, Improvisation and song writing | 0 comments

Should you learn ukulele chords first or should you start out by mastering music notation?

Learning musical notation or ukulele chords?

What should come first?

This is actually a very important question for music teachers and their students alike.

As a music teacher, do you start by teaching your class music notation and then work your way up to the chords or do you reverse that order?

In an attempt to give a precise answer to this difficult problem, I present a two-sided argument below as a response to a comment from one of our members. Jenny gives her views and through the discussion, the pros and cons of each of the two approaches have been clearly highlighted.

I am curious about how you view learning to read notes/music on ukulele.

This fall I will be starting a first-time ukulele class at one school in which I teach, and I chose to use James Hill’s “Ukulele in the Classroom” because I was quite impressed by the Langley BC school’s program, of which Hill is an alumnus.

A new librarian sparked interest in ukulele here a year ago, and I have enjoyed taking it up, but we have quite a difference of opinion about how one should learn the uke. I’m a school elementary music teacher, used to teach band, I play trombone and classical guitar plus a lot of instruments some, and I think the classic approach — learning to read music on the instrument, then learning chords, etc. — is the most pedagogically honest approach.

I understand that starting with chords might be more “fun”, but I still think people should learn an instrument from the ground up, so to speak. You both have Masters in Piano; what did you learn first on piano, notes or chords? Why would a fretted instrument necessarily be any different? I await your argument! Who knows; I might change my mind!

Yes, I believe music reading is important, but it is more important to get people excited about music and playing instruments first.  Our approach builds rhythmic and aural awareness before music reading is introduced.

I am an elementary general music teacher and orchestra director. I have observed that in one 30-minute class per week, students can learn how music notation works (note identification treble clef and rhythmic reading) but not much more.

Truly fluent music reading comes after several years of practicing an instrument. I expect my 5th-grade orchestra students to be reading music well by the end of two years of concentrated practice, but not my general music students, who don’t have instruments at home and as much desire to learn notation.

Music Notation

I, too, have been impressed with James Hill’s materials, but as a general rule, I see Canadian musical expectations to be more rigorous than ours here in the United States.  I have observed these rigorous expectations with bowed stringed instruments and piano as well.

Still, I do want my general music students reading some music. I will keep their notation skills going with rhythmic and note flashcards, with these skills to be applied on Orff xylophones. I have observed that many fine guitarists read tab and I have seen ukulele written out with tab.

Motivated Students

For my more motivated ukulele students, I write tab melodies that have regular music notation above the tab.  I use a program called TablEdit for that. Ukulele and guitar notations are pretty complicated to read with standard notation because it resembles what pianists read, but on only one staff.

As an aside, my son learned guitar with tab, French horn and violin with standard music notation. The tab introduction did not seem to hurt him and he became a fine sight reader on all three instruments.

Music is taught worldwide with more basis on using one’s ear and imitating a teacher.  I think in a large class situation, one is more likely to get students excited and wanting to learn music if you start this way.

Hope this helps explain our philosophy.

Comment from a Customer:

Hi Jenny,

Thank you for the most lucid answer. I have seen to the notes/chords/tab etc. question! And I must respect your approach because you seem to be getting kids to be enthusiastic and also because you have paid your own dues as a reader of music. I hope to get to the “fun” stuff quickly while still doing a notes-first approach. I know I’m old-school about it; probably because I Am old!

In the ’60s, in high school, I was a trombone player, got a book and taught myself guitar. The book, I remember, was by Nick Manaloff. It was like the Mel Bay Modern Guitar Method. You learned notes and then learned how C E G makes a C chord, and on from there. So when you played a chord, you knew what was in it.

I’ve had some experience trying to teach note-reading to guitar players who only know chords. It has been, almost across the board, very difficult for them, even though they say they want to learn. I think it is, in their minds, going backward or worse. When they can play chords and hear nice sounds & that is enough for them, why bother with notes?

For me, it boils down to being able to communicate, to having a common musical vocabulary. People such as the ones in our uke group who know only chords, only understand things like “put your finger here, then here, etc.” It becomes quite an impediment to trying to do more interesting things instrumentally.  But I will be keeping your approach & your discussion points in mind! And trying to find a happy medium ground.

Thank you, and have a good year!


Music is universal, something all of us can identify with, not just the ones who are music majors or professionals. Most people or students want (and indeed need) to feel excited about learning a new instrument. Employing a chords first approach ensures that they can do away with all the complexities of having to learn music notation first and cut right through to the great fun of making music.

Beginners can start playing their favorite songs from the very first day. This ensures that  your students maintain their interest in the instrument. And from there they can advance to learn music notation if they so wish. This is the approach we take in all our books.

Happy strumming!

Are you struggling with strumming?

With our book and course, you’ll become a fluent 3-chord strummer.

Get your copy now!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Keep me posted about the release of 21 Easy Ukulele Hymns

Thanks for signing up - we'll keep you posted about the launch of 21 Easy Ukulele Hymns