When I was five years old, I began taking piano lessons and learned to read music. I learned to read words at the same time, and quite frankly, I don't remember much about either process. I have so few memories from before the age of five that it almost seems like I always was able to read words and music. It was an easy transition for me in both instances.
When I began teaching, I saw first-hand that this is not always the case. Learning to read music is painless for some and a struggle for others, just the same as learning to read words. As I delved into the topic, I realized that reading music was also far more complex than I had previously thought, and also more complex than the way many people, music teachers included, present it. After years of observation and exploration, I have a few thoughts I'd like to share.
Why Read Music?
Let me start with a fairly obvious disclaimer. Not everyone involved in music needs to learn to read music. There are many traditions where musicians learn and play by ear. I view this as simply another approach, certainly not a lesser or inferior approach. Sometimes people tell me that they just play by ear. Why say just? You play by ear, I play by reading music. Either way, we both play.
However, within the tradition of classical music, which is where I dwell, reading music is essential as it is the way that music is shared among classical musicians. Students of classical music who struggle to read music are hampered by this struggle. If you aspire to do pretty much anything with classical music, reading music comes up constantly, from exercises to ensemble parts. This does not mean that you have to learn only through reading music, or that you're not encouraged to pick out, say, Happy Birthday, by ear. However, not being able to read music well will absolutely hold you back.
[It is an integral part of the process of learning, progressing technically, and playing with others. and being able to digest this printed music rapidly and in large quantities is crucial]
Reading Music at Different Levels
People tend to discuss whether someone reads music as an either/or question. They might say, "Oh, my niece plays the piano, but doesn't read music. On the other hand, my nephew plays the violin and can read music." I understand the general idea that is being conveyed, but it's not nuanced enough. Reading music is a skill with many gradations, just like reading words. Yes, you could point to a preschooler and say that they don't read (yet), and point to their older sibling who does read, but we would never group all readers together willy-nilly, such as putting a small child reading Green Eggs and Ham in the same category as a college student reading War and Peace. We recognize that Dr. Seuss and Leo Tolstoy both wrote books, but they clearly represent different reading levels.
A seven-year-old might be really good at recognizing middle C in their music book, but this does not mean that they're capable of reading any and all music. Just as we talk about how well children read and what level their reading level is, the same is true for music students. The big question is not whether or not someone reads music. Instead, we ought to ask: what level of music can they read, and how fluently can they do it?
How Reading Music Works
Before we get further into the topic of learning processes, let's talk a bit about how written music actually works. Although I've used quite a few analogies for the way we talk about reading words and reading music, this analogy doesn't hold true for the way we process written music compared to processing written words. Different areas of the brain are employed for the two.
The idea behind written music is fairly straightforward. You have notes (frequently looking like this: )
and you arrange them on a page as a picture, or a map, of the sounds. (It might look like this: )
Each note represents two things, a different pitch (a high or low sound, and everything in between), and a different rhythm (length, that is, how long or short the sound of each note lasts.) Pitch is show by the position on the page, and rhythm is shown by the shape of the note.
It's a picture of the sound. In a nutshell, that's how it works.
A Brief History of Music Notation
An enterprising monk named Guido d'Arezzo made huge strides in the music notation system around the year 1000. Guido directed a large choir and came up with many fascinating developments in music. He gave us many innovations, like the beginnings of the Solfège system (You know, Do Re Mi Fa Sol. If you're shaky on this one, Julie Andrews explains it quite engagingly in the Sound of Music), and a really clever idea where he then associated these different pitches (Do Re Mi) with parts of his hand, so that he could stand stand in front of his choir, hold up his hand, point to his thumb, and the entire choir would sing Do. This is, quaintly enough, known as the Guidoian Hand. (In case you're a music history buff, I should point out Guido actually called Do by the name of Ut. It was renamed over time, although the rest of his names stuck.)
But I digress. In terms of written music, Guido had the bright idea of taking notes on the page and adding a grid behind them. Prior to this, notes were floating around the page and you could see that some might be higher or lower, but he wanted to make it a bit more concrete than that. Sort of like how back in the olden days, ships could head south from Europe towards Cape of Good Hope and this was pretty good, but adding latitude and longitude made things way more exact, and then the whole adventure would (usually) go better.
So Guido went ahead and stuck a line behind the notes so that you could nail down the pitches. No longer was a note floating across the page, instead it was now firmly tethered by its relationship to this line. This was such a brilliant idea that he is considered inventor of our modern musical notation system. From this point, the system evolved. We now use a grid with fives lines behind the notes (called a staff) and this is the basis for pitch in our musical notation system. Here's what we use today:
I always find the history behind things interesting, and hopefully you do too, but the real takeaway here is that musical notation has evolved. It was not created in its entirety all in one sitting. It's similar to a series of winding country roads that meander and overlap and give you a nice view of the river, rather than a meticulously planned city where blocks are neatly organized and spaced evenly. Since it's a system that evolved, music notation has some strange redundancies and a few circuitous routes built in. Certainly it could be a more efficient system, but that's neither here nor there. As a music student, your job is to learn to navigate the system, not re-create it (unless you want to be another Guido.)
Note Recognition Does Not Equate Reading Music
"Ok," you say, "I've got it. A grid with lines and spaces on it, where each line or space is associated with a letter. All I have to do is memorize what letter each line and space represents and then I'll be home free." Believe it or not, you are not the first person to think of this. In fact, in bygone days, people came up FACE and Every Good Boy Does Fine to help you remember the notes. (In case you missed out on these clever mnemonic devices, they represent the spaces and lines of the treble clef, like so: )
Many people assume that this all there is to reading music. If you know those two phrases, plus a couple for the bass clef, you're all set! However, that would be tantamount to saying that if you can identify all of the magnetic alphabet letters on your fridge, you can read. Is letter recognition crucial in reading? Yes, absolutely. Is letter recognition all that's needed? Not by a long shot.
The Six Parts of Reading Music
For the moment, let's set aside rhythm and just focus on reading pitch, how high or low a note is. There are six crucial parts that go into this.
1. Note Recognition
Yes, I just said that there is more to it than this, but note recognition is still absolutely necessary. You have to be able to look at each note and automatically associate a letter with it.
2. Interval Recognition
An interval is the distance between two notes. When I look at these notes, I not only immediately think F and A, I also see that they are a third apart. Frequently this is called a skip, because you skip over one note in between these two.
[Furthermore, if I look at this and hold out my finger and thumb, my muscles automatically adjust to the correct distance needed to play a third on the harp. This is critical when playing the harp, but sadly, not useful in any other areas of life. ]
Contour is following the overall shape of the notes. Rather than reading each note in isolation and by the letter name alone, it's important to see that all of these notes are going first up and then down.
4. Aural Retention
If you're really good, maybe you can look at these notes and can hear them in your head. At the very least, you want the sound of them to get stuck in your head after playing them a few times. This way, the next time you sit down to practice, if you play something that doesn't match what you're expecting to hear, it bothers you. You then stop and try again. If you look at a group of notes and have absolutely no memory of what they should sound like, it's really hard to fix your own errors while practicing.
5. Pattern Recognition
Music is made up of pattern after pattern. The notes are not random, chosen like lottery numbers from a giant ball spinner. Instead, they go together for a reason. It's no accident that in the song I'm a Little Tea Pot, the first and second halves start with the exact same notes and rhythms. You want to be able to play something and say, "Oh hey, look, here's a pattern!"
Tracking is following the music along the page accurately. Music is read from left to right, and you have to be able to follow along without jumping to the wrong the line or loosing your place, even when glancing at your hands and then back to the music. Frequently students who find this challenging in music also find this challenging in reading words.
Here's the thing: music students have to be able to do all six of those things simultaneously. If all six areas aren't developing fairly evenly, there's going to be in trouble as music reading gets more complex. It's also all stuff that you want to happen fairly automatically, or else being able to sit down and pop an arrangement of Greensleeves on your music stand and just play it isn't going to happen. Let me emphasize yet again that reading music well doesn't mean fighting your way through each page, but means reading fluently.
Constantly Expanding Music Reading Skills
Along with many, many other musicians, I am a fan of learning to read music right alongside learning to play an instrument. There are some other approaches, of course. The Suzuki method (particularly popular among bowed string instruments - violin, viola, cello, bass) teaches music by rote exclusively at the beginning. After years of studying by ear, reading music is added in. (Some teachers choose to use the Suzuki repertoire without the full method. They use the same songs, but teach music reading right off the bat.) For a completely opposite approach, in many European music programs, students spend a year learning to read music and working on aural skills before they begin to play any sort of instrument.
After some trial and error, I've found that what works best with my style of teaching is to include reading music right from the start and to do my best to keep the students' reading and technical skills at a similar level. This way the music that they can read is neither far beyond or far below what they can physically play on the harp, as both can be frustrating. This approach also aligns with various music programs at schools and institutions so that students can be involved in all sorts of extra musical activities beyond their private lessons with me. In choosing music for students, I take their reading level into account and am constantly working to gradually expand their music reading abilities as well as their technical abilities.
Way to Improve Music Reading
Intervals and Chords
Ideas for nursery rhymes (aural retention)
Contour - Placing and Fingering, coming soon?
A Cautionary Tale
Let's say there's a student who wages a constant battle with reading music. It doesn't come easily or naturally to them right from the beginning. What happens next? Frequently, the student bypasses learning to read well and instead just memorizes all of their music. This might work well in the short term, but becomes problematic as the music becomes increasingly complex. At this point, some students quit outright, and some develop an interim step to the process, where rather than reading fluently and playing while following the music, they use the printed page as a sort of coded guide to be translated. They understand music reading just enough to be able, with some sweat, to painstakingly decipher each note and immediately memorize it. Yet again, as the music continually increases in difficulty, this becomes an agonizingly slow process and it's impossible to keep up with the pace of learning as needed. So what to do? Chuck it all and go out for field hockey?
Reading music well is one aspect to being a musician, and certainly an important one, but it does not go hand in hand with talent. Sometimes these same students who fight their through sheet music are also the ones who play beautifully and expressively, with an innate musical sense. They're willing to go through this painful process because they love to play.
I'm not sure why some people find learning to read music so much easier than others. I've tried tracking all kinds of predictors, but none of the obvious ones, such as age, prior musical experience, academic success, raw intelligence, or general musical talent, correlate with it. I would guess that it's something with the way the brain processes, and if anyone wants to fund a study so I can find out more about this, feel free to get in touch.
What I know for sure is that students who find reading music difficult can learn and learn well, as long as each new aspect is introduced with care, making sure to use an incremental and extremely logical approach. Each step has to be carefully cemented before the next one is introduced.
How Reading Music Works in Slightly More Depth
From this point, the system evolved. We now use a grid with fives lines behind the notes (called a staff) and this is the basis for pitch in our musical notation system. If you place the notes on the grid sequentially, starting low and getting higher, like below, then each one of the notes is a step apart:
You can see that we place notes on both the lines themselves, and on the spaces in between the lines. The above could be played using all of the white keys on the piano, which are also each a step apart. It would sound like this:
The grid is also flexible. You can extend in infinitely in either direction, just like a number line, so you can add higher or lower notes by drawing more lines, like so:
Since naming things makes it much easier to discuss them, we've named the notes after the first seven letters of the alphabet - A B C D E F G. (Outside of the U. S., and within some American music programs, many people still call the notes Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Si/Ti.) The seven letters just repeat over and over like the days of the week. Example:
When it comes rhythm, over time we came up with a system where the shape of the note conveys its length. We use a unit of measurement for rhythm called beats. Here are a few common rhythmic notes arranged from longest to shortest:
If you combine the two, the different positions on the grid with the different shapes to show length, you have a picture of the sound. Mary Had a Little Lamb:
I always find the history behind things interesting, and hopefully you do too, but the real takeaway here is that musical notation has evolved. It was not created in its entirety all in one sitting. It's similar to a series of winding country roads that meander and overlap and give you a nice view of the river, rather than a meticulously planned city where blocks are neatly organized and spaced evenly. Since it's a system that evolved, music notation has some strange redundancies and a few circuitous routes built in. Certainly it could be a more efficient system, but that's neither here nor there. As a music student your job is to learn to navigate the system, not re-create it (unless you want to be another Guido.)
Rhythm vs. Pitch
When it comes to playing the harp, most students who find reading music a challenge struggle more with pitch than with rhythm. I think this is because most beginning books start with a limited number of rhythmic values, usually only four at most - the whole note, dotted half note, half note, and quarter note. It might be a couple of months before you add a new type of rhythmic note, so there's plenty of time to get those firmly rooted in your mind. Of course, intellectually understanding the length of each note does not necessarily translate to playing rhythmically at all times, but it is certainly the first step.
Then there's dealing with pitch. Most beginning harp books start out using more than four different pitches and rapidly introduce new pitches, so that by the end of the first book you might need to be able to recognize fifteen - twenty five different pitches. This is a lot for anyone to keep track of! Part of what makes it complex is that the harp reads what we call the grand staff, both the treble and bass clef at the same time.
As we discussed, the staff (or grid of five lines) was used to show how high or low each pitch was more accurately. To make it even more exact, we started adding clefs to the beginning of the staff. The clef pins down one note in particular and designates whether our grid is showing
Rhythm is a feeling. We walk in a steady rhythm, our hearts beat in a short-long rhythm, the rhythm of breathing can speed up and slow down. All of these are things that we feel. In some ways, especially with beginning music, rhythm can be much easier to process. There are two parts to reading rhythms well. One is intellectually understanding the rhythm. The other is translating that into a feeling.