How to read music when you can't
October 26, 2008 7:14 PM   Subscribe

What's my brain missing that prevents me from being able to (ever) read music?

I'm in my late forties and can't understand the first thing about reading music. I see it once a week in church and it drives me crazy that it's all greek to me. To this day, I remember being in grade school and my teacher being angry with me for my poor music test grades. 40 years later, I'm no better at it.

I'm and avid reader and an excellent speller so I'd think I could just pick up reading music like everyone else seems to.
posted by qsysopr to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think everyone CAN read music. It just takes practice.
Get a cheap keyboard and a beginners workbook and practice.
posted by robotot at 7:27 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

How good is your ear? Can you tell the difference between two pitches? Can you sing a melody? If you struggle with any of these aspects of music, you'll have trouble reading music because you won't know what it is you're supposed to be reading. Reading music, especially in the context of singing, is much more about being able to hear the music than it is about your ability to "read" anything.

If you feel confident in your ability to hear music, then you might want to try writing your own music, using whatever system of notation you can come up with. Then it will be easier for you to decode.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 7:49 PM on October 26, 2008

I'm and avid reader and an excellent speller so I'd think I could just pick up reading music like everyone else seems to.

Your first problem seems to be that you think it has something to do with reading. It doesn't. Think of it more like a ruler.
posted by sunshinesky at 7:49 PM on October 26, 2008

Exactly, the tern "reading" music is misleading. It is more like a ruler and you have to know what the little symbols mean as they are placed along that ruler, what pitches they represent, how long to hold them for, how fast, etc. It is rather complicated but if you get some very simple music theory books and start from the very beginning, you should be able to pick it up. Practice, practice, practice. You'll get the hang of it.
posted by pearlybob at 7:54 PM on October 26, 2008

The term "sight-singing" might be useful in your searches.

Also -- is it the rhythm that's tripping you up, or the relative pitches?
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:57 PM on October 26, 2008

There's nothing wrong with your brain at all. The ability to read develops with your understanding of the structure of music. A lot of people fake reading music. Many people can read music, but not with the precision it takes to read a musical score, or to even just sight read an unfamiliar piece. Personally, I can sight read in some keys, but not others. Reading atonal music is really hard. Folk tunes really aren't so hard.

Sight-reading-- transforming music from the page to your voice-- takes a lot of work, even for serious music students. The sounding out period-- when you need to play along on your instrument before you can hear the tune-- is probably longer than it is for people learning an alphabet.

You can, however, focus on a few things at a time. But to do this, you'll probably need to by systematic. Perhaps start with learning to count our rhythms. Don't be intimidated, but don't feel stupid either. It's not the same as an alphabet.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:58 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

You may be interested in taking a look at GNU Solfege, which is a free software package that helps teach people how to sight-sing.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 8:07 PM on October 26, 2008

Sorry about the link; try this: GNU Solfege.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 8:09 PM on October 26, 2008 [4 favorites]

Take a few piano lessons, it's the fastest way to learn the basics.
posted by mandal at 8:09 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just a totally random suggestion here, but difficulties reading music, along with math difficulties and a tendency to have good language skills, are something associated with learning disabilities like dyscalculia. I've taken music lessons on several instruments since childhood, and still the best I can do is tell you what the names of the notes are. For me it's not so much a problem with the inherent concepts of music - rhythm, etc., but more with making sense of the written form. I think of it somewhat along the lines of dyslexia and so of reading music might make sense, but you have problems putting the whole thing together into anything coherent.
posted by flod logic at 8:14 PM on October 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

I sympathize with the OP. Try as I might, I could never read or play music. I would look at a sheet of music and my mind would start doing contortions, trying to understand why this particular dot meant this particular sound. And furthermore, why this particular sound was correct, but this other sound isn't. It just never sunk in for me. I went back to my paintbrushes.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:15 PM on October 26, 2008

Agree that there's most likely nothing wrong with your brain when it comes to reading music. But maybe you do learn differently than most sight-readers, so the conventional methods don't work for you.

Keep in mind, though, that it's not like learning to ride a bike or swim-- depending on how well you can pick it up, it can be tough, like learning a foreign language. But if you really want to do it, find out what works for you.

In addition to the other suggestions here, you might hire a teacher with learning to read music as the focus.

Jut curious-- what would you do with your ability to read music if you could do it well?
posted by Rykey at 8:16 PM on October 26, 2008

What results are you looking for? I can look at the music and know what keys to push on the piano, but I can't look at the music and know what to do with my voice. If it's the latter you're looking for, I don't think that interpreting what's on the page is the real issue.
posted by winston at 8:17 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

To this day, I remember being in grade school and my teacher being angry with me for my poor music test grades.

I'm willing to bet that in grade school, you didn't care a fig for reading music, and thought of it as Just Another Thing They Are Telling Me I Have To Do, and did as little of it as you could possibly get away with.

I'm and avid reader and an excellent speller

I'm willing to bet that you were an avid reader in and probably even before grade school, and did more of it than those people your teacher got angry with for being unable to spell.

How good are your times tables? Why?

so I'd think I could just pick up reading music like everyone else seems to.

Who is this "everyone else" who can "just pick up" reading music?

Everybody I know who is a fluent sight reader got there by doing it and doing it and doing it and doing it. I don't know anybody who "just picked it up". Learning to read music is hard work.

Take it a step at a time. Preferably, get instruction from somebody who is both good at it and good at explaining it.
posted by flabdablet at 8:28 PM on October 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Reading music isn't something that you can just "pick up" or figure out by staring at it, any more than you could learn to read a foreign language that way (with a different alphabet, like hebrew or greek). It takes some formal training and study.

People in church are faking it to some degree; you already have the piano/organ playing the chords so you can kind of go along with it if you already know the melody.
posted by kenliu at 8:32 PM on October 26, 2008

my mind would start doing contortions, trying to understand why this particular dot meant this particular sound. And furthermore, why this particular sound was correct, but this other sound isn't.

It's all completely arbitrary. Like any written language, the connection between the shapes that appear on the paper and what's actually said is something that's been made up. That's the reason it doesn't immediately "click"; there's no underlying relationship there to click.

All there is, is a bunch of arbitrary rules that people already "in the know" have agreed to apply, and those are what you have to learn, piece by piece by inexorably arbitrary piece, just like you learned that when you see A you say "eh". There are rough analogues to letters, words and sentences but they're rough analogs. Music is not speech, and what you already know about reading English is going to be of very little use to you as you learn sight-reading. Don't expect existing language competence to help. It won't, and expecting it to will discourage you from doing the endless rote work that does help.

So you need to start simple, just as if you were a kid being taught their ABCs, and do the work. There really is no shortcut. Closest thing there is to a shortcut is getting taught by somebody who understands both you and the material.
posted by flabdablet at 8:39 PM on October 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

I agree with other posters that it is a learned skill, not an innate ability. I'll add that when I learned to sight read, I found a deck of flash cards like these to be very helpful.

But absolutely, the best way to learn is with formal instruction. Lots of piano teachers give private lessons to adults these days.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 10:10 PM on October 26, 2008

I guess you don't play an instrument, right? (Even though there are pro musicians who can't read music.) Do you sing? If you can sing, trying out the sight singing/solfege should help you understand what aspect of it trips you up, whether it's the pitch or the rhythm or both. A keyboard is a nice way to crack the problem because if you turn the sheet sideways in your mind or in reality you'll see the map of the geography.

Now, it's still gnarly with sharps and flats and not that intuitive, requiring some work with the notation of different keys, but if you start with simple songs in simple keys (something written with no sharps or flats in the key signature) then you may crack the problem or clearly see what trips you up.

I know you asked what in your brain stops you, but I think you're probably making a huge assumption there. As someone else said above, the only way your brain is stopping you is you probably lack of knowledge of structures of music and conventions of notation.
posted by Listener at 12:04 AM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have a lot of trouble reading music because I have a math disability. It also prevents me from learning foreign languages easily. Strangely, these things all involve the same part of the brain.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 1:17 AM on October 27, 2008

really this post is just absurd. you can't read music because you have never learnt to. Music is easier to 'read' than english writing. ie the set fo axioms/rules/notational logic that translate a series of notes to say a series of piano key presses is much simpler than the rules for converting these swiggly lines(english writing) into vocalisations...

Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit...
posted by mary8nne at 2:26 AM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you're only seeing it once a week in church, that's your problem right there. You need time to practice, and an understanding of the basics.

Buy a children's piano primer and start teaching yourself the rules. Try sitting down with a pen and paper and working your way through short pieces of music. This will be incredibly time consuming at first. For every single note there'll be a thought process like:

"Hmm, what's this note? It's a hollow circle with no sticks coming off it, so I hold it for four beats. It's 1... 2... 3... 4... 5... 6 above middle C, so I guess it's a B. Were there any sharps or flats mentioned at the start of the piece? No? Okay, so it's a a plain old B and I hold it for four beats. Okay, I've written that down. Next note!"

Then after time, you'll become more proficient at it and it will condense itself to:

"Mid-stave, whole note in C Major. That's a four beat B. NEXT!"

Which will eventually become:


Think of it like a child trying to read the word 'class'. At first they'll go "Cuh-luh-ah-suh-suh. Culuasusu. Class!" After more practice they'll do the first part quickly in their head, then just say "Class!" After enough practice, they won't be doing Culuasusu even in their heads. They'll just see the word and think 'Class'.

The important thing is having somebody teach them how to say each letter and to explain some of the rules, like how an 'E' at the end changes 'Hat' to 'Hate' not 'Hattie'. Once they've got the basics, you can just take 'em to the library and leave 'em to it.
posted by the latin mouse at 2:36 AM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a pretty competent bassist with a solid ear within my comfort genre, but I've always had a problem with reading music. I know how it works, and can look at a sheet and realise 'Okay, so play E for one beat, then F for half a beat, then G for one-and-a-half beats....' but I find it incredibly tough to translate that combination of notes into actual music - it always sounds to me like I'm just playing a series of notes. When taking lessons for the Trombone, I used to wait for my teacher to play the piece to find out what the 'tune' was, and then use the sheet notation just to guide myself.

I know more practice would have helped, but I am definitely an aural learner rather than a visual or kinaesthetic one.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 2:54 AM on October 27, 2008

really this post is just absurd.
Please, don't be rude. This person is trying to solve a problem, which is kinda the point here.

you can't read music because you have never learnt to.
Which is the problem at hand.

Music is easier to 'read' than english writing.
It might have fewer "rules" and adhere to a stricter logic, but for most people it's a hell of a lot harder to read a line of sheet music fluently than to read a sentence.
posted by Rykey at 4:01 AM on October 27, 2008

What-ever-ing the "never learned to" argument.

Approach this like you would any college class. 1. Make sure you go to class (weekly). 2. Make sure you do your homework (daily). 3. Get a tutor if you are struggling with the material (As needed). It's about study, frequency, and instruction.
posted by ewkpates at 4:13 AM on October 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'd wager that the people in church who are "reading music" are just reading the lyrics, and following along with what they remember the tune is because they've heard it a squillion times. And I have a hunch that you may be assuming that those who read music may be doing a lot less than you're thinking they're doing. I do know how to read music, but even I wouldn't be able to pick up a piece of sheet music, look at a specific note, and sing it perfectly, so if you think that people are regularly doing this, I doubt it -- a very, very few can sight-read singing on sight.

What I can do, and what most other people who have studied can do, is just focus on rhythm and the general "direction" of the music, if you're singing (as in, are the notes going up or down in pitch). If you're reading music to play an instrument, you will need to be able to tell what pitches the notes are, but that's easier to execute "okay, since that is a middle C, I need to push this key right here."

But it takes time. It takes way more time to pick up than your grade school teacher was giving you; it took me a couple years of piano lessons to really feel competent at it. There are all sorts of mnemonic devices to help you learn, as well. But you can do this.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:11 AM on October 27, 2008

Unless, of course, you're tone deaf. That would make it very very hard.

You can find out whether you're tone deaf with the help of a musical friend. Turn your back on the friend, get them to sing or play two notes, and tell them whether you thought the second note was higher or lower pitched than the first one.

If you can't do this at all, you're quite tone deaf and reading music is probably not something you'll find rewarding.

If you can do it but only for widely spaced pitches, practice will probably help you improve. Once you can reliably distinguish two notes that are a semitone apart, and identify the sounds of intervals of an octave, a fifth, a fourth, a major third and a minor third without having to think about them, you're ready to start learning to read music. Having done that amount of training, you will probably also find music much, much more rewarding to listen to.
posted by flabdablet at 5:21 AM on October 27, 2008

What's my brain missing that prevents me from being able to (ever) read music?

Practice, probably. Maybe a good teacher. It's like learning anything else -- you have to think you can learn before you start, or the entire enterprise is doomed

Music is another language, using a different character set. Once you learn how to read it, it's pretty easy, but it's not easy to learn.

cantdosleepy -- there's a difference between playing the dots on the page and actually playing music. The only way to get past it is to practice until you know how the piece goes.
posted by jlkr at 5:35 AM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Practice, eh? Nuts.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 5:45 AM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah-- the training exercises at have helped me lots when I get rusty. There's specific exercises for learning intervals and scales by ear, notes on a staff, key signatures, and even how all that looks relative to a keyboard, fretboard, or brass instrument.
posted by Rykey at 5:49 AM on October 27, 2008 [4 favorites]

I find that people who excel at math and languages also do particularly well learning to read music. That is because each discipline is merely a set of rules that one must learn, and then apply. In each, you learn the different building blocks: for math, it is numbers and functions; in language it is tenses, conjugations, words and letters; and in music, you must learn notes, rhythms and symbols, which are then used in varying permutations.

I would suggest looking at it as if you would look at learning a language. You can't expect to drop yourself in another country and instantly be fluent. There are things that you must know first. When people say that you should take piano lessons or get a keyboard, I think what they want you to begin to recognize the notes the same way you would recognize certain simple words in another language. You'll start with the very first notes on the treble clef staff (the one that you usually see in the hymnal on Sundays) which looks like a very fancy B or a swirly ampersand. After that, you will probably want to learn the bass clef, which looks like a big backward C. More clefs than that exist, but, like so many languages which have certain arcane rules that not everyone HAS to know, some things are best left to the professionals. And bassoon players.

Once you've learned those notes, you'll need to learn things like flats and sharps (two symbols represented as "b" or "#" respectively), and what they do to those notes - the short story is that they lower and raise the note's pitch by one-half step.

And just like language, or math, you have to practice recognizing these things (that's what people say when they say to practice), because the more notes you look at the better you will get at recognizing them, and soon enough, you'll find that you can look at a piece of music, and it isn't impossible to read. The same way a paragraph in another language will start out being completely indecipherable, slowly, you'll start to recognize words and then phrases and soon enough, as your vocabulary grows, you'll know what you are reading.

Good luck!

If you have any questions, please feel free to email me. I have a number of suggestions about books you could get that might help you start out, and I've been reading music for about twenty years now, so I'll be happy to help you in any way I can!
posted by greekphilosophy at 8:28 AM on October 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Yeah, reading music isn't something you just pick up. You have to study it and practice it a lot, like learning any foreign language. The best thing to do would be to pick up an instrument and start taking lessons. Guitar is pretty easy. Pick up the Hal Leonard or Mel Bay book or something. They teach you the basics of music reading in a very gradual way.

I do know how to read music, but even I wouldn't be able to pick up a piece of sheet music, look at a specific note, and sing it perfectly, so if you think that people are regularly doing this, I doubt it -- a very, very few can sight-read singing on sight.

If you're talking about doing this without getting some kind of reference note -- meaning having perfect pitch -- then you're right, that is a very uncommon ability. If you mean sight-singing a line of music after being provided with a pitch for reference -- meaning only having relative pitch -- that is not very rare or unattainable at all. Pretty much all music majors will take classes in this and be expected to develop this ability to some degree.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:14 AM on October 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

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