Help me to read music.
May 8, 2009 6:33 AM   Subscribe

Help me learn to read music by telling me how you think/feel/visualise as you read music. (Yes, I'm looking for shortcuts.)

I've read a few questions with good answers on how to read music, including this recent one on going from treble to alto clef, which could help me as well. I know that ultimately it boils down to a lot of practice, and I'm fine with that.

However, I also know that when, for example, I do basic maths (addition etc) I have simple little tricks that I've been using since I was a kid and I know that other people have similar, but often different, approaches.

I was hoping that some of you could share your tricks, or tell me what's going through your head as you read music (whether or not you're playing at the same time), or even any exercises you did when you were learning that helped you more than others.

I'm interested in your approach to both the notes and the timing (as in: I struggle with both of these elements).

I'll be reading to play the piano, so I'll need to learn both bass and treble clefs. I know the basic theory and I can figure stuff out if I sit with it for long enough but I'm hoping you can help me to accelerate my learning a little.
posted by gwpcasey to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Well, if you're reading piano music with the chord signatures indicated above the staffs, they give you a lot of clues as to what's going on in the left hand, or bass, cleff. Learn those and it'll help you decipher the individual notes for what's going on down below.
posted by lpsguy at 6:36 AM on May 8, 2009

Learn some more music theory.

If you know what a fourth interval is, you can recognise it on the staff, then you only need to know what the first note was to be able to play both of them. Start trying to notice the intervals you find in the music you're learning.

If you know what an added sixth chord is (for example), you'll start to recognise the shape of them, then you don't need to "read" the individual notes in the chord. Learn what a major fifth and sixth look like on the stave, learn what they feel like under your hand, notice when they appear in the music you are playing. Start thinking "C major fifth" when you read it instead of "oh that's a C, and an E, and a G!"

If you know what key your piece is in, and how to tell when it modulates to another key in the middle, you'll start to have a bit more of an understanding of what notes you can expect where. If the piece is in C, you'll find more C-related chords. If it modulates to F, now you can expect more F related chords.
posted by emilyw at 7:00 AM on May 8, 2009

The more you understand about how the underlying harmony of the song works, and what the harmonic conventions are for the genre or style that you're working within, the easier it will be to read.

It's like the difference between sounding out words letter-by-letter, and reading an entire word, sentence, or paragraph as one thing because you've seen variations of it before.

For example, if I'm reading something with arpeggios, then, if I see that a given arpeggios is based on a G7 chord, then I can visualize it as alternating the notes within a given chord, rather than spelling it out note-by-note.
posted by umbĂș at 7:03 AM on May 8, 2009

1. If you happen to be playing a song with words shown on the stave then they can help you keep track of where you are in the music.

2. Personally I find it helps to practice in two ways:
a. As slowly as is necessary to get things exactly right.
b. At tempo indicated - trying to perfect the art of taking things in at a glance.

3. As with learning to touch type it can help to make an active effort to look at the copy rather than your hands.

4. Dealing with page turns in such as way that your playing continues fluently is a tricky skill to master - as others have said the key seems to be getting into the habit of picking out patterns to the extent that you can predict what is going to happen over the page.
posted by rongorongo at 7:32 AM on May 8, 2009

Read ahead. If your eyes and your mind are on the note you're currently singing or playing, you're behind.

I found, for instance, that when I read books aloud to my son, I can sneak my eyes ahead to look at the end of the sentence while I'm vocalizing one part. This lets me know where the sentence is headed and helps me give the right reading. This is what children who struggle with reading can't do, and why they read like slow robots.

Sight singing is the key for sight reading. So practice singing one part while you're working out the next clump of notes in your head. Once you get a rhythm going this way it makes the whole thing much easier.

Oh, and: Intervals. Don't just figure out where the notes are on the staff. Look at how far away they are from the notes around them. Then you can swing from note to note in your head.
posted by argybarg at 7:34 AM on May 8, 2009

A better way of framing your question may be, how does one improve their sight-reading skills. They test you on this skill by seeing how accurately you can play a never-seen-before excerpt of music that is below your currently performance level, but it is a skill that you are using all the time as a musician.

At different levels, the skill required increases, but it's a basic kind of music-literacy that every musician needs, and will need to continue to develop as they progress.

I presume you're playing relatively simple pieces of music, where the harmonic and musical information you need to help you is basically:

1. What key is it in.
2. What are the patterns in the treble melody, and in the bass patterns.
3. Where are the accidentals (notes that don't 'fit' in the key but sounds nice).

When trying to learn a piece of music above helps you in a few ways:

1. Play the scale(s) of the keys in which the piece is in. It'll get your fingers warmed up AND become "familiarized" with the positions that they should be in. As you know, a "F" is not an "F" if there's a key signature that has an "F#" in it.

2. Practice the left hand and right hand separately. There are always patterns. That way, you will identify anchor points where you have no problem just picking up the pattern and applying it, as you figure out the transitions in between. Same goes with the left hand, which tends to be "easier" broadly speaking. Every piece is different at the end of the day.

3. Use a pencil! Circle all the notes that don't 'fit' in the key. Heck, circle all the notes that you keep forgetting even after you've figured it out. If that still doesn't help, just write in the name of the note as a reminder. Don't be ashamed. We've all done it.

I'd dish out more advice, but this should be suffice to get you over some of the initial hurdles! Don't forget to have fun and play pieces that you enjoy.
posted by margaretlam at 8:21 AM on May 8, 2009

For rhythmic patterns, before you play a piece, sing the rhythm (all on the same pitch) out loud while tapping your hand in a regular beat on your knee or the music shelf on the piano. Make a special effort to put the emphasis on down beat while you're singing. So while your hand is going "tap tap tap tap..." in a regular cadence, you're singing "Daa da, Daa da, Daa dada da, Da" or whatever.

After you do this for a while, you'll start to learn to associate particular note clumps with the corresponding rhythmic pattern, and you'll play the rhythm without having to think about it. When you're really fluid at reading music, you don't have to read each individual note, you take in entire measures or more at once.

As for the pitches: try to strongly associate each pitch (or collection of pictches) with a physical hand position/point in space, i.e. "high B is over there, high A is next to it, middle C is in the middle," etc. Be constantly aware of what your hands feel like as you are playing a piece. Again, once you're a good music reader, you won't translate the image into a note name and THEN into a hand position, the note name and hand position will be completely synonymous in your mind.

Most of all, remember that playing music does not equal reading music. The written notes are just one way of recording the series of tones that the composer heard in his head so that he could transmit them to you. Our system of written music has evolved to be deliberately vague in many ways; the composer can't write down every nuance of what he wants you to play, and likewise there are a lot of things that aren't written down that you're supposed to take for granted, or figure out, or make up for yourself. There's a lot of wiggle room for how to play something and still have it be "correct" according to the notes on the page; make sure you're playing it so that it sounds good, not just so it's "right".
posted by Commander Rachek at 9:12 AM on May 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Find a recording of your piece (even if it's not great, like on Youtube). Spend time listening to the piece and following along on the printed music. Do it and pay attention to one hand's part a time, and then both together. Notice that as you listen/read along, you'll see different things and different patterns after repetition. Pay attention to (listen/look) the different things that folks have mentioned in this thread (eg. intervals, phrases, notes that 'stick out', loud/soft, rhythm). Then work on this as you play. Listen, watch, play. As you do this (over time, I know, you want short cuts), this will help you recognize the relationships between what something sounds like and what it looks like on the page.
posted by kch at 9:29 AM on May 8, 2009

I am a music teacher, and I have to teach kids to read music all the time. Lots of good advice above. In particular I second everything argybarg said. I see a lot of students having problems because they are too "zoomed in," i.e. they are focusing on one note/measure at a time and not looking ahead. Always remember to pull back and look at the big picture -- look at the overall shape of the line and the relationship from one note to the next. Is it a stepwise line, or are there leaps? The former is always easier to read, particularly if you're familiar with the scale its drawn from. Remember to practice in time, but slowly enough that you're able to look ahead. It's better to play the correct rhythm very slowly than to play at tempo but mangle the rhythm.

And separate rhythm and pitch if you're having trouble, like Commander Rachek said. I make my kids tap the beat with their foot and clap the rhythm with their hands. It's important to not just be able to hear the rhythm, but understand how it fits into the beat, particularly with syncopation.

And of course knowing theory is going to make everything less surprising -- you'll see the patterns in things and be able to tell where something is going.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:52 AM on May 8, 2009

Argybarg is right on the money. You're eyes should be reading notes before you're hands are playing them. This skill will come naturally the more you play, and may take years to really develop. I'm not a piano player, but I do play an instrument (cello) that has me switching clefts occasionally. My advice is to not play anything that requires reading new clefts until you've mastered basic sight reading in clefts you are comfortable with.
posted by DrDreidel at 10:04 AM on May 8, 2009

Many thanks to all for the answers so far, they are all very helpful. The most surprising so far is the advice to read ahead and not be 'zoomed in' on each note one at a time. I'll definitely try to incorporate that into my practice sessions going forward. (Along with everything else of course.)
posted by gwpcasey at 10:51 AM on May 8, 2009

Let's go back to the beginning.

Pick a note -- any note. Let's say first-line E in treble clef. Memorize how it feels to play that note -- the fingering. Play the E until you no longer have to think about it. You see the E and your muscle memory plays it with no thinking in between.

Then go to the note just above, first-space F. Begin by using the now-automatic E fingering and raise one finger (for a wind instrument), use the next finger (for piano), or whatever you do on your instrument. Work on the F until it, too, is automatic.

Then do the same with the D below the staff, and work your way up and down until you have everything learned. Once you learn how to "burn" fingerings into your muscle meory, it goes fast.

Then work on intervals. Instead of playing one note and then another, memorize the space in between -- how it feels to go from one note to the next.

Then move to groups of notes, which you recognize by shape. Start with scale passages. You see the shape C-D-E-F, for example, and start the matching sequence of finger movements. Then do the same for arpeggios.

This is why even professional musicians practice scale exercises so much.

The final step is to learn an entire movement, which you play as a sequence of familiar gestures. In performance, you barely think about notes at all -- just phrases.
posted by KRS at 11:02 AM on May 8, 2009

The most surprising so far is the advice to read ahead and not be 'zoomed in' on each note one at a time.

Think about it like Guitar Hero, or Dance Dance Revolution -- if you're only focusing on each "note" as it comes at you, there's no way you're going to be able to keep up when things get fast or more complicated. You have to be looking ahead. Sightreading is a little like "in one eye and out the other" in that you're not holding on to the theory or meaning or whatever as you're playing; you're letting it pass through you as you move on to what's coming next. That's why knowing music theory well in the first place and being able to recognize patterns really helps you when you sight-read -- you can assimilate even more information about what's next even faster, and that frees you up to scan the horizon for what you'll have to tackle in the measures ahead.
posted by mothershock at 12:21 PM on May 8, 2009

Some great answers here. You definitely need to be able to read ahead when sight-reading, that's the #1 problem that most people have when sight reading. Indeed, when teaching musicianship, I used to set tests that would specifically target this (actually if you want to get into tricky musicianship stuff the Hindemith Elementary Training for Musicians is fantastic and once you can do these exercises you will never not read ahead again!)

As a more general answer to reading music, I'm a professional musician, I have been reading for the vast majority of my life and I can say that it is like a language. I actually think in musical notation and whenever I hear music I visualize the notation, in the same way as when you learn a language you think in it without translating. Actually, I've discovered that when I'm very tired I can't spell words correctly but I can still notate perfectly well. That should be some testament to how musical notation becomes second nature with enough practice.
posted by ob at 1:17 PM on May 8, 2009

In one word: Shape. The shape of the noteheads on the page translates directly to the shape of the notes under your fingers on the piano.

Simple example: Imagine playing a C major scale going from middle C up one octave.

Now image how that scale looks on the page.

Notice the correlation between the two (noteheads going up the lines & spaces of the staff corresponds exactly to the notes on the piano keyboard going up the scale--up on the staff corresponds to 'up' on the piano keyboard, etc.)

To generalize this, think of reading by shape, direction, and interval more than note by note.

For instance CDEGEC means start with C and "step up" "step up" "skip up" "skip down" "skip down".

That takes a lot of words to write but in terms of fingers/keys in a scale it is very simple and fast--way faster than thinking of each note individually.

- learn & practice intervals, so you know them both on the page and on the keyboard (and can sing & hear them)

- learn keys, scales, and chords. All music notation is built around scales and keys so if you don't know those dead to right you're going to be continually confused.

For my students I used to make flashcards with 4-6 notes on a 4-line staff (that encouraged them to stop thinking about how this works out under "Every Good Boy Does Fine" and just look at the shape; you can make a 4-line staff by just drawing 4 parallel lines on a piece of paper). Then we would play the patterns with the rule 'First note is G and we are in the key of C major'. The next time it might be 'First note is F# and we are in the key of G major. Next time 'First note is A and we are in the key of F major'.

And so on.

(If this sounds hard to you, it's not--6 or 8 year olds can do it easily. It might, however, be a different way than you are used to thinking about the music.)

This encourages you to think in terms of shape, pattern, and interval and how the shapes on the page translate into shapes on the keyboard.

At the same time it encourages you to start thinking and playing **in a key** rather than just "F#---that means poke that one black key right there!"
posted by flug at 8:11 PM on May 8, 2009

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