Learn to Read Music, Online?
September 16, 2019 9:17 PM   Subscribe

Mr. McGee has joined a community choir, but does not read music. He would like to learn to read music. Can you point us to an good (free) online course that he could work his way through? A book would also be okay, but I feel like there's probably a great web-based course with YouTube videos out there somewhere so he could see it AND hear it.

I read music fluently, but unfortunately have done since I was too little to remember learning how, and I didn't learn much formal music theory or anything about music education, so I don't really know how to teach someone else and when I try to explain things I'm frequently making a hash of it, because it's just something I KNOW, not something I know how to explain or teach.

It's easy enough for me to explain dynamic markings and tempos and fermatas and things like that, but I attempted time signatures and he wanted to know WHY a quarter note was one beat and why there was 4/4 with a "whole" note that took up the whole bar but in 3/4 time you couldn't do that and, and, and ... and I was like UM I THINK IT HAS TO DO WITH MUSICAL NOTATION IN THE MIDDLE AGES AND THE RENAISSANCE I'M SURE THERE'S A REASON BUT LISTEN IT'S CALLED A WHOLE NOTE BUT IT'S JUST FOUR BEATS EVEN IF THE SIGNATURE ISN'T 4/4 and then he wanted to know why waltz time wasn't 3/3 and how can a "quarter" note be one beat in 3/4 time because there's only three so isn't it a "third" note then and I was like AAAAAAAAAAARGH. Experts are required, clearly.
posted by Eyebrows McGee to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I think the quarter note thing is an eccentricity of American nomenclature - maybe he'd have an easier time talking about crotchets and quavers, without the implicit fractions?

At any rate I find Alfred's Essentials of Music Theory quite useful.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:29 PM on September 16, 2019

No no no, introducing the insane UK vocabulary of "crochets" and "semiquavers" and so on will not help him. It will further confuse him.
posted by thelonius at 11:05 PM on September 16, 2019 [10 favorites]

Sounds like he wants history of musical notation rather than learning to read music! I'm in the UK so my naming system is different ("insane" apparently) but they are called that because that is the way it is, and mostly music and musical structures existed before there were systematic ways of writing it down. The systems aren't necessarily perfect but sounds like he is derailing his learning by focusing on the system rather than relating it to the music!

What does he want out of reading music? Learning to sight sing is a very different beast to learning to play an instrument. Might want to specify the goal further. If sight singing is the goal then find out what approach the choir uses otherwise it gets really confusing.
posted by kadia_a at 11:38 PM on September 16, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you can get him to accept the basics, you can have him clap and count rhythms on Rhythm Randomizer or practice note names + do basic theory lessons and note-naming exercises at MusicTheory.net (you may have to suggest reasonable parameters at his current level of understanding for both of those, I do for my students). I also really, really like Sightreading Factory (either to help him eventually be able to plink out his part on a keyboard or to sightsing in moveable do, if you get that far) but it does require a paid subscription to be really useful, and it’s probably more than you need right now.

seriously no one should ever try and teach their spouse anything, they are always full of suggestions and whyyyys and 12 year-olds pretty much accept “because I am the expert in this situation and this is how we are doing it” and my firmly middle-aged spouse never, ever will
posted by charmedimsure at 12:36 AM on September 17, 2019 [6 favorites]

("insane" apparently)

Well, we got called "eccentric" first.

Seriously, I do think that introducing an alternative naming system won't be helpful, especially since it will be of no practical use in the U.S.
posted by thelonius at 1:28 AM on September 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

But a whole note is only four beats in time signatures that are x/4. Did you explain that the top number of a time signature indicates the number of beats per measure, and the bottom number indicates which note gets the beat? Beginner’s piano books might be a help for this; also for teaching note names/positions.
posted by epj at 5:47 AM on September 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

Here are all the little quantum leaps in understanding I had to make before music notation stopped being weird arbitrary legacy renaissance technology and started resembling an effective way to communicate music:

1. The fractional duration of notes is best thought of in relative terms, not absolute terms. A whole note is 2x as long as a half note which is 2x longer than a quarter note which is 2x longer than an eighth note and so on. (This IMO is another argument against using the English note naming system -- "quaver" contains less information than "quarter note")

2. But, if it's all relative, how do we know how long, in real time, one should play a note? Like epj says, the time signature tells you what duration of note receives one beat, and the tempo tells you how many beats per minute to play. You need to know all three before you know how long a note needs to sound for. If Mr. McGee is mathy at all, thinking of this as the "equation of note duration" may be helpful.

3. While the time signature resembles a fraction, it is not a fraction -- it's a way of subdividing music into little chunks of consistent duration -- measures.

4. The keystone point that made it all come together for me: the subdivision and organization of the song into measures is key to the "feel" of the music.

Different styles of music will map different "events" onto different notes in the measure. For example, in both rock and reggae music, chord changes will generally happen on the first beat of the measure. In 4/4 rock, the heaviest drumbeat will happen on the 1 as well, giving the music a driving/urgent feel. In reggae, the heaviest beat lands on the 3, and divorcing the heaviest beat from the chord change gives the music its characteristic bob.

The main text that was useful to me here was Hook Theory, which comes at music theory from a pop standpoint, using songs you may already have in your brain! The coolest thing about Hook Theory is that it dovetails from music theory into composition, which is where I wanted to be.
posted by Sauce Trough at 6:34 AM on September 17, 2019

The time signature doesn’t matter. I mean, it means something, but not to you and me. There’s only 3-time and 4-time*, and even those sing pretty similarly in real life.

A quarter note is the base note because you can go up or down with it more easily. Need something longer? Half or whole are easy steps up. Need something shorter? Eighth and sixteenth are still pretty easy to distinguish.

What if everything was based on whole notes? If you wanted a longer note you’d have to dot it or use ties or something, and that would suck. (You don't usually use ties unless sometimes there’s two words and sometimes there’s just one). If you based it on eighth notes, pretty soon your note marks have a ton of little flags on them that you’re trying to distinguish in the middle of the song.

They’re just called quarter half whole and eighth so you know how long they are relative to each other. The time signature doesn’t matter. The leader will tell you the tempo by leading so you don’t have to figure that out either. The time signature doesn’t matter.

*2/2 is the same as 4/4, 6/8 is the same as 3/4, and 9/8 just means there are going to be a lot of notes so don’t worry about it. Unless your community choir is singing “Schism” or Rush or something you don’t really need to worry about the time signature (BUT IF THEY ARE POST IT TO MEFI MUSIC).
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:57 AM on September 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

The time signature doesn't matter? Maybe not to note length (a quarter note is one beat in 3/4 or 4/4, etc.), but it matters to the meter of the piece. 3/4 feels a lot different from 4/4 and there is definitely a difference between 2/2 and 4/4, and 3/4 and 6/8.

Anyway, OP, try this and this.
posted by foxjacket at 8:15 AM on September 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

An oldie but a goodie, with tons of links for listening, theory, interpretation, and of course-- courses!
OpenCulture free music courses

The post today about Bootsy Collins, "Keeping It On The One", explained A LOT that I can hear but couldn't define, but now I can!
posted by twentyfeetof tacos at 9:47 AM on September 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

A good book to get started is: What Makes Music Work.

I can't recommend a Youtube channel that covers things generally. The Music Theory Guy has some fine videos but he also uses the UK terminology for note lengths which ain't so good.
Here's his take on time signatures btw.

So perhaps a good approach is to get a good book, go through it, and then search on youtube for the topics that he wants to get further traction on.
posted by storybored at 11:32 AM on September 17, 2019

I auditioned for a chorus that requires some music reading knowledge and recommended the aforementioned musictheory.net as a good way to learn the basics. I hadn't read music in over 20 years and found it very helpful.
posted by lunasol at 11:47 AM on September 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

You may find these pdf illustrations from Toby Rush useful. (link to 54 page pdf)
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:25 PM on September 18, 2019

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