Learning to Read Music
May 12, 2004 2:48 PM   Subscribe

Any tips/tutorials/sekrets on learning how to sight read sheet music for piano? [MI™]

I've got a baby grand piano, and feel that I owe it to myself to stop noodling and start really learning how to decipher the little dots. Problem is, I've learned to play piano by ear and have refused to look at sheet music all my life. I'm usually quite good at picking up new skills, but I can't seem to wrap my head around this, even on a basic level. Which it quite frustrating—I can recite most anything by ear.

Outside of Every Good Boy Does Fine, have you any sight reading hints?
posted by icetaco to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
icetaco, I sympathize. I am fairly proficient at the piano and can improvise pretty well and yet I also can't get my head around sight reading - it's like my brain refuses to pick it up.

I do use sheet music but I laboriously go through the piece at a slow pace and, essentially, memorize it with my fingers. That is, except for quick reference, I dont use the sheet music more than once. So, I'm also looking to this thread for some insight into this.
posted by vacapinta at 3:00 PM on May 12, 2004

There's a decent book.
posted by Gyan at 3:11 PM on May 12, 2004

Flashcards worked for me, especially for notes on leger lines.
posted by mischief at 3:18 PM on May 12, 2004

Get a book of as many really, really easy exercises as you can. Work through each of them--laboriously, if you have to. Slowly. Don't worry too much about rhythm at first. Don't play any piece enough times that you start to memorize it; move on to the next one.

There's an article here that might help.
posted by Jeanne at 3:19 PM on May 12, 2004

icetaco, are you trying to learn how to read music? Or do you already know how to read music, and are trying to improve your sight reading? Judging by your question, it sounds like you are learning the essential, basic skill of reading musical notation.

'Sight reading' is the skill of being able to decipher written music in real-time, without having seen the music before. This is different from the basic skill of being able to 'read music', and so if you ask someone for help with your sight-reading, they will probably assume that you already know how to read music. I think it's fair to say that almost all (classical) musicians know how to read complicated concert music, but most of them couldn't sight-read any of it.

It's just like being able to read English. Sure, you can read, but suppose you were asked to do a public recital of a long poem with unfamiliar vocabulary. Unless you were an accomplished speaker (a 'sight-reader') you'd probably do a poor job if you just did it straight off. Instead, you'd need time to prepare your delivery, and look up how to pronounce those troublesome words.

So don't be discouraged if it takes quite a while to develop a fluency in turning the notes onto the page into actual physical key-presses. The skill you want to be focusing on, to begin with, is learning the vocabulary of symbols that are used in written music, and what they mean in terms of notes and rhythm. You might not be able to sight-read things straight away, but if you can understand in your head what the symbols mean, then you're well on the way.

Try not to read music that you already know -- you'll probably just find that you play it more by ear than by really reading the music. In fact, you might not want to start on 'real music' at all, since you might get quickly discouraged. If you can bring yourself to do it, get hold of a beginner's piano book, and work through the very simple examples.
posted by chrismear at 3:33 PM on May 12, 2004

If you have the money, in addition, I'd recommend piano lessons. The combination of a good teacher, structured lessons, set tasks/deadlines/guilt, etc., will help you focus on the exercises that Jeanne recommends and to acquire the fluency-in-action that chrismear describes. I think to do it well you just have to practice and practice.
posted by carter at 7:13 PM on May 12, 2004

What's tricky about playing the piano is thinking in chords (vertically) and in melodic lines (horizontally). And you've got the added complication of having 10 fingers (I hope), any of which can hit a given note. A teacher can best guide you on which fingers are best for which notes and which chords as they show up in the music. Because when you see a C major chord on the page, you don't want to think just C-E-G... at that point, the chord is gone -- you want a hand position to immediately pop into your head.

But, if you don't have access to someone, grab yourself a metronome and a beginning piano book with plenty of diagrams of which fingers to use. Once you get the basics, play something new everyday from the page, even if it feels like you're riding by the seat of your pants. Yes, working through exercises slowly enough to play perfectly is the best way to practice, but also try to push yourself to run through a piece without stopping... then go back and work on your mistakes.

Go to library sales or whatnot and buy music books, hymnals, whatever. After a while, get some staff paper and try writing down any tune (melody first, then maybe lay chords under it), then play it back on the piano and see if you got the notes right.

I play a treble clef instrument and learned how to be fluent in bass clef because I was put in a performance sitation where I *had* to read bass clef (and true sightreading - no time to practice) in live performance every week. I was pushed to read bass clef and damned if I didn't learn it better in two weeks on the job with a microphone in my bell than in 4 years at music school. Don't be ashamed to pencil in the odd note name here and there - 17 years of being a musician here and I still have to write in the occasssional high "F" as a reminder to myself.
posted by Sangre Azul at 7:32 PM on May 12, 2004

The biggest thing I had to learn in reading music was not to worry too much about what the notes are. That comes fairly simply with some rote repetition. The big thing to worry about is the timing - counting out a phrase of quarter-note, quarter-note, quarter-note-rest, two-eighth-notes, whole note, etc. If you practice on material you already know how to play by ear, you'll find yourself automatically going with the phrasing you know in your head instead of actually reading the rhythms. Try this - when learning a new piece, just count out the rhythms, maybe tapping them out or playing them all on the same note. Once you've got the rhythms down cold, then go ahead and insert the appropriate notes.
posted by tdismukes at 7:42 PM on May 12, 2004

One other consideration as far as reading music for piano (as opposed to bass, which is my instrument), is that you'll have to read a lot of chords instead of just single note lines. Make it easier on yourself by learning to recognize the basic chord shapes on the staff paper, rather than having to decipher what each note is individually.

For example - 3 notes stacked on top of each other on adjoining lines (skipping spaces) or adjoining spaces (skipping the lines) make either a major or minor triad in first position. If you can recognize that the bottom note is an E, for example, and you know that you're in the key of G, then you know the chord is an E minor, even without taking the time to recognize the other two notes as G and B.
posted by tdismukes at 7:51 PM on May 12, 2004

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