About Reading Music

This article lays out some various gradients to reading music. A gradient to learning is a step-by-step approach starting with the easiest thing and progressing to more difficult levels.

Many musicians read music fluidly while others are either stumped by it all, are mildly confused or just don’t really know what’s it’s all about . I’ve been teaching people to read music for years and it’s actually not that difficult a subject. To read well takes a lot of practice, of course, but if approached correctly is a very understandable subject.

There is a hierarchy of things to learn. When you start with the easiest aspect of reading and proceed from there one can learn smoothly. A common difficulty students have is simply not drilling each level of skill long enough to get comfortable before advancing to the next level: too much too soon. When you learn things one step at a time and become proficient with each element before going on to the next element, learning to read well is quite doable.

One of the common difficulties people have isn’t the notes on the page but the notes on their instrument! In order to read well you need to first understand your instrument and, ideally, have a basic foundation about how music is put together. The most basic “theory” is simply knowing what the notes on the instrument are called. How could you read notes on the page and transfer that visual to playing those notes on the instrument without knowing what they are? Well, I’ve had many students who “had trouble reading” when they actually read just fine: they simply didn’t know their instrument well enough. So when they learned their instrument better, like magic they could read. It’s very interesting.

Another common difficulty is lacking basic musical skills such as being able to feel the rhythms they are looking at and playing. Ultimately one should look at a piece of music and hear and feel what one sees. There are many levels of this and the most fundamental skills needed to enjoy reading music can be readily learned with some good instruction.

This is a suggested order of things to learn to get your reading skills up to par:

1. Knowing the definitions of the words and symbols used.

2. Learning to navigate a piece of music. This consists of learning the symbols that tell you where to go. The most basic piece of music to learn to read is a “chord chart.” A “chart” is a slang term for any piece of music. A chord chart is simply a piece of music with only chord symbols and the form written on it. The “form” is the order of the sections, such as verse, chorus and bridge. There are no notes or rhythms written on the paper. To read a chord chart you need to understand what chords are. For example, a “C Chord” is made up of the single notes C, E and G. The chart will just have a C written on it and you need to know the rest. Learning chords is easier to learn then many think, and there are only three or four symbols to learn that tell you where to go on a chart. These symbols just tell you to repeat a section however many times or to jump from one part of the chart to another: like a driving direction telling you what street to go to and which way to turn. You can also take a piece of sheet music for a song and just read the chords without dealing with all of the notes and get use to that.

3. Understanding pitch notation. A “pitch,” for this example, is just a note. There are five lines and four spaces that big dots (note heads) go on that tell you what note to play. If you know the notes on your instrument it is easy to learn what note on the page means what note on the instrument, and the more you know about music the easier it is. When you can speak a word and know how it’s spelled you can easily recognize it on the written page: so it goes with music. When you can play a certain thing you can recognize it when you see it.

4. Understanding rhythm notation. Various lines, dots and shapes tell you when to play notes and for how long to hold them out.

5. Putting it all together on complete pieces of written music. Written music goes from easy to difficult, and learning to read just takes a step-by-step approach to putting it all together.

There are only 6 shapes that make up most of reading music: 6 shapes. That’s not too big a mountain to climb. Combine that with some fundamental instrument skills and musical abilities and you can learn to read music.

You don’t need to read music to play well; playing is playing and reading is reading.

But if you want to improve your reading or get started, start with the above steps, get a few lessons with someone who knows what they are doing and start the adventure!

About Reading Music by Marty Buttwinick

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