How To Read Music

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Posted in Reading Music by David. 25 Comments

Let Me Re-Phrase It

I find myself using similar analogies with almost every student I ever teach. I don’t spend the same amount of time with every student on every concept, but there are just certain concepts that everyone seems to struggle with.

One of those is musical phrasing. I remember struggling with this myself, and it didn’t really “click” for me until I learned that music is communication. You may be thinking, “what does this have to do with reading music? I’m having enough trouble as it is with the notes!” That’s exactly where my point lies. You have to look beyond the notes to get to the phrase.

Say the phrase: “I love to play music.” Think about how many ways you can change the meaning of that phrase simply by emphasizing a different word each time. Emphasis “I” and it sounds like you’re comparing yourself to someone who doesn’t love to play music. Emphasis “play” and you might be saying that you preferring playing music over listening. Stress “music” and you’re probably telling someone that you love to play music, not sports. Melodically, you can sound whimsical, like a girl who just found love: “I’m gonna marry him!!!” Or maybe a little more depressing, like Charlie Brown looking for some significance in his mediocrity.

Now we get to apply that to music. This is much easier for singers, who have words to use, and to who vocal inflection is much more natural than it is for instrumentalists. Take a simple melody that you know well, or even a major scale. Begin thinking through all the ways you can put inflections onto certain notes to change the “meaning” of the melody you are playing. While there are certain obvious choices, there’s not a dictionary of phrases that tells us exactly how to emphasize exactly which note in order to portray an exact emotion. The way I sound when I read that sentence will sound different than when you say it, even though we can communicate the same idea.

Look back at the phrase again. Now say it with a complete stop between each word: I. Love. To. Play. Music. That’s what it sounds like when you play each note as just that: a note. Everything about the way you play each note (how it starts, how it ends, how it connects to the next, how much or little vibrato you use, the articulations) affects the “sentence” you are trying to communicate.

I had a teacher who made me look through the concerto I was working on and write out a narrative for the piece. It was something like: “A man is walking through the forest. OH NO! A dragon! He runs away. Look, there’s a princess…..” It wasn’t earth-shattering literature, but it did give my mind a way to communicate something with my instrument besides notes and rhythms. You can assign a feeling or narrative to a section of music, or if you’re really ambitious, write lyrics to every note. Whatever you do, communicate! Use the vocabulary you possess at this point in your education, and say something!

Do I Need to Learn How to Read Music?

We are all in a hurry to learn how to be the best musicians we can be. It seems like just playing our instrument should be enough to help us progress. Why should we learn how to read all those lines and dots? Is it not enough to learn great tone and rhythm and pitch?

My two-year-old son can communicate pretty easily with me. He can tell me what he wants to watch, where he wants to go, and mimics the jokes and funny things that his older sister says. The thing about my son is: he can’t read. We didn’t hand him a book of vocabulary words and literary masterpieces when he was born and expect him to speak fluently right away.

Since we learn language by ear, I wonder why we think we can learn to read music simply by looking at it. What my son does know is his alphabet. He knows what each letter is, and is learning what each letter sounds like. He’s not ready for Shakespeare yet, but he will be eventually.

So, don’t be discouraged if you aren’t reading Beethoven Sonatas or Mozart Concertos yet. Music is a language, and you have to immerse yourself in a language in order to become fluent. Learn your basics first – notes on the treble staff, notes on the bass staff, rhythms, etc. You can learn those things easily and quickly. Then, challenge yourself regularly with music beyond your ability to read. You can’t expand your language vocabulary if you know every word in every book you read, and in the same way, you won’t grow musically if you understand every note, rhythm, and pattern right away.

So, you can learn to read, but do you need to? I guess not. But, imagine my son trying to get a job and not being able to read the job application. Imagine if Picasso didn’t know what the different colors were called. Imagine how much amazing music we would’ve lost had Beethoven not known how to write out his compositions!

Think of music as a language rather than a technical skill, and it will give you the drive you need to want to learn how to communicate it. If you’re ready to get started on that journey, be sure to check out the Speedy Music Reading system which uses both sight and sound to help you learn as quickly as possible.