Music reading - who needs it? RSS

Learning / 01/08/2020
Music reading - who needs it?

Is learning to read music important ... or not?

Yes ...

If you want to become an independent classical musician, then absolutely 'yes'.

In classical music, great importance is placed upon adhering precisely to the musical score and closely fulfilling the intentions set out by the composer. A classical musician who can read music will always enjoy the gift of being able to learn and play an endless repertoire of wonderful music, whether or not they are having lessons. Bear in mind that you will not take lessons for the rest of your life!

The realisation that music reading is failing to keep pace with playing skills can be disheartening and causes some learners to give up completely. Teenagers and adults often express a wish that they had become more proficient at reading music but I have never heard anyone say that they wish they had not bothered!

And no ...

Reading music is not high on the agenda for some forms of music making. Classical Indian music, for example, is a highly developed art, improvised without notation around an agreed, formal structure.  Jazz musicians mostly use a 'lead-sheet' if notation is needed, instead of a traditional score and, for jazz, this is a better option because it give more freedom to improvise. Guitarists playing 'popular' music sometimes use a notation system called tablature, which indicates the finger numbers to be used on each string. Drummers often manage perfectly well without notation because they tend to work in a fundamentally different way from classically trained musicians, using often highly-developed aural skills to listen and work out how to play something.

What about singers?

Singers are often taught by rote rather than by using notation, meaning that their music reading skills can remain undeveloped. This does not mean that they can't sing well and, traditionally, folk songs are taught and passed down through the generations by imitation . Popular singers and jazz singers who may not read music fluently can still achieve amazing results.

However, those singers who have an ambition to progress to opera and classical art-songs really do need to read music and singers who wish to qualify as teachers will find their options restricted without good music reading skills. Not being able to read notation tends to limit singers' success in music exams where sight reading is a compulsory part of the assessment.

What is the right age for learning to read music?

We can learn to read music, or improve our music reading skills, at virtually any age. If a child is learning to read at school she will already be matching sounds with symbols so there is no reason why even an infant should not learn to read music too, as long as it is in meaningful context with sound. There is little point - and limited motivation - in learning to read music unless it is practically related to playing or singing. Adults can often quickly understand the principles behind music reading because they are based on a logical system, but it still takes time to become fluent. Reading music is not an instant accomplishment; just like learning to read at school, it takes several years and regular practice before anyone becomes fluent.

How do you learn to read music?

It is theoretically possible to understand the principles of music reading from a book, but it's so much easier to learn from a good teacher. Teachers help children to read music in lessons by starting with very easy pieces that match the pupil's technical level, emotional maturity and current learning ability. For older beginners the choice of material need careful consideration so that it is enjoyable and relevant. There are, broadly speaking, two main aspects to music reading, pitch and rhythm, pitch being represented by how high or low a note is placed on the stave and rhythm by the visual appearance of the notes according to their relative duration. English speaking pupils are often led to begin understanding rhythm by associating it with word patterns, for instance 'First it's D, Now here's B' has a 'Short, short, long ... Short, short, long' word pattern. 

Most teachers use tutor books, which begin with a limited number of notes and with very easy rhythms. For instance, Tunes for 10 Fingers for piano, by Pauline Hall, suitable for very young children, starts with just Middle C and progresses very gradually outwards from there with each hand. Get Set! Piano by Heather Hammond and Karen Marshall, my current favourite tutor book for children in terms of suitability, presentation and quality, begins with just the right hand D and left hand B, either side of Middle C. There are excellent tutor books specially for older beginners and adults too, such as It's Never Too Late to Play Piano by Pam Wedgwood.

For players of orchestral instruments, the tutor book begins with a limited number of notes that are technically easy to produce, for instance open strings (where the left hand fingers are not needed on the fingerboard) on the violin. On the recorder, the easiest to produce notes are G, A and B, where only the left hand covers the holes, so tutor books such as  Red Hot Recorder by Sarah Watts often begin with B, which needs only one finger and thumb. Recorder books have come a long way in terms of attractiveness and interest, and Sarah's Red Hot Recorder series is one of the best on the market.

Improving music reading skills

As a musician progresses, the notation becomes more complex, requiring more advanced music reading skills, so extra help and practice may be necessary.  When starting to learn a new piece, the music needs to be studied in depth but, once a piece is well known, the notated score acts as an aid to memory rather than being read in detail each time the music is played. Like any complex skill, music reading needs regular practice, ideally every day, and focused, efficient practice produces the best progress. 

Playing lots of pieces in different styles is a good way to improve music reading, so students practise 'sight reading' which involves studying a piece for just a very short time and then playing as fluently and musically as possible. There are many books available that test sight reading and now it is possible to practise sight reading online, for example E-MusicMaestro Piano Sight Reading, which has the added advantage for the learner of hearing how the piece should have sounded. To learn how to sight read better in the early grades, try the Learn to Sight Read: Piano book series, available at grades 1-4.

Sandy Holland

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