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How to See the Music

reading music

Question: Hi Mr. Frantz,

I thoroughly enjoy reading your website. I have played single-clef instruments most of my life with very little formal piano training. Approximately seven years ago, I began practicing sight reading on the piano, which is substantially more challenging given the two clefs. I have no idea how some people can read three clefs simultaneously.

I have asked numerous people the proper way to read and have heard different opinions. Some have said I should read vertically in a parallel-block manner. Others have mentioned focusing on the more difficult clef while reading ahead with the other clef. Last I’ve heard to always read ahead with both clefs, which is difficult for me to sustain when my technical facility is lacking.

For me, it seems like I do better when I am focused – something you have written – with a soft gaze. Unfortunately, if this is the correct way, it is difficult to maintain this focus throughout a piece especially when I encounter a difficult part of the music. What is the best way to see the music? Thank you.

– Mario Davidson (Nashville, Tennessee, USA)

Albert’s reply: For most music, the most effective way to see the written score is not as individual notes, but rather as melody with accompanying harmonies. When we read printed text, we read whole words and phrases rather than individual letters. Music is no different.

There are three general categories, the mastery of which will accelerate your music reading ability. The greater is your skill in these categories, the easier it will be for you to read music.

The first of these categories is rhythm. Rhythm should be worked on separately from playing, using specific rhythm exercises. The hands can tap the rhythm at first separately; only later should they be combined. Hands-together practice is at least four times as difficult as practicing hands separately, and the skill must therefore be built up gradually.

Next, you will need familiarity with the piano keyboard in order to read music with fluency. This requires knowing each major and minor key and how it feels under the fingers. Learning all piano scales blindly, with eyes closed or looking away from your hands, will do much to improve your feel for the piano’s geography. Practicing the scales every day – preferably all major and harmonic minor scales – in this manner will positively affect nearly every aspect of learning music.

Third, an intimate familiarity with music theory will also enormously accelerate your ability to read music. You will know not only the most important chords, but also the chords (i.e., harmonies) to which each one typically leads. This skill will allow you to anticipate what will come in the music you are reading.

Finally, before graduating to playing scales and chords on the piano, you should be able to name any note you see on any musical staff as easily and immediately as you can read the letters in this text. If you are not yet able to do so, the How to Read Sheet Music course may be worth your consideration.

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