Reading Music

How to Read Sheet Music course available now!

Reading music is one of the essential musical skills you’ll need to make the most of your musical ability. The entire history of Western music is available to those who have mastered this skill. Yet for so many, reading music remains the single biggest obstacle to learning it.

It certainly was for me. In my childhood I even had a piano teacher fire me because I couldn’t learn to read music. She literally told my mother, “Take your money every week and throw it in the garbage–Albert will never be able to play the piano!” As a result of this early experience, it was years before I would ever touch a piano again.

What is more unfortunate still is that music teachers fail to recognize the importance of training the ear to recognize what is heard. Most often, exclusively reading-based approaches result in the inability for the ear to guide the hands to the right notes. In turn, this results in slower learning, poorer memory retention and insecurity and uncertainty during performances.

My own position is therefore that the music educational system should place at least as much emphasis on ear training as it does on reading music. There is a simple reason for my conviction: Each art form requires developing sensitivity to its sensory modalities. The painter’s eye is trained to notice infinitesimal details of light and color, the dancer’s body to the subtleties of movement, the actor’s voice to nuances of diction and inflection. The musician’s artistic modality is sound, and the music educational system should therefore make every effort not only to sensitize the ear to sound, but also to train students to comprehend the music they hear.

Such an approach by no means diminishes the role of the eye; on the contrary, it only supplements it. At its best, reading music involves hearing each note in advance of playing it. It is not simply a matter of pressing the right keys at the right time–it is about first hearing in the mind’s ear the notes one sees on the printed page.

Reading music therefore involves the synthesis of several musical faculties. First, the eyes must be trained to recognize the symbols of music notation. Secondly, the brain interprets these symbols, dividing them into pitch, rhythmic, dynamic and expressive components. It is at this stage that the music should be heard in the mind. Next, the brain sends the muscles the appropriate signals and the arms, wrist, hands and fingers must respond accordingly, at the right times. Finally, the ear properly gives feedback in two respects: confirming or denying that the correct notes were indeed played, as well as ensuring that the notes were played with the desired sound. This feedback loop is as dependent on good technique as it is on a trained ear.

How to Learn to Read Music

The reason the overwhelming majority of piano students are overwhelmed by reading music is because it is overwhelming. Play music at sight requires the simultaneous use of nearly all skills in piano playing: recognizing notes, finding their corresponding keys on the piano (each key on a piano plays several actual notes, called enharmonic), pressing the keys at precisely the right time and with the right speed, releasing the keys at the right time, listening with the utmost care to the sounds being produced, and expressing one’s emotions in the process. It’s no wonder most students find the task daunting.

Even the most complicated task can always be broken down into smaller steps. The foremost task in reading music is simply to recognize the note names, entirely independently of an instrument. You can’t read a language if you don’t yet know the letters. This is step one in reading music. If you are not yet able to read note names aloud as easily as you can name the letters in this sentence, you can’t possibly expect to be able to read music at sight! You need to master this task before moving on.

How often to practice sight reading

Reading piano music (or music for any instrument) should be thought of much like training a muscle. Both the human mind and body function according to a strict use-it-or-lose-it principle. Practicing a little every day will yield better results than practicing a lot once in a while.

My goal is to make sure that my students become competent at reading music much more easily. I’ve therefore created a series of free lessons (listed below) that will introduce you to the essentials of reading music and ease your path.

If you’re serious about reading music, I’ve created a comprehensive DVD and workbook course, How to Read Sheet Music. It’s a beautifully produced, definitive professional method for training the eye to read music, and it will save you many hours of time and frustration. I invite you to check it out.

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