In my experience, reading sheet music is usually the biggest challenge for most piano students. The difficulties can be mitigated some by understanding that reading music is not a single skill but rather a set of skills, and by working on each of them individually before attempting to do all of them at once.
After all, if you tried learning to drive a car by adjusting the stick shift, rear view mirror and radio while talking on your cell phone and programming the navigation system all at once, you’d easily get yourself killed.
Fortunately, learning to read music is decidedly less accident-prone, though it pays to do it right. Like learning to drive, we can break this complex task into a series of simpler ones.
At bottom, reading sheet music essentially involves just two things: pitch and time. Pitch is simply which note to play, and time is when to play it.
There are additional details concerning how to play the notes – for instance, how loud to play one passage relative to another, whether to take time or how to articulate the notes – but the vast majority of the challenge of reading piano music involves pitch and time.
My condensed article How to Read Piano Notes will introduce you to the very basics of reading music at the piano, including the grand staff and the clefs. There’s no need to reproduce that lesson here, though if you’d like a comprehensive course that will teach you to read notes in the most efficient and effective way possible, have a look at my DVD and workbook course, How to Read Sheet Music.
Time in music is represented by rhythm. It is not enough to locate the notes on the piano keyboard – we need to do so in time. To accomplish this, we need to master rhythm.
The first element of learning to read musical rhythm is understanding the rhythmic values of notes. Any note can be divided in half: whole, half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, 32nd, 64th, 128th… in theory we could keep going, but further subdivisions would make reading sheet music unnecessarily difficult.
It’s important to point out that smaller rhythmic values are not inherently faster than larger ones. Where music notation is concerned, speed is entirely relative. A quarter note in a very fast tempo may be much faster than a sixteenth note in a very slow tempo.
At the piano, the development of rhythmic skill is complicated by the fact that the two hands play simultaneously, and they must achieve independence. This is best accomplished first by practicing single-voice rhythmic exercises with either hand, and only later combining the hands.
These exercises should be done away from the piano keyboard, however. In this way, rhythm is learned independently of pitch. Only once the requisite rhythmic skills have been developed should the student attempt to read sheet music at the piano.
I’ve developed an entire course on reading sheet music. The course consists of a high-quality DVD with hundreds of musical examples, plus a workbook that will train your eyes to recognize musical notes extremely effectively. How to Read Sheet Music is a professional method that builds on the most effective, proven techniques used in music conservatories to train classical musicians worldwide.
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