Here in the Christine Brown Piano and Voice Studio, students start to play piano and/or sing in the very first lesson. Even before one learns how to read music we start to use our hands at the keyboard or our voices in song. Still, learning to read music is an objective of our studies. Reading music means looking at the sheet or score and playing or singing the music.
Music is a language, a form of communication. And as such it can be passed on to others by ear and in a written form. The written form of music is notation. These notes show the musician how to play or sing a piece of music that might be unfamiliar. Some people can just hear a song and immediately play it by ear. This is a skill that can be innate as well as learned. The more traditional way of learning a piece of music for solo, band, orchestra or chorus performance is by reading notes. This is the way a composer can share the work with everyone who wants to perform it.
Reading music is like reading in general. The alphabet of music involves the notes and their placement on the staff. Just as the letters of the alphabet are the symbols we use to read words, and numbers and symbols are the means we use to communicate in mathematics, notes are like the letters and words of music.
The staff upon which the notes are written is like a map. The notes tell us where we will sing or play. If the notes are placed high on the staff, the sound is high. This would be like a little dog’s bark or a scream, high in pitch. If the notes are lower on the staff they are played lower. This would be like a fog horn or a Rottweiller’s growl or Johnny Cash , low in pitch.
Another way to look at the staff with notes is like a graph in math. There are points on the graph which tell us where the numbers are located, positive or negative, high or low. The dots all look the same but the location tells us where and what the note is. This may sound complicated to anyone that doesn’t love mat , but when we use a visual approach at the lesson it becomes clear.
Learning to read music can start before a student has even started to learn reading in school. It uses the idea that children recognize symbols at a very young age. (Think golden arches) They can be reading -ready for notes and learn to read music before they are reading in school. Adults should be ready to begin to learn to read music right away, but the process is not forced on them just because they are older. The process starts by using the ability of the child’s or adult’s mind to differentiate, that is to see opposites or 2 things that are mutually exclusive. One example is up from down. Going higher in your voice sounds and feels a certain way. Going up and down in music on the piano looks and sounds a certain way. This is the basic starting point.
The student is shown around the keyboard and how the 7 letters of the alphabet are used to name the notes and the keys. Depending on the age of the student and background this could be covered in one or two lessons or continued over the course of several lessons as the student is learning other skills.
With reading piano and keyboard music there are also sharps and flats to consider which means that the study of scales and chords will help with the reading. Reading vocal music involves more of an intuitive style where the sharp or flat is heard and sung correctly. Think of how many people know how to sing Happy Birthday from a young age but don’t have to worry about whether the notes are F sharp or B flat. The piano player has to be sure which note is exactly played. Even the piano player can know what the note should sound like but might hit the wrong key if he hasn’t remembered it is a black key.
Even if a student is having difficulty with auditory perception or reading in school, they can still learn to sing and play the piano. With the one on one attention the child gets at the lesson the concepts of reading can be reinforced here in the studio. This can be an advantage to the study of reading in school.
If a student already has some experience reading music, such as an adult that studied as a child and is getting back into music, we start the lessons at the level of the student. We can reinforce that knowledge and improve the reading ability.
The reading ability and proficiency with words and books progresses as the person reads more and more difficult material. Just as reading words involves starting in an elementary level and progressing, so does reading music. The student must be patient. The reading level improves and gets stronger as the student plays more and more music. We start the beginner with elementary level pieces and move on from there.
Reading music is part of playing music, but just one part. Since music is a form of communication, the performance of music involves feeling the music’s message and conveying that message to yourself and your audience.
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Christine Brown is a piano and voice teacher in the Rochester, NY area.