For many students, one of the main reasons why they don’t continue on their instrument is because they have difficulty reading notation in addition to learning how to play their instrument. Having to manipulate small muscles to perform exact movements is challenging enough, but many method books also add the task of interpreting music notation at the same time.
Although well intentioned, one cannot internalize and fully understand notation if there’s no context for it. An analogy would be placing a college level text in front of a 5th grade student and asking them for a detailed discussion and analysis of the material.
Many school music teachers have to put on concerts and are told by their administrators that their students must read music right away. Music reading is considered the top priority instead of learning and performing songs (melodies and bass lines) by ear. This puts unnecessary stress on the teacher and student, and prohibits real learning.
The fact is, we need to hear melodies, internalize them, sing them over and over, and then perform them, and play variations on them; this is similar to how we learn to speak, read and write. After we have learned a number of melodies and made up some of our own, then we are ready to read.
Nonetheless, as a student, some of you need to read notes right away and are having difficulty. Here are a couple of tips for you:
- Do you know your alphabet? Actually, do you know your alphabet from A-G? If so, the only letter names in music are A through G, and then they repeat again. If you memorize the note on the bottom line of the music staff (E in treble clef and G in bass clef) all you need to do is go further along the alphabet with each higher note, and backwards along the alphabet when the notes go lower. (See graphic below)
2. Is it easier to remember cute little sayings? How about these: (See graphic below)
I hope that these 2 short little tricks help you. Here’s one bonus tip:
Always work out your notes and fingerings BEFORE you try to play the example. Many students just automatically attempt to play an exercise without working through the fingerings and notes first. It is best to practice these fingerings in the rhythms that you see…. We will be talking about that next time!
- Decide which tip works best for you: alphabet or the sayings.
- Spend 10 minutes a day only working on reading notes. Start with songs you know, then advance to examples where the notes skip.
- Report on your progress in the Comments section below.
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This is good for a starting student and I think it applies to anyone trying to learn how to read music.
Thanks Avis for your comment! Please share if you can….
As always, you make great points. I think what frustrates me the most as a public school teacher is the high number of general music teachers who do not teach the musical alphabet early on. I have my kids say the alphabet forwards and backwards starting randomly on all the letters and as you said, reinforce that as alphabet goes forward the notes ascend and the opposite as the alphabet goes backwards. Winter holiday concerts come so soon and kids have to put it all together so early in the year. I wish there was less emphasis on concerts, motr maybe on an open house and let parents see our processing but concerts are a big thing. Don’t think the board of ed would go for it. Thanks for all of your ideas 🙂
Thx Leslie! It’s amazing how administrators think that kids are ready to put on a concert with minimal number of lessons/rehearsals and not enough time to learn how to physically manipulate the instrument.
You don’t mention reading by intervals. Why not? I think it’s the easiest way there is!
Students hear and sing intervals when I do pattern instruction. For beginners, labeling intervals can be a difficult concept without having a “vocabulary” that consists of many tunes that have been audiated and performed (via singing and playing an instrument). Jazz musicians use intervals all the time in relation to understanding different chord types. But they don’t really understand them until they hear them in context. Thanks for your comment!
There’s no substitute for practicing your instrument, but there are ways to make learning notation easier and faster and maybe even fun! I recently posted an Android app to Google Play that aims to do just that. No ads, no collecting personal info, totally free. Check it out at https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.cometradio.justknow
When students are ready to read (meaning that they have heard and sang many simple folk songs in different keys and meters, and have sung tonal patterns in different keys and modes), this looks like a good practice app. Any news on when it will be available for iOS? I like how the student can choose his/her instrument to practice notes.