Putting It All Together; A Simple Process to Read Music

In the last 2 posts, I broke down reading music into 2 parts: reading the different pitches and reading the rhythms. I decided to continue this series on reading music with one more post by showing you how I put it together to read a short passage of music.

Here's my process……

1. The first step is to look at the meter signature. If it is 4 over 4, then there's 4 big beats in each measure and the quarter note gets the big beat (see my previous post on An Easier Way to Read Rhythms).

2. Next, scan ahead and see how the notes are grouped. If it's all quarter notes, half notes and whole notes, then it's hard to tell if the small beats are felt in sets of 2 or 3. BUT, if there are small beats (eighth notes) grouped in two's, then you would use the syllables, Du-De. (In number counting, that would be 1 + 2 +).

3.  Chant the rhythm counting for the first 2 measures of music. Be sure to chant it evenly (with your rhythms being steady to the big beat). Use a metronome if you have one. (I used both the syllables and the beat number counting in the following examples.)

HCB counting meas 1





4.   Once you are comfortable with the rhythms, look at the key signature. Are any notes altered (sharp or flat)? Identify them and their fingerings.

5.    Look at the first 2 measures again, and identify the different pitches and their respective fingerings.

HCB with note names meas 1





6. Keeping your rhythms steady with the big beat, sing and finger the notes in the rhythms written on the page. (If you need to play the first note to get your pitch, that's fine.)

7. If the tempo is too fast for you to sing and finger steadily, slow down the tempo a little bit on the metronome.

8. Sing and finger the passage at least 3 times in a row – until your fingers know what they are doing.  When you play an instrument, you do not want to think about your fingerings; you want to think about making music!

9. Now play the passage, with steady rhythms, at least three times in a row. If you had to slow down the tempo, increase the speed after you have been able to play the music at the slower tempo. (Remember to sing and finger first before playing at the faster tempo.)

10. Do the same process again for the next 2 measures and so on, until the end of the piece.

HCB putting together 000

HCB all with counting






At first, it will feel like it will take forever to get through one line. But the more you approach reading music using this process, it will get quicker and easier for you.

Action Steps:

1. Try this system out the next time you practice a new piece or exercise.

2. Tell me how you did in the comments below.

3. Did this article help you? Let me know in the comments below.

4. If you enjoyed this article, please Like it and share it on your social networks. Sign up on my website for more weekly tips and information at http://DonnaSchwartzMusic.com, and get my bonus article and video on Three Steps to Learning Your Favorite Song.







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  1. Tommy Maher says

    What a Great page. You will help so many. God Bless….

  2. Surangika Senanayake says

    I will certainly try this system with my younger pupils. I use a similar system where I get my pupils to tap or clap the rhythm first. That way they get a sense of timing and find it easier to follow the melody.

    • Thanks for your interest. Google Edwin Gordon and Music Learning Theory for a further explanation of these rhythm syllables. Also check out the Gordon Institute of Music Learning (GIML.org) for more resources.

  3. If you’re going to use DU for one beat notes, use DAH for two beat notes – that would make more sense. Otherwise it is confusing to the new reader. I use Notespeller books and others for reading music. Easier when you have to remember the notes first before going into time values.

    • Thanks for reading my blog and for your comment. The rhythm syllables are taken from Edwin Gordon’s Music Learning Theory. The premise is that rhythms are felt, so a one beat DU would be chanted for one beat, while a two beat DU would be chanted for two. Dr. Gordon has thoroughly researched these syllables, and has crated a system that can account for rhythms in many different meters. It is actually quite comprehensive and fascinating. I would recommend reading The Aural/Visual Experience of Music Literacy;Reading and Writing Music Notation by Edwin Gordon to further explain what I am addressing in my blog. Thanks for your interest!

    • Erick Senkmajer says

      According to the system, you use “Du” for the initial attack of all downbeat pulses, regardless of length of note or whether it is subdivided into 2s or 3s. I use almost none of the “traditional” counting system and my students knife right through crazy meters because they become pulse-aware and subdivision-sensitive.

      I am very glad, Donna, that you credited Ed on this.

      • Donna Schwartz says

        Absolutely Erick. I have to use both MLT and “traditional” counting systems because I feed into the middle schools, where they do not use Dr. Gordon’s syllables. I know how effective they are. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Very similar to the Gordon Institute system of audiation and vocalization of rhythms. Like the addition of instrument fingering before playing. I use this same type of approach and find it very succeeful.

    • It is absolutely the Gordon system J. Pergola! Because I am the only one in my district, and one of maybe a handful in my county, that use concepts from Gordon’s Music Learning Theory, I have to introduce letter names for pitches and beat counting earlier than I want to. Whatever reaches my students is the best method, and I find that Gordon’s rhythm syllables are the best. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Surangika Senanayake says

    I find it too, that singing the counting helps in learning to read music. My challenge for the new year is how to make the theory class interesting.

  6. This is basically the Gordon Methodology of audiation and internalization applied to instrumental performance. Very nice!

    • Yes!!! I use concepts from Music Learning Theory, as well as some traditional approaches in my teaching. Thanks for your comment!

  7. Hey Donna, I like what you’re doing. Using solmisation and rhythm syllables to teach students to hear what they see. I notice you use the same vowel [u] for half, quarter and eighth notes and you use two different vowels [u, e] for 8th notes.

    I use a rhythmisation system for teaching rhythm. Rhythmisation is to rhythm what solmisation is to pitch. Briefly, vowels denote duration [e = whole note, u=half note, o=quarter note, a=eighth note and i=sixteenth note] and consonants [d, b] denote strong or weak part of bar or beat position.

    The beauty of this system is that rhythm can be uniquely expressed in rhythmisation. There’s only one way to say a rhythm which makes verbalisation easy to say and hear. And there’s only one way to write what you say making transcription and writing more straight forward.

    Your example says:
    dududu dududu dudedudedudedude dududu

    Rhythmisation says:
    dobobu dobobu dabadabadabadaba dobobu

    Note: the [o] vowels sound half as long as the [u] vowel and twice as long as the [a] vowel.

    There are a few rhythmisation videos on youtube. This is an introductory one.

    Thank you for your post.

    • Hi Taura, Thanks for your comment.
      The rhythm system I use is based upon Edwin Gordon’s Music Learning Theory. The rhythm syllables are based upon the beat functions, with big beats getting the “Du” syllable and small beats in Duple getting “Du-De” or “Du-ta-De-ta” for even smaller beats; Triple meter is “Du-Da-Di” and “Du-ta-Da-ta-Di-ta” and so forth.Check out http://www.giml.org for more info on Dr. Gordon and his extensive research into how children learn music.

  8. Hi Donna, thanks for your reply. I came to this page from LinkedIn so did not read any page on your site before commenting on this one.

    I have Edwin E Gordons book beside my computer so I should have picked up on the source of the syllables. I actually thought they were your syllables.

    In rhythmisation the beats hierarchy is specifically denoted.

    De or be is a whole note beat. Du or bu is a half note beat. Do or bo is a quarter note beat. Da or ba is an eighth note beat. Di or bi is a sixteenth note beat. Any beat starting with a [d] consonant indicates a strong beat and any beat starting with a [b] consonant indicates a weak beat. Within rhythmisation, Gordon’s macro and micro beats are spelled out with a specific vowel.

    With students 13 years and older I use rhythmisation as my rhythm articulation system of choice. For children from five to nine I use the Kodaly syllables. For children 10-12 who have studied with me for more than two years I move them to rhythmisation as gently and quickly as I can. For children in that age group who are new to my teaching I may start them on Kodaly or Takadimi syllables.

    I have only been introduced recently to Edwin E Gordon and I have read his excellent book. I am very struck by his Audiation framework. He has done so much research and generated so much literature that it’s going to take me a while to come up to speed with him.

    I think its great that music teachers have these choices. I think it’s great that you teach your students to verbalise rhythm. Good luck and thank you for this page.

  9. Claudia Waters says

    This is succinct and valuable. Thank you. Now I want to see the two blogs before this. Just got in on this thread of conversation through our Linked In music group.


  10. I have used a similar system…..it is used in the elementary schools in music class….ie…a quarter note is called “ta” and half note “ta-a” and eight notes “ti-ti”.
    Since the children are already used to using this “naming pattern” they easily read a rhythm at their piano lesson and can clap it right away. Then I have them sing the melody calling each note by name. When they put their fingers on the keys….they learn their little pieces quite quickly.
    Just another way of getting to the goal of making music!
    Thanks Donna!

    • Many of my colleagues use the Orff rhythm syllables. Honestly, whatever clicks with the student is best! I personally prefer Edwin Gordon’s syllables because there’s a syllable for every conceivable rhythm and I find that with the “ti-ti” there’s not a different syllable for the upbeat. Thanks Melanie for your comment.

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