Learning to Read Music

Learning to read music requires three major areas of effort: time, work discipline, and an instrument. Written music is like a written book. There are languages to learn. There is the language of the key of the music. There is the language of the rhythm of the music. There is the language of tone. There is the language of how the tone is to be executed with the instrument.

At the basic level, knowing which key to sing or play in is essential. The key of the song tells us why the song is joyful, mournful, mysterious, or complex. The minor key is generally associated with sadness, but there are many songs which are wonderful expressions of joy, written completely in the minor key!

O Del Mio Dolce Ardor is a fine example of a passionate and joyful expression of love in the minor key!

To make things easier, instead of each note being marked with a sharp, flat or neutral symbol, a number of sharps or flats are presented at the beginning of the music. This tells the music reader which scale, from the “C” scale to the “G” scale, applies to the song. The reader then knows when an individual note should be natural, or a sharp or a flat. If the key changes, a new set of sharps or flats, or the key of “C”, (which has no sharps or flats) is noted.

So, for knowing which key to play in,as well as how to quickly construct the chords of the song, it is essential to memorize the number of sharps and flats for each key.

There are whole, half, quarter, sixteenth, thirty second, and sixty fourth notes. There are triplets, grace notes, and other special designations for the speed and way in which a note is to be played.

Flight Of The Bumblebee

Knowing the rhythm structures is the next essential part of reading music. Whether a straight tune with three counts to a bar, or a complicated syncopated rhythm, knowing the rhythmic structure of a bar of music leads to knowing the heart and soul of the song.

The song begins with a time signature. The time signature sets the pace and the flow of the song. There are many fractions of time available for a song. As with the key, the rhythm can change throughout the song.

Scott Joplin: “Maple Leaf Rag”

Then there are the clefs. It’s simple. There is a treble clef with lines and spaces. For the spaces, remember FACE. For the treble lines, remember Every Good Boy Does Fine, or EGBD.

There is a base Clef (the backward “C”). For the Spaces, remember All Cows Eat Grass, or ACEG . For the lines, remember Good Boys Do Fine Always, or GBDF. These must be memorized. There are ledger lines which are below or above the clefs. Those must be memorized, too.

This allows the music reader to look at a note and know what to sing or play! The basic notations of written music are guides that tell us all that we need to know, the note to play or sing, the length of the note, whether to hold the note for a while or let it go and move on. There are more advanced notations and instructions which tell us the volume, the sweetness, or the attitude of the section.

So yes, learning to read music is difficult. It takes time and effort. It takes repetition. It takes memorizing. It takes playing or singing or humming or tapping. But as with reading the written word, it becomes another skill that we use. After time, we don’t think about the details when we exercise the skill.

Eventually our knowledge takes us into whole new worlds of experience, whether we play an instrument seriously or whether we just enjoy listening to music.