Reading music doesn't have to be mysterious or tedious.
Get help with these free music reading tips and links to great resources!
Is music reading giving you a hard time?
Here are some free music reading tips which can help - links to music reading sites, the BEST self-study book, some free or very inexpensive music software, electronic "flash cards", and even music reading video games which do train you VERY quickly and also make learning fun! [I think you or your kids will really enjoy these.]
Of course, there are TONS of sites with music reading tips. But in my research, I have weeded-out those sources that didn't take into account the essential factors which do govern learning how to read music.
So, here we go:
A Classic Self-Study Textbook - "LEARN TO READ MUSIC" by Howard Shanet - You CAN learn from a book. And in my experience, this is STILL the best book for self-study in reading music after fifty years!
Secondly: a very handsome, full-featured site of music reading and ear training exercises, from beginner all the way up: Ricci Adams' MUSIC THEORY.NET
Thirdly: Another nicely designed site with tons of very effective, graded exercises;
And finally: a marvelous "suite" of early to middle music reading "video games" from PG MUSIC:
So now, in order to understand what reading music IS, let's back up a bit and go over a few basic concepts.
Music Reading Tip #1:
MUSIC IS A LANGUAGE
Music is a means of communication, just like speech.
In spoken language, an idea, emotion or concept is formed into a sound or an combination of sounds and sent from one person
to another, or to a group of persons.
When we first learn to speak, we learn that a word STANDS FOR a "thing". Later, we learn that words can also stand for
intangible things, or other ideas.
The sounds of words are conveyed to us by our parents or caretakers, first simple one-syllable words, then more complex
words, In doing this, we learn to recognize entire GROUPS and PATTERNS of sounds immediately as words.
We then progress to handling ideas which require groups of words [sentences] to express.
We learn to verbalize and use these words and sentences to get our ideas, emotions and desires across to the outside world,
and to receive and understand information from others.
Music Reading Tip #2:
FROM HEARING TO SEEING
THEN, we learn that graphic symbols [characters and groups of characters] are used to STAND FOR the SOUNDS and words of
speech. We learn to recognize PATTERNS of LETTERS as SYLLABLES and WORDS and so we advance our skill in reading to
recognizing whole words instantaneously. And thus we are taught to read and write.
And, just as in spoken language, we learn how words combine into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, then essays, entire
texts and so on. We usually learn the agreed-upon practices of the language, which are referred to as "grammar".
[I'm bringing up grammar, as this will have some bearing below. As a side-note, "grammar" is not an absolute. For instance,
in English, one says: "a big house". In another language one might say: "a house big". This is only to mention that the
users of a language evolve various "understood" agreements, and these are then followed. It is useful to know them and how
So, We discover that we can convey our ideas to others without having to be personally present to express them, and we can
receive the ideas of people thousands of miles away or even those no longer living. And so our culture broadens and deepens.
Music Reading Tip #3:
THE LEARNING OF MUSIC
In music, much the same process occurs for many of us [though not all of us - I discuss this below*].
A person, usually a child or youngster, hears songs and then sings them, hears instrumental music and then, picking up an
instrument, plays around with it. He or she learns PHYSICALLY "where the notes are" on the instrument.
And, as in spoken language, one learns to RECOGNIZE notes, simultaneous GROUPS of notes ["chords"], phrases, melodies, entire works, INSTANTANOUSLY, or at least very quickly.
As the person learns to play by assembling simple elements into more complex ones, he or she is making music, "by ear".
Music Reading Tip #4:
THE "GRAMMAR" OF MUSIC
[Here is where "grammar" comes in: Just as in English you would say: "a large house" and NOT: "a house large", in music you would know whether something was out of tune or not, whether the music was "major" [happy] or "minor" [sad]. And you would KNOW this whether or not you actually knew any of the "grammatical terms".
This "grammar" of music we refer to as MUSIC THEORY.
It is observed that in folk, pop and jazz and the like, such concepts as scales, melodies, harmonies, chords and song
structure, are all part of the "grammar" and are learned very early on.
[And, again, there are other types of music theory than that of Western Music, just as there are other languages, each with
their own grammar. However, the theory and forms of Western Music have become widespread on this planet, and even
non-Western music acknowledges and is influenced by this.]
Music Reading Tip #5:
THE GRAPHIC SYMBOLS OF MUSIC
After learning to play at least a little by ear, usually the person is introduced to the GRAPHIC SYMBOLS of music notation.
He learns that the individual symbols on a page STAND FOR notes, and other elements of music, how fast it is played, whether
it's a waltz or a march, etc..
He learns the reading of music and writing of music, and hopefully progresses in ability to handle increasingly complex and subtle musical
The use and purpose of written notation, then, is analogous to that of written language. It is often remarked that a
musician who cannot read, or has difficulty reading music, is "pegged" technically and has to miss out on practically a
universe of musical ideas.
This is true of even those musicians in genres you would not associate with reading or sight-reading music, such as folk,
country, jazz and the like.
Music Reading Tip #6:
*However, there IS a "downside" to the faculty of reading music, and that has to do with HOW and WHEN it is taught. You see,
if a person is FIRST taught to SING, or PLAY an instrument O N L Y through the medium of reading the music as he sings or
plays the instrument, you can unfortunately get the commonly-seen effect of a "musical robot"
A "musical robot" would be a musician who CAN'T PLAY or
even HEAR the music without a sheet in front of him! In fact, I've witnessed a classically-trained musician who was unable
to sight-transpose [change key] on a part. The classical musician had to laboriously re-copy the music before he could play it in a different key!
Two reasons why this seems to occur are:
One, it goes against the natural course of learning a language, as in the examples given above.
Two, if the person is NOT taught, along with reading music, the RELATIONSHIPS and PATTERNS in music [the "grammar of
music - music theory], then the musician will be playing without an overall concept of the music and how and where HE fits
into it. This is true even of solo repertoire.
Music Reading Tip #7:
Now there is another possible limitation to the method of teaching music by reading only: Many valid methods of music
reading stress "reading ahead", by which is meant looking further ahead in the music to see what's coming up and being
continually ready to play what's next.
The "written-based" method can practically stymie the "read-ahead" approach: A musician lacking practical experience in
knowing what the notes are AS SOUND, and how they fit together as chords and scales, can get his eyes "locked-up" on the page
and WILL NOT be able to "read-ahead".
Not knowing the PATTERNS, he can only read ONE note at a time! This would be the same as reading words one letter at a time.
You can't read a word of any length letter-by-letter, much less an entire sentence!
Music Reading Tip #8:
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Therefore, "reading-ahead" is very much dependent on "seeing as a whole".
"Seeing as a whole" is dependent on knowledge of scales and chords - the "grammar", music theory.
The following passage expands on this music reading tip: It is from a text I recommend:
"THE ORIGINAL COWLING SYSTEM"
. (1924) Although music reading is not the major subject of this work, the following passage gives an excellent example of the above principle:
"You should also familiarize yourself with the appearance of the Scales. Good musicians do not need to "READ" a
scale, they learn to recognize one at a glance - so that it is necessary only to read the first and final notes. As
the average person, when reading ordinary text does not distinguish each letter but 'sees' the word as a whole, so will you read music with a little intelligent practice."
Music Reading Tip #9:
VERY GOOD SOLUTIONS
Let me again present these links to music reading sites, books, free or very inexpensive music software, electronic "flash cards" and music reading video games which make learning fun!
See what's to your liking and do try them out. They either have FREE trials or are totally FREE to use.
Firstly - THE BEST SELF-STUDY BOOK AVAILABLE ON READING MUSIC:
Some excellent, free, music reading tips and theory info, definitions of terms and LOTS of graded exercises
more good free online "electronic flash cards"
four of PG Music's stand-alone "music video games". They are inexpensive and VERY comprehensive and effective.
I hope you enjoyed these music reading tips and advices and I wish you, and/or your children or students, great success with these.
Lets Make Music Better!