Learning to Read and Play Music Notation: A Practice Idea Worth Trying

So you’re learning how to read music notation for your instrument?  Here’s a practice idea for increasing your efficiency in your playing and learning to read the notes more accurately…

It’s Not Music, Really!

First, that sheet in front of you with all the black dots, lines, flags, clef(s), sharps, flats, fingering, hand positions, time signature(s), dynamic markings and whatever else the composer has decided to torture you with is really not music!  Huh?  “I thought this was music?”  It’s not.  Music is that organization of sounds that you hear when you go to a rock concert, symphony, opera, recital or just tune in your radio or phone.  It’s the thing that causes us to feel and experience something.  It can be elating or depressing, exciting or thoughtful and everything in between.  It’s the language of the soul.  And for our use…it must not be confused with that piece of paper with a smattering of often complex symbols in front of you.  That’s not music!

Why make the above point?  Isn’t this obvious?  Because this is the 1st place most students get hung up when reading music.  Sheet music is the written notation of a language identifying pitch, melody, rhythm, harmony, dynamics, phrasing, technical notation for the instrument (like fingering) and other elements we hear in music.  It’s not music though.  Like a spoken language… a book is not English.  It may be written in the symbols we’ve learned to identify as English but it’s not English.  English is a language that’s spoken, listened to and hopefully understood (that could be argued).  A book is the literary method for communicating ideas or stories.  Written music notation is not music.

Too often students want to play what they see on the page at a pace that is immediately pleasing and makes sense to their ears.  But, they lack the skill to process the information quickly and accurately.  Simply put…they try to read and play too fast.  Their brain and fingers aren’t set up yet to process the information fast enough.  They think, “I want to hear music coming from this thing and I want to hear it now!”

What is a logical approach to learning how to read music symbols and translate it into organized pleasing sound?  How can I learn to read this complicated nonsense and learn to accurately send signals from my brain to my fingers to create a satisfying result we call, playing music?

Scientists have recently discovered that memory is contained in the entire body and not just the brain.  Musicians and yogis could have told them that 1000 years ago.  A good musician can demonstrate this by speaking to you and playing music at the same time.  The logic goes that if I’ve taught my hands and fingers to replicate patterns well, then I’ve got room in my brain freed up enough to be able to communicate language while I play.  One must be very comfortable and confident with the muscle memory in order to do this.  Besides being a great party trick (playing and talking to guests at the same time) it demonstrates the product of efficient practicing and comfort in playing.  It also demonstrates that the hands can take over playing with muscle memory while the brain is free to do other things.  For a good musician, the muscle memory in the hands and fingers frees the brain to focus on artistically expressing something with the music.  A musician simply sends signals to the fingers to play patterns that have been practiced over and over and over, but those signals are intermittent and not ongoing.  It leaves brain space for other things-like musical expression.

So, how do I get this comfortable playing music?  How can I learn to read and play efficiently so that I can free myself of the tyranny of the notation and express something?  Here is an idea…

Going Slow…Really, Really Slow!!!  Really!!!

Choose a line of music that you are going to spend a half hour on.  This may be say 4 measures.  Go slow!  Yes, any good music teacher will say this, but I mean it differently.  I’m suggesting that you play your first note (or chord), then while letting it completely fade out think about the next note/chord.  Recognize the next notes’ pitch, rhythm, accent etc… as you are getting ready to play it.  Then when you are completely ready, go ahead and play it.  If you are a drummer/percussionist, wait at least 10 seconds, think over what the next stroke is and then go ahead and strike when you are completely ready.  Try it.  I’d bet you can get the next note/chord/stroke absolutely right with little effort.  If you don’t get it right, try it again but even slower.  Give your brain enough time to feed accurate signals to your fingers.

You see, note reading involves seeing a written symbol on a page, recognizing its pitch, rhythm (when to play the note), accent, dynamic and length (legato or staccato).  It also involves where to play it on your instrument and what finger to play it with.  That’s a lot more information than what’s contained in a single letter of written English.  In addition, too often students practice at a pace where the fingers do not have enough time to execute signals from the brain accurately.  They simply are playing too fast.  Your brain will always send signals to your fingers as you play.  What instructions are you giving the fingers?  Is your brain telling your fingers precisely what it wants your fingers to do or is it just hoping that your fingers will cooperate?  If you go slow enough (like letting the note you just played completely fade out) then your fingers have enough time to execute the instructions that your brain sent them.  If it’s slow enough, then you probably will play the next note accurately.  Try this with 4 measures or so first, then go on to the next 4 measures.

Now you may be thinking, “I’ll never learn to play fast enough to be able to recognize a melody or even be able to feel satisfied with my progress!”  This is most people’s challenge.  As a music teacher, I think I teach patience far more than notes.  In time, you will close down the space between the notes and have connection (melody/harmony) or music.  It takes time.  Assuming you are in lessons with a professional, in the long run you will learn faster and more accurately.  You will not have to repeat the same exercises/songs/pieces/lessons over and over and even though the process requires a great deal of patience, the results are far more satisfying.  You’ll be playing music and sooner than you might think.

What about the rhythm?  You may be thinking “if I play this slowly, I’ll never be able to execute the rhythm correctly”.  We are practicing for coordination first and letting go of the rhythm for now.  You don’t have to play the next note on time.  Whew, what a relief!  So if you are a pianist and you are practicing a C major scale, play the first note “C” and let it fade.  While it’s fading think about what the next note is (a “D”), what finger is going to play it and how hard you are going to press.  Get your next finger ready.  When the “C” has totally faded and you are completely sure you will get it right, then play the “D”.  Did you get it right?  If not, try again.  And, keep trying at that pace until you get it right.  Then do the same with the next note and the next and the next.  Once you’ve mastered the coordination, try speaking the rhythm out loud.  If you need to work with a metronome while speaking it out loud, go ahead.  Go slow of course.  Once you’ve mastered the rhythm then slowly, carefully insert the notes.  I think you’ll be pleased.

But now you’re thinking “I’ve got 3 pages of this song/composition/piece to learn.  It’s going to take 300 years to do it!”  Relax.  What you learn by practicing this slowly will apply to the rest of the song/piece as well as other songs/pieces you will learn.  This method takes more time in each practice session, but the results give much greater confidence and competence.  In the long run, it takes less time to learn to play great.

Dear Readers,

This is my first blog!  I plan to write materials of interest to readers who want to learn to play guitar, who are interested in performing and who are interested in my thoughts about life and music.  I hope this helps.

Marc