How to Succeed at Reading Music

Image courtesy of Wiki Media Commons

I believe that if one always looked at the skies, one would end up with wings.
– Gustave Flaubert

The ability to read music well is part of every musician’s eternal quest for proficiency. If you want to improve on your current abilities (and who doesn’t?) this post is for you.

Two Types of Reading Music: Studying & Sight Reading

There are two very different approaches to reading a musical score. The first is when we are intending to learn a piece from the printed music, and the second is when we are intending to play the piece upon first sight of the sheet music.

In the first case we intend to study the piece so we are slowly learning the piece note by note measure by measure. We can take our time and experiment with different fingerings. We can stop and start and go back. We can work out any tricky chords or intervals we are uncomfortable with.

In the second case (called “sight reading”) we are attempting to play the music all the way through at a steady tempo and actually perform the music for the very first time literally “on sight.”

These two approaches are often at odds when we sit down with a piece of music. Many of us have little trouble understanding the rules of music and the meaning of the various symbols printed on the score. We know “how” to read the music. The sight reading part is often much more challenging to us.

It is no wonder. The brain has to process a tremendous amount of information when reading music and then has to translate that information to the fingers immediately in order to pull off a convincing rendition of the music. Sight reading a moderately complex piece of music is one of the most demanding things the human brain will ever undertake. This is a skill that takes years of persistent and patient practice to master.

The best way to approach the task of improving your overall reading ability is to incorporate a little bit of each type of reading (both studying and sight reading) into your daily practice routine. Always keep on hand a more difficult piece that you intend to study, and multiple unfamiliar pieces that you can use to practice sight reading.

Studying and sight reading are two completely different sets of skills and you need to approach each with a different goal in mind. Always know which type of reading you intend to do before beginning a practice session or you will surely find yourself somewhere in-between the two areas which can lead to frustration. If you intend to sight read, use very simple pieces that get progressively more challenging. If you intend to study a piece it can be as challenging as you like.

This will take a huge chunk of unnecessary frustration out of your practice sessions.
Decide beforehand how much time you can afford to spend on each and then make sure to do it consistently each day. Reading music is not “like riding a bike” where you can get right back on after years of not doing it. The phrase “use it or lose it” is more rightly applied where reading music is concerned.

Image Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

Tips On Studying a New Piece

It is not the goal of this book to teach how to read music. That is the job of the method books that you use in your classroom, private lessons or in your role as self teacher. What I hope to do here is to provide some general advice about how you can get the most out of your practice sessions.

1. Listen To a Recording of the Piece

When tackling a new piece of music one of the best things you can do is to go find a recording of it and listen to it closely and often. It is likely that you have at least heard it before, so go purchase the recorded version and bring it with you wherever you go. Listen to it while driving, doing the dishes, or wherever you can. You want to be sure you are aware of how every note relates to every other note. Listening at night as you are falling asleep is another good way. It has a chance then to seep into your subconscious awareness and you will likely pick up on subtleties that you may not hear when you are more actively listening. You don’t want to do this to the point that you become sick of hearing it, but you do want to know it well in your mind’s ear.

2. Look Over the Entire Score

Before beginning to attempt to play the piece, take the time to really look over the music and notice anything you can about what is going on. This will be of great value down the line because you will know what you are getting yourself into before you have even played one note. What is the key signature? Does it change anywhere in the piece? What is the time signature? Does it change? Does it change back again? What kind of patterns can you perceive by looking at the printed music? Are there certain rhythmic groupings that appear again and again such as triplets or extended eighth or sixteenth note measures? Is there a consistent use of certain chords or repeated motifs in the bass section? Pay attention to the dynamic markings for crescendo and decrescendos. Pay attention to the navigational directions in the score too: where are the repeats and the coda? Make up your own questions based on the things that you know to challenge you or that you know you are good at.

Observing these things will be beneficial prior to sight reading a piece as well, the difference is you have way more time if you are preparing to study the piece. When sight reading you will have time only to glance at the music. In this case you intend to spend lots of time learning it measure by measure, so take your time and really look it over.

3. Practice In Your Mind

I have found that visualizing yourself playing the notes as you look over the score is a highly effective technique for learning a piece of music. This is best done away from your instrument so you are not tempted to pick it up and actually play it.

The way to do this is to sit in a comfortable chair with the sheet music in front of you. Take however long it takes with each measure and read through the piece, playing it in your imagination. The reason this is so effective is that you do all the mental work of deciphering the notes and fingerings before you sit down to your instrument. When you finally do sit down with your instrument all of that mental work has been accomplished already and your brain can focus more on the physical requirements of playing the piece.

I have found that this makes a huge difference in the amount of time spent learning a piece. This also has a way of increasing your memory of the piece once it is finally learned.

4. Follow Along With the Sheet Music While Listening to a Recording

Put the music you are intending to learn on your stereo and follow along with the printed music as you listen. This is an extremely helpful way to become familiar with the music you are about to devote a huge amount of practice time to. You can listen for various techniques, dynamics, transitions, repetitions, anything you think may help you when you sit down to practice it.

It is also a good idea to subscribe to an online music subscription service. Depending on how many songs you learn in a month or a year, this can save you a good chunk of change in the long run. Having the ability to hear a piece of music before you decide to commit to actually practicing it is another advantage. If your sight reading skills aren’t so great, hearing a recorded version or having a friend play it are your only options for being able to hear the piece.

5. Learn it Measure By Measure

This advice depends on several factors, primarily your level of sight reading ability and the difficulty of a piece. If you are a good sight reader and the first few measures aren’t too difficult, you might breeze right through them. When you get to a measure that gives you consistent trouble however, it is time to really zero in on things. Approach a difficult measure as if it were the entirety of the piece you are trying to learn. When you do this, and then consider the entire piece is really just a bunch of separate measures, it is easy to see how you can turn a mountain climbing adventure into a series of individual steps and conquer it by sheer persistence in taking each and every next step.

When you practice an individual measure or two, you release yourself from the psychological burden that comes from seeing those massive pages of notes in front of you. I often suggest to my students that they play a little game and imagine that they have been asked by their favorite band to perform the measure or measures that are giving them trouble as an introduction to one of their songs they are performing live at Madison Square Garden. The student only needs to master that one measure in order to go on stage with the band – just that one measure. Do you think that they could master it? They could, and by simply taking this approach measure after measure they will surely succeed in learning to play the entire piece. This foolproof nature of this method is that it teaches us how in the end success is all about persistence.

6. Use Slow Motion Techniques

If you have ever watched a sporting event on TV you have seen instant replays of great plays. These plays are slowed down by the producers frame by frame so that you can see every little move. The wide receiver fakes left. then runs right, step by step in front of the defender, he dives for the ball and makes an amazing catch in the end zone for a touchdown. You can use this slow motion technique in practicing a musical phrase as well. Imagine that you have already learned the piece perfectly at the required tempo and someone has videotaped your performance of it. Your job is to play the piece back as if you were viewing the super slow motion instant replay. Each note is carefully fingered and executed one after another with all the proper dynamics and technique just as if you had played the part fast but are now viewing it in slow motion. When you do this you are forced to reduce every motion down to a careful, conscious one. You will be surprised how much you can learn from doing this. Anything giving you trouble will immediately become apparent so you can go about correcting it.

Tips On Sight Reading

1. Relish Your Mistakes

Sight reading a piece means that you attempt to play it for the first time without ever having seen the music, or in some cases heard the music before. By nature then, there is little preparation that can be done using the song itself for that preparation. You must prepare for sight reading by constantly attempting to read new material. Your practice involves the act of putting a fresh sheet of music onto your music stand day after day, and playing through once and one time only. By doing this you learn to deal with all kinds of surprises and challenges that will cause you to make mistakes. You want to make those mistakes because the act of smoothly recovering from them is what you are actually practicing!

2. Understand What Your Mind Is Doing When You Sight Read

When you stop to think about all the things that are happening in your mind when you attempt to sight read it is surprising that smoke doesn’t start streaming out of your ears. When sight reading we are simultaneously looking at a bunch of dots, words, symbols, lines and spaces on a piece of paper, decoding those symbols into concepts of notes to be played on our instrument, finding those notes on the instrument with our fingers, playing the note or notes with the intended dynamics while looking ahead to the next note or group of notes, playing the notes within the indicated rhythmic emphasis and tempo, following the navigational directions of the score etc. Besides all this you are listening to your playing and continuously judging and adjusting your performance of it. You adjust the volume of your playing, the emotion and dynamics of certain passages, the quality of your interpretation, and somehow you still manage to think about what you want for lunch! It is amazing to think that the mind is capable of all this when we sight read. That is why you should go easy on yourself if you find it to be difficult. You are not alone.

3. Sight Read Material That is New to You

As stated above, the very definition of sight reading means you are reading something for the first time, so be sure to have a large supply of fresh music on hand that you can pull from. It doesn’t necessarily have to be music written for your instrument, although it helps if the music is in the same general range and that it is written on the same staff. If you are a guitarist, try reading music written for violinists. If you are a pianist try reading music for guitar or cello. The advantage pianists have is that they learn to read from two clefs, the G clef and the F clef, so the amount of music they have to choose from is quite large. As long as the material is new to you it doesn’t matter what it is. You should try to read all kinds of different styles too. If you mainly play rock, try reading some jazz. If you mainly play jazz, try reading some pop, rock or classical. The different styles will expose you to surprising challenges but that is exactly what you are after. Remember that the goal is to be able to respond to the challenge of reading any type of music put before you, so don’t limit yourself to just the instrument or the genre of music that you typically play.

4. Choose Material That is Within Your Technical Abilities

Remember that when practicing your sight reading, you are not trying to improve your technical playing ability. You are trying to improve your ability to read music on sight. If you choose things that are too difficult to play and have too much trouble playing them at an even tempo, no matter how slow that tempo is, then you have chosen something too difficult and it won’t help your sight reading ability to use that piece. Choose music that you think you can play at a very slow but even tempo. Look into beginner and intermediate lesson books for this type of thing. With practice you will be able to gradually increase the difficulty level of the pieces.

5. Visualize Success

Imagine how good it will feel when you can put moderately difficult pieces on your music stand and play right through them! How much fun would it be to try out new pieces and see how they sound before you decide to commit them to further study. Imagine how cool it would be to sit in with fellow musicians even though you have never before played the songs that they know? Beyond this there is another, deeper type of imagination that you can put to work. Try laying down or sitting in a comfortable chair and imagining yourself playing through and entire piece at first sight. Imagine you are scanning the page for details, taking a deep breath and beginning to play. You place your fingers on the instrument and begin to decipher the notes as they flow measure by measure, rising and falling, softly and loudly, sweetly and angrily. You roll through sixteenth notes, chords, arpeggios with the ease at which you would read through a mystery novel. In this exercise you want to get the sensation of what it actually feels like to sight read successfully so that you can aim for that same feeling in your practice.

Now let’s use a sports analogy again. This type of visualization is done all the time by athletes. If you have ever played a sport you have probably spent some time imagining how you would react if for example a line drive was suddenly hit toward you at third base and you had to make a diving catch, or in a tennis game and you had to make a long reach to return a serve and win the final point of the match. The trick is to do the same thing with a difficult passage of music. Look at the notes on the page then close your eyes and imagine yourself playing the notes on your instrument. At first you will need to do this as a very slow imaginary tempo. Gradually speed up the tempo you are imagining until you reach the target tempo. You will find that if you can clearly imagine yourself playing the passage at the desired tempo, you will have no problem actually playing it at that speed.

These types of visualizations are very effective because you set up the expectation inside yourself that what you are trying to do is possible and within your capabilities. When you know you can do something because you have experienced it, even if it was only experienced in your imagination, you are inspired a bit more to keep working toward your goal because you already know what it feels like to succeed.

This post comes from a chapter of one of my books, “Choosing Notes” which is available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon, as an ebook.


One thought on “How to Succeed at Reading Music

  1. Thank you for all these tips. These will certainly help me improve myself with these skills. Sight reading is definitely a very challenging process to do and it requires a lot of constant practice. Practice, practice and practice will greatly help you improve. Thank you again for this post.

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