Reading music is a skill you can learn, just like you learned to read words. When you first learned to read, what did you do? Probably you learned letters, and sounded them out by mouthing them. Then gradually you put them together to make syllable sounds.
It was a step-by-step process.
When you first saw the word “cat,” maybe you mouthed the sound of the letter “c,” then “a,” then “t.” And then you realized by putting those sounds together it was the word CAT, and you could pronounce the whole word. Once you did that a few times, it became easier to recognize the whole word, instead of just the individual letters.
You can learn to read music the same way. First you learn to read the individual notes, just like you learned to read letters. Then you learn to sound them out on your instrument – whether that’s your own voice, piano, guitar, trumpet, violin or any other instrument.
If you play a percussion instrument, you still learn what individual notes look like, and then what they sound like on your instrument.
After that you begin to recognize what musical words look like. For a piano player that might be learning chords. For many of us it might be rhythms. What does a quarter note sound like? A whole note? A half note? What if you have two half notes next to each other. And gradually we build up our rhythm vocabulary.
Take all of this slowly; there’s no rush. And enjoy it. As you build your rhythm vocabulary you’re also building your pitch vocabulary – where is the note on the staff as you play it?
Learn in little bite-size pieces. And not too much at a time. On Monday look at some whole notes and count to four. On Tuesday look at some half notes and count “2” for each of them, etc.
Then, if you’re still using a step-by-step process that’s similar to how you learned to read words, you’ll start to move your eyes to the very next note, chord or phrase after you’ve played the one you’re on. This is crucial! And it’s the secret to great music reading.
When you’ve recognized the word “cat,” your eyes do not stay on it, they keep traveling to the next word or group of words. Because since your mind has already recognized the word “cat” it’s finished grasping it, so it clocks that in to your brain and goes on.
This process of looking, recognizing and quickly proceeding to the next word and group of words is what allows you to read fluently. And it’s the same in music.
Once you’ve recognized a note and start to play it, slowly practice looking at the NEXT note or group of notes, AS YOU ARE PLAYING the note you just saw. Because your eyes do not need to stay on the note you are playing!
Another technique to use before you play anything is to gently look over the music. What is the time signature? What key is it in? Where are the easy sections? Does a note repeat itself again and again in certain sections? Does a section rise? Does it fall? Look for any patterns you can see BEFORE you begin to play. This will get you use to looking for phrases, rather than individual notes. And you will play more fluidly.
There is a wonderful lesson from Margaret Fabrizio on YouTube. She describes reading as being quite different from “decoding,” which is more like trying to keep your eyes fixed on what you are looking at, rather than getting an overview as you’re playing.
Margaret describes the difference between reading and “decoding”
All the best,
BellaOnline’s Musician Editor