Why Learn To Read Music?
Published in Piano Performer Magazine, Summer Issue 2018
In the West, reading musical notation is probably the most common method of learning and performing music. Nevertheless, some musicians are more practiced at playing without musical notation than with it, and many successful musicians from the worlds of jazz, pop, and folk do not read music. What incentive is there for students to spend the time and effort required to become literate with music notation?
Formal musical knowledge may not be an essential part of musicianship, but it does enrich it. Everyone who can read a book has the intellectual capacity to become an effective music reader. Just like in reading, we graduate from learning to read to reading to learn. If you need motivation or are looking to motivate others to learn how to read music, consider the following.
- Most ensembles and choirs require communication with other musicians through notation. Even jazz ensembles, and particularly big bands, rely heavily on written notation.
- Notation is the basis of music theory, which provides a pathway to a depth of musical understanding not possible without it. Theory helps us understand the conceptual and talk declaratively about music. It can open a new world of musical understanding.
- The ability to read music enables exploration of libraries full of new music otherwise not available to us.
- Much music, particularly western art music, is too difficult to learn by ear. If we want to play the extraordinary but complex repertoires of the great composers, reading music is the only means.
- Learning from notation demands a precision and a series of checkpoints that will improve other aspects of musicianship.
Beware of the attitude that spurns reading music. I am yet to meet a non-reader who does not regret their lack of ability to read music.
The beauty of this skill is that it speeds up the learning process and offers new and wider opportunities for making music with others. Poor sight-reading has been identified as one of the reasons students stop lessons. The most effective way to become a successful sight-reader is to practice it regularly. There is a correlation between proficient sight-reading and the time spent on it; you do not become fluent at reading anything without regular practice. As with reading a book, in time students will recognize clusters of notes as phrases rather than as individual entities. When I was learning piano, my sight-reading was comparatively weak. The teacher’s advice was to obtain a stack of suitably difficult music and sight-read every day. Once the piece had been played, the sight-playing experience was over.
Improving sight-reading requires a continual increase in the difficulty of the material. Learning to sight-read involves a different approach than learning for a performance. Maintaining fluency and momentum is paramount. One must not look back, nor stop to correct mistakes, for in sight-reading mistakes are tolerated. Practicing with a metronome, backing tracks, or better still live ensemble partners, can help induce this necessary fluency. Successful sight-readers keep their eyes on the music more often than poorer sight-readers. This is one of the reasons many pianists struggle with sight-reading, for it is difficult to keep the eyes on the music while moving one’s hands to the correct keys. C. P. E. Bach (OBM) advised, “If you want to improve your sight-reading, practice in the dark.” This can be simulated by closing the eyes during practice or wearing a blindfold. Improving the sense of touch allows the eyes to spend more time on the page.
Sight-reading involves playing the current measure while scanning the next, moving fingers to the keys without looking, using prior musical knowledge to comprehend the music, and relating to the music on an emotional level. Better sight-readers have a greater knowledge of musical styles and repertoire, which provides a database of familiarity. This familiarity enables sight-readers to make educated guesses to maintain the flow of the music. Effective sight-readers scan the music beforehand, considering tempo, key signatures and difficult passages. Students are unlikely to practice sight-reading at home if they don’t see it being valued during lessons.