How to Read Music
(Note - these are only excerts from a book by Richard White, who graciously consented to their reprint here. They are copyrighted - so please do not re-distribute without permission. Please contact Richard directly for more information concerniong either the book or copyright. M.C.)
HOW TO READ MUSIC is designed to serve as a self-contained textbook for those whose goal it is to be able to pick out melodies on a keyboard, as well as to serve as a supplement to musical instrument lessons. Because the valuable skill of reading music from the printed page into a REAL TIME phenomenon is such a rewarding experience, it is advised that the student - with or without a teacher - study at his or her own pace, NEVER going past anything he or she either does not understand or has not yet mastered.
For those wishing to comment on anything here or who want to see other portions of the text not included at this site, a short note will be most welcome. A full edition of HOW TO READ MUSIC is now in production.
As a written language, music is perhaps the simplest and most consistent language on earth. To make this all the more remarkable, from Des Moines to Copenhagen, Tokyo to Buenos Aires, written music's essential symbols, grammar, and syntax have remained unchanged and intact since the middle of the Eighteenth Century. They are also understood and practiced by many millions of people world-wide, cutting across language and cultural barriers as though they did not exist. Despite many attempts at modification, especially in this century, written music has remained essentially the same for good reason -- it is concrete yet versatile and flexible. It is, therefore, highly unlikely there will ever be any significant improvements upon it.
Much as well-designed architectural plans provide the basis for sturdy yet flexible edifices, the system of musical notation provides the basis (and tools) for notating virtually any combination of musical sounds in a logical and coherent manner. It should also be noted that our system of musical notation is quite exact, yet has remained flexible enough to handle a multitude of widely divergent musical styles. What other language can act as so humble and uncomplaining a servant to such music as diverse as that of Bach, Chopin, Bartok, and Sondheim, yet remain unscathed?
The system of western musical notation can be neatly divided into two major areas: Symbols for RHYTHM (the varying lengths of tones) and symbols for PITCH (how high or low tones go). This book is intended to teach the adult beginner the practical aspects of musical notation: That is, reading and playing. The reason for both is simple and compelling, if not obvious: Written music is something that must be brought to life; it must be translated from the printed page into meaningful sound. Reading, therefore, implies playing. With a fundamental knowledge of musical symbols -- rhythm, pitch, dynamics (louds and softs), and articulation (smooth or jagged playing, or any combination thereof) -- anyone can pick up a piece of sheet music or songbook and play melodies with ease, accuracy, and confidence on the piano (keyboard) as well as any instrument of choice. Of course, should you wish to learn to read music on an instrument other than a keyboard, any elementary method book can show you how to locate the notes on that particular instrument. In my judgment, however, this would not be advisable if you are a rank beginner since there are additional factors involved, among which are intonation and fingering. The simple design and layout of the piano keyboard, on the other hand, allow for easy access to notes without any other concerns.
While this book can successfully be used without the aid of a teacher, after a while, there are areas of good music making (which are beyond the intended scope of this book) in which having a teacher becomes indispensable, because as you advance in your studies, issues of technical fluency and interpretation will inevitably come into play. Without a teacher, many will flounder and fall by the wayside.
In my thirty-five plus years as a composer, pianist, teacher, conductor, and orchestral musician, I have noticed a dismaying yet remarkably consistent problem among performing musicians on all but the highest levels -- faulty rhythm. If we consider rhythm and pitch as music's pillars, a musician with faulty rhythm has a major problem indeed.
Sadly, most similar books on the subject of reading music place their emphasis on reading notes with a respectful nod toward rhythm. Although I'm certain it is not the authors' intention, nor do I wish to impugn the integrity of any of my fellow peers, many of them do not spend nearly enough time on the most difficult, vital, and life-giving aspect of reading music -- rhythm. It should be obvious at this point that it does no one any good to be simply able to read and play notes if they cannot do so "in time." After all, music takes place in time. It is the primary aspect of music to which all humans respond upon listening to music, whether or not they are musically trained.
As a beginner on the road to mastering musical notation, you are being presented with a golden opportunity first to build a solid rhythmic foundation, thus avoiding the problem of faulty rhythm altogether. To do so, however, you must diligently practice -- and master -- the exercises in this book. Once accomplished, you will have a strong enough basis upon which to continue confidently in your studies with more complex material.
As with any endeavor, learning in small portions has always been the best approach. Coupled with diligent practice, the aforementioned allows for easy digestion, which in turn, will lead to lasting results. It is therefore advisable that you do not go beyond anything you either do not fully understand -- be it a word, symbol, or concept -- or any exercise that you are asked to practice until you are both clear on exactly what is required and can do whatever is asked with ease and fluency. Building a lasting foundation requires that each brick be set firmly in place before proceeding to the next level.
Of course, there will be times when you will hit a snag. Be patient with yourself. Be reminded however: Learning to interpret musical symbols from the printed page is a two-pronged skill -- understanding and doing. As with learning how to ride a bicycle, just knowing the mechanics is not enough. Riding, on the other hand, is everything. The experience of sailing through a piece of music, especially one with which you are not familiar, can be unforgettable.
Since nothing in this book is beyond the abilities of anyone willing to put in the proper time and effort, I wholeheartedly encourage you to jump in fearlessly. I promise that once you get the hang of it, your new-found ability to read and play music will be an immensely gratifying experience.
Let's get started on our journey . . .
Brooklyn, NY - Tucson, AZ
This material is copyrighted © 1992 by Whitco Press. All Rights Reserved International Copyright Secured
Reprinted on www.woodwind.org by permission of the Author, 1998
Portions Copyright © by Mark Charette, Webmaster. All articles © the respective authors.
Please contact Mark Charette and the authors for reprint information. No inlining of these
Copyright and Warranty specifics.