Reading Music

Fail not to practise the reading of old clefs; otherwise many treasures of past times will remain a closed fountain to you. – Robert Schumann

beethoven smiling
In the West, reading musical notation is probably the most common method of learning and performing music. Nevertheless some musicians are more adept at playing without musical notation than with it, and many successful musicians from the worlds of jazz, pop, and folk cannot read music. What incentive is there for students to spend the time and effort required in order to become literate with music notation? Formal musical knowledge may not be an essential part of musicianship, but it certainly enriches it. If you need motivation, or are looking to motivate others to learn how to read music, consider the following.

1. Most ensembles and choirs require communication with other musicians through notation. Even jazz ensembles, and particularly big bands, rely heavily on written notation.

2. Notation is the basis of music theory, which provides a pathway to a depth of musical understanding not possible without it. Theory helps us to understand the conceptual and to talk declaratively about music. It can open up a new world of musical understanding and illuminate the ‘why’ as well as the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’

3. As Schumann said, the ability to read music enables exploration of libraries full of new music otherwise not available to us.

4. 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 is the only means.

5. Learning from notation demands a precision and a series of checkpoints that will improve aspects of musicianship.

Beware of the attitude that spurns reading music. Not being able to read music can stifle musical development. I have yet to meet a non-reader who does not regret his or her decision not to invest the time required to learn to read music. Next time I’ll discuss sight-reading.

from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin

“A must read for all music educators” – Robert Adams, Music Educator, New Haven, USA.

“A must buy for every music teacher and music student” – William Bruce, Guildhall School of Music, UK.

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Public speaker, music education trainer, conductor and pianist. Author of 'Learning Strategies for Musical Success', 'Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs', and 'Modern Harmony Method'.

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6 comments on “Reading Music
  1. Of the adult amateurs in the US who sing with the page in front of them, most are illiterate in music. Singers who lack the theory that informs notation are unable to give a director the full channel for converse. This leaves directors functionally mute apart from their trusty keyboard, from which, pound away as they may, communication remains shallow. It is a failing not of learners but of teachers whose own learning came from finger-first instruction. Their instrument speaks in a one-way language foreign to singers, and their own particular path to theory has not taught them how to teach ear-first learners.

  2. I agree that reading music is essential for comprehensive musicianship. The problem is that many teachers focus on it exclusively thereby neglecting the development of the ear. That’s why we started 88 Creative Keys camps to
    help students and teachers balance the eye and ear by focusing on improvisation.

    • mdgriffin63 says:

      Excellent point, Bradley. As important and useful that sight- reading is, let’s not forget the aural modes of playing. I will be addressing these in future blogs. Michael.

  3. John Keller says:

    How long does it take to master the bass and treble clefs, 4 sets of legerlines, 15 key signatures and remembering accidentals later in each bar, etc etc?

    Too long! For many musicians, learning notation is just too difficult and too long a task!

    • mdgriffin63 says:

      Worthwhile endeavours all require consistent and regular application, John. I think with music reading, the effort is well worth it.

      • John Keller says:

        I agree it was worth it for me. But teaching kids to read traditional notation is an uphill battle for many. It is really not successful in many cases no matter how much we teachers try. The problem is that TN is unnecessarily complicated. See the Music Notation Project website!

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