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Thursday, 30 August 2012

Solid foundation reading skills- lifting the lid on the simple secrets to reliable and fluent score reading skills

Although this blog is primarily about piano technique, I've mentioned before that I also intend to deal with other areas in which I have a notably different perspective to offer, compared to the norm. In my opinion (in spite of what so many people believe) reading music is not inherently difficult at all. Anyone can learn to do it well and without major mental effort- that is, IF you approach it with the right mindset. One problem is that standard methods don't tend to do much other than offer raw information- without typically doing much to aid the internal processes which need to fall into place, in order for reading to become second nature. In essence, it's a little like teaching Spanish by handing someone an English to Spanish dictionary and telling them to learn it. Having access to a dispassionate list of information is not enough for everybody to succeed. This means that while "talented" students may flourish, others are stuck in a continual struggle to get off the ground. My belief is that fluent reading is possible for any sighted person of moderate intelligence. It's simply that some people need a little prodding towards the simplest foundations for optimal development. If you get the right start then everything else tends to evolve of its own accord, whereas if you miss certain things it can seem like a constant uphill struggle. In this post, I hope to lift the lid on some of the things that must objectively be going on under the surface, when success ensues. I'll also show how to give these basics a solid kick-start, if you're not among the lucky ones who "get it" very easily.

If you're literally completely new to notation, these two pages give you a pretty comprehensive rundown of the basics about how pitch works (nb. I won't go into rhythm in this particular post).

It's not that there's anything "wrong" with those pages but, as I say, it's primarily just a collection of raw information. I'm going to talk about the tricks for rapidly getting to the point where you can see any single note and identify it at once- which is the first step of building up to the ability to instantly process every note in even a dense chord.

Firstly, I want to look at a common approach to learning all the lines and spaces. Many people use "mnemonics" such as:

Good Boys Deserve Football Always- which gives GBDFA as the lines for the bass clef (in ascending order)


All Cows Eat Grass- which gives ACEG as the spaces for the bass clef (in ascending order)

I'm going to have to go against the grain here and strongly advise that you stay away from these, if you want to make life easy! I'm not saying that they can never be helpful to anyone (after all, every mind works slightly differently) but I do believe that many of those who struggle do so precisely because they are lost in an elaborate and very indirect system of slowly decoding each note- rather than just KNOWING a small number of reference notes with certainty, and then logically deriving the others from those reference notes.

Before I explain the reasoning any further, if you want to read music easily this is all you should learn for now:

Yes, that's all! Well, actually, I'd be sure to know middle C in each clef too- but the main point is not to confuse yourself by also trying to memorise the five lines within each clef! Stick to the spaces, but learn all of those spaces properly- right now! You must get to the point where you know the letter for any space with 100 percent certainty without a moment's thought. Also, play them on the piano and look back and forth between the shape on the page and the shape on the keyboard. In the long-run, the association to the relevant piano keys becomes even more important than the letter. However, the letters are actually very important in the early stages- so don't lose sight of this aspect. Anyway- "what about the lines?", you're probably thinking? Well, if you truly know your spaces, every line is merely one above or one below something you know. How hard is it going to be to calculate a line, if it only requires going up or down one from something you know well? Really, it's not hard at all.

Compare to using a mnemonic, now though. First you have to be sure that you're using the right one- with four to choose from. It's not actually that simple. Time after time, students tend to confuse which one is for which clef. By sticking to just two groups of four letters to remember (rather than two of four, as well as two more groups of five) there are less things that you can get wrong- because there's less to memorise in the first place. Also, FACE applies to the upper clef, just as the face is at the top of the body- making it very easy to recall which spaces apply to which clef. Secondly, with a mnemonic you may have to count as many as five lines up to read just one note! I believe that it's this kind of long-winded process that makes reading music seem such an effort to some. Those who struggle need to learn to break out of this slow and tedious process and replace it with a totally different method. Good readers do not have to count their way up lines or spaces to decode anything! They memorise notes, so they can identify them at first sight. Mnemonics are useful for storing information- for recovery in situations where you have time to stop and think for a moment. When reading difficult sheet music, no such time is available. Quite honestly, I think a mnemonic is just about the worst thing you could possibly be reliant on. It's too much time and effort to get from the mnemonic, to the note that you are looking for. Ultimately, it's more of a barrier between you and the notes you're trying to find, than an aid.

Now, knowing the notes by a direct means is not easy straight off- but if you start by getting certainty on a few notes, it's way better than getting lost in four confusing mnemonics to count your way along. Far better to know a small number of notes well, than to have a hazy memory (or worse still, an inaccurate memory) of many notes. At the very worst, if you have only learned your spaces, remember that you still never have to count more than one note away to get any line. This is quicker and, very importantly, begins the internal process of putting notes into association with each other. Notes are always being viewed in comparison to their neighbours. Everything gets placed in the context of a bigger picture- it's not a case of deriving one isolated letter by reciting meaningless strings of irrelevant words. Next thing you know, you'll discover that you also know every line at first sight- without even having to work from a space any more.

Let's also compare the idea of counting your way along a mnemonic to mathematics. Today, there seems to be an obsession with counting up objects- to make maths relate to the "real world". A kid might take 5 sweets and add 4 sweets and then count them up to get 9. However, what anyone who is good at maths has acquired is the MEMORY that 4+5=9. If using objects should help that memory to develop, that's great. However, if the kid is lost in the process of counting those sweets out one by one (rather than paying attention to the results, for future use) he is just getting stuck in the slow, cumbersome work that maths was meant to replace! Often the child is getting little more than relentless counting practice (arguably due to having been directly encouraged to focus too much on the "real world" element) rather than getting on with learning the results. Ironically, the whole benefit of maths is that it eliminates the need to waste time putting objects side by side and counting them. You just remember your basic sums in a completely abstract context (without the slightest need to associate calculations to the real world) and then relate the answer back to reality- only AFTER you've skipped what would have been the slow counting part. Rapid arithmetic does not hinge at all on whether associations have been made to the real world, but merely upon the speed and accuracy of memory recall.

That might seem distant from musical notation- but there are actually extremely close parallels to reading music. Suppose that you see the top space in the bass clef. At first, you may say "All Cows Eat Grass" while pointing at each space in turn. Now you know that note is a G, from the word "Grass". Here's where the big issue really begins though. Are you going to be able to recall what letter and piano key that space represents (WITHOUT counting your way up) when you next see it? Or are you going to perform the same slow process of counting spaces, time after time- without necessarily learning anything from the experience? Okay, I'm not saying that you should only ever need to count your way up once and only once. However, you have to ask yourself whether you're actually building up memories for the future (that might soon eliminate the need to perform that process entirely) or whether you are simply counting up mindlessly- without necessarily developing any more direct associations from the process. Some people can just memorise which note is which organically- without really trying. If you're not one of those lucky ones, you must consider whether you're doing anything that might allow you to start recognising notes straight off- or if you're just repeating a slow decoding process over and over without learning from it. To be fully clear, I'm not saying that counting up is a bad thing in itself. You just have to be sure that you're only using it to progress towards a point where you no longer need to do so (just as a kid must progress to the point where he just knows that 4+5=9, without being dependent on real world counting) 

Of course, this is only the very beginning of reading musical notation fluently- but it's a very important beginning to get out of the way. All good readers can recognise any single note on the stave in an instant. Without getting this under your belt, you can never hope to become an advanced reader. One thing I also have to stress is that you should NEVER guess, until you read notes with total consistency. Educated guesswork under pressure is a useful thing in an advanced sight reader- but you need to keep guesswork well away when you're developing the fundamental skill set. If you feel any less than 100% sure, go back to counting your way up FACE or ACEG. What you must not allow is the chance for inaccurate associations to form, due to casual guesswork. When you look at a note, you should either know that you do know it or know that you don't yet know it for sure (and if you don't know whether you know it, you probably don't!). Even if you have a fairly strong feeling, come back to the basic idea of counting up the spaces (whether the note is on a space or an adjacent line to one). It's better to know only one note per clef with true certainty than to pretend that you "know" more- while allowing errors. By stopping to be extra sure about the results, you'll get to the point where you genuinely know every note at the first glance with minimal thought. However, if you're inclined to have a wild stab in the dark when in doubt, the associations cannot form with any certainty- because the brain will be receiving conflicting information. Consistency is everything.
So, in summary, these are the key steps to this approach:

1. Work at learning the spaces inside out! Stare at them for a minute, a few times per day.

2. Get to the point where you recognise any space by letter at the first glance- but never guess, if in doubt! You cannot hope to force this step, if you're not yet there. If even 1% doubt lingers, count up ACEG or FACE to be certain, but keep practising until you do know with total certainty right away.

3. Find notes on lines by thinking one up or one down from a space that you are certain of (eg. the top line in the treble clef is one note above the top space E, so it is F). Again, if there is doubt, always double-check.

4. Start discovering that you will often know lines straight off- without consciously having to count up or down from spaces any more (but as usual- if in doubt, double check!).

5. Evolve to the point where you are totally certain about any line or space at the very first glance.  Again, remember that you cannot force this! You must allow it a chance to evolve by following the previous procedures with care.

I'll probably write more posts on reading issues in future, both developing on this core foundation and going into notably more advanced issues. Consider though- if you learn the basics this way, you have already sewn the seeds for more advanced skills. This approach teaches a solid absolute reference point- but uses comparative logic. It's not mere rote learning, but a combination of rote learning and relativity to fill in the gaps. Any good reader should recognise any isolated note at first glance- but it's perhaps relative comparisons between notes that become most important in advanced reading. A four note chord is not just four separate notes to recognise- but also a series of distances between notes (that directly relate to physical distances between the fingers). All good readers master absolute reading AND comparative reading. The more you learn to work both ways, the better. 


  1. Thank you, Andrew, for sharing this. I am excited to teach my students who struggle to focus on the spaces as the guide notes! Allen Long,

  2. I've been an elementary school teacher for many years. You are absolutely 100% on target when you compare basic facts memorization to note reading. Your emphasis on memorizing the spaces and building from that solid knowledge base is what I do in helping my students memorize all of the basic facts. Your explanation about why mnemonics is of limited help is also right on. Thanks for verbalizing in the music context what I know to be true in the basic math facts context. I'm just now trying to teach myself to read music and play piano, so I'm happy to have found your opinion on note reading fluency. Thanks!

  3. Excellent article! I was taught, years ago, using the mnemonic style, and it slowed me down considerably. I'm now returning to playing music and will attempt to discard my original method and apply your suggestions. They make so much more sense.