Learning to Read Music

Music is commonly referred to as “the universal language,” reflecting the magical way sound overcomes linguistic barriers and listeners can share a common feeling, despite if the listener speaks English, Spanish or Urdu.  What isn’t so universal, nor automatically intuitive, is music notation.  Music notation has evolved over centuries and is represented differently in various world cultures.  For more information on the fascinating evolution of Western musical notation and world music notation, please click here.

In this post, we will examine learning to read music in the context of violin and viola lessons.  Learning to read music is one of the most frustrating hurtles for my students to overcome.  It might be more satisfying to just play music, but what if you forget how the song goes?  Or what if you want to play something new?

Things to remember:

There are 5 lines on the musical staff.  You can practice identifying the notes on the staff by holding your left hand flat and horizontal, with the palm facing you.  Pretend that each finger represents a “line” on the staff.  The lines’ names, starting from the bottom to the top are, E, G, B, D, and F.  The traditional mnemonic is “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” however, I prefer to use a more universal saying of “Eat Green Beans Daily Forever.”  If you have a more witty mnemonic, please feel free to post on this page!

The spaces, starting from the bottom are F, A, C, and E; which spells “FACE.”

Although it is important to memorize the names of the lines and spaces, it is also important to understand that they connect like steps in a staircase.  The bottom line E goes up to the space F, which leads to the next line G.

The musical alphabet starts A, B, C, D, E, F, G – and repeats back to A and continues.  As an exercise, let’s fill in the blanks: A _ C_E_G_B_ _ E_ _A_ _D

Now, can you recite the musical alphabet backwards?  This is important to know, because it is easy to remember the musical scale going up, but sometimes music goes down too, and then what? 😉

G, F, E, D, C, B, A, G, F_ D_B_G_ _D_ _ A_F_ _ _B, A

The first stage is to understand this intellectually.  Can you read to me the note names in your piece?  When practicing note reading at home, it is good to use a combination of flash cards, worksheets, and quizzing yourself on the pieces in your book.

The second stage is to understand this practically.  When you see bottom-line-E, is that your open E string?  Not necessarily…  It’s the correct pitch, but not the right octave.  It would be first finger on the D-string.  Quizzing yourself on recognizing the note names and then correlating them to the violin is the most important step, but it also the most tedious.  This learning stage requires you to really slow down and think before you play.

But just remember, it’s one of the hardest hurdles to overcome, but once you learn it, it will open up a new world of possibilities for enjoying playing music!

Question: That’s all fine and good, but what about reading notes on the G-string?

Reading notes above and below the staff lines are not as simple, but the first step is to memorize where the open G-string is: two lines down and the space below that.  Quiz yourself over and over where each of the open strings are on the staff.  Next, you can either count up (or down) reciting the musical alphabet, or skip by line or by space to find the note.

©2013 Lydia Tang Swada

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