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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: How do you primarily read pitch in music?

January 4, 2013 at 11:25 PM

The act of reading pitches in music seems to work differently in different people's brains.

I've noticed this when teaching, and I've really noticed it when putting together my annual Holiday Sing-Along! Granted, I'm working with some people who sing, others who play the violin, and others who play guitar or piano. A violinist, other instrumentalists and singers usually want a chart; that is, a sheet with all the notes on it. But people who show up with a guitar, or even sit at the piano, might prefer to read a sheet of chords. Sometimes they are even unable to read notes.

Among those who read notes, thinking can also vary, and I suspect this might have to do with the type of pitch a person has. I have relative pitch, and I tend to look at intervals. I've noticed that friends and colleagues with perfect pitch tend to read notes in an almost individual way, as they are often able to hear a pitch by name or sight, without needing reference to other notes.

Beginning violin students often relate written pitches to the fingers they use to play them.

How do you look at written music? If you have a way not represented here, please share!

From Andrew Haddow
Posted on January 4, 2013 at 11:47 PM
Position on stave - pitch in head - finger on string
From marjory lange
Posted on January 5, 2013 at 12:07 AM
I read/play in three clefs; anything but note names would be pretty unworkable.
From Andrew Haddow
Posted on January 5, 2013 at 12:40 AM
I play in four clefs - treble, alto, tenor, bass, on violin, viola, trombone, as well as piano and others. I never think of note-names, it's like a switch goes in my head. I just think for example "viola" and the stave positions map onto the fingerboard pretty much automatically. Years of practice I suppose.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on January 5, 2013 at 12:54 AM
I don't understand how this still works, and it really doesn't make a lot of sense, but I've been playing the violin off and on for 40 years now, I also play the viola and read alto clef, and I read bass clef well enough to help my son on the cello and pick out hymns on the piano. And I still read music primarily using violin 1st position finger numbers in my head. It's actually some combination of finger numbers and note names, they've become one and the same. D on the second line from the top of the staff just has some essential "three"-ness to it that is always there, even when I'm singing it, playing it in 3rd position, or playing it with some other finger on the right hand, on the piano.
From Eric Rowe
Posted on January 5, 2013 at 2:04 AM
I relate obvious musical elements (scale, chord, arpeggio) etc to suitable fingering patterns and don't usually think note by note.
From Mendy Smith
Posted on January 5, 2013 at 3:17 PM
I had to think very hard about this, as reading music is a natural thing for me to do now. However, when I read bass clef (which I do very rarely), I identify my "road-map" notes CGDA and then think of the remaining notes as intervals from those points.
From Rachel Neville
Posted on January 5, 2013 at 4:16 PM
The only way I could figure out how to read music was to pretend it was an alphabet. I studied Russian for a long time and thought, if I can read Cyrillic I can read this. Its just a symbol. When I hit a note I can tell if its right or wrong, but I'm not at the point where I can look at the note on the page and hear the pitch in my head. Maybe next year.
From Joshua Iyer
Posted on January 5, 2013 at 6:17 PM
I don't think any of the ways mentioned describe how I read music. I've been told I have perfect pitch since I can hear a key played on the piano and tell what note it is. And sometimes during a meal or before I go to bed, I settle down with a score, and based on the notes I see I can hear the music inside my head. So I guess it's kind of the same way. When we get a new piece in orchestra class, sometimes I sit down and read it, but because I'm second violin, it's harder to do that because we don't have the melody. Or, it's harder to ENJOY doing it, so I give up and wait for our teacher to have us tune. :)
From Rebecca Darnall
Posted on January 5, 2013 at 6:58 PM
This has brought to mind one of the ways in which my musical education was really superb. I was taught to look at music in various ways, and therefore usually don't have trouble one way or another. So to analyze:
~I have perfect pitch. This was because of my Suzuki training. However my perfect pitch doesn't go much beyond the realm of the violin.
~I can read chord charts. This is because starting in junior high I started playing the piano (my first instrument started at age 4) on my church worship team and they used chord charts, sometimes not. In fact, if they use lead sheets, sometimes I can reduce it down to chords (this also has to do with theory training I received early on). I also can read chord charts because of my jazz piano training. Not long after I started reading chord charts on piano, I could do it comfortably on violin (granted if I already knew the piece or song).
~just knowing where the notes are on the violin and how they relate to each other. When I started youth orchestra, I realized I needed to up my sight-reading skills. When a new piece was set in front of me, all the ledger lines used to scare me. Now I just "know", cerebrally and with muscle memory, where the note is.

I guess this is all to say people do usually have one way they start with first, but it's always nice to have training that gives you a broad set of note-reading skills, and with time and patience, any student can achieve any of the skills I listed above to at least some degree. :)

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on January 5, 2013 at 7:31 PM
Hearing relative pitch and intervals for me too.I can't play in tune without being very clear about that at all time.
From Bart Meijer
Posted on January 5, 2013 at 8:59 PM
As a violinist, I play in treble clef (duh), and I am a bass singer. Before the time I started singing (in a student choir) I used mainly note names and automatic note-finger association. Afterwards, reading the tune as sound and playing that has become more important.
One of my daughters, Fleur, plays the cello and her twin sister Clara plays the piano. Years ago they were to play at a students' concert, but Fleur got ill, and I ended up playing the cello part on the violin, one or two octaves higher. I had to rely on auditory imagination a lot more.
From Andrei Pricope
Posted on January 6, 2013 at 1:23 AM
I read treble, alto, tenor, bass clefs, and play/teach on violin, viola, cello, and piano.

I always think notes, solfége (do, re mi, si not ti)...

Hardest of all for me is playing viola music on cello, less troublesome playing viola music on violin, even easier violin music on viola, and no problem with treble down an octave (or mostly at pitch) on cello.

Playing quartet scores on piano could be more fluent, but... My father was a conductor and taught me score reading. I can also read chord charts (not Nashville system, though), and use "fake" books fairly convincingly. I cannot do pitch transposition at sight well enough (play in G music originally printed in, say, F), only play musical lines, as written, on different instruments.

Thinking intervals is easy, as is note functions (dominant, relative, leading tone, etc.). I thank my Eastern European training multiple times daily, especially in pattern recognition, theory, solfége, and harmony...

I cannot understand how not to think notes, or think A-G, or fingerings, or, worst, use movable do while playing. All of my students read notes and have to say them while playing scales, easier études and beginning/elementary pieces (visual, verbal, motor, aural integration).

I find playing scales, arpeggios, and patterns with different fingerings particularly useful.

I have very good relative (relational?) pitch, but not perfect pitch, thankfully. When people touch fingerboards (low/medium registers) and keyboards without sounding the note, I can tell/hum the notes they're suggesting (visual/motor/auditory memory).

The "beatings" have payed off handsomely...

Thanks for the good question... Interesting reading the replies!

From David Beck
Posted on January 6, 2013 at 8:53 AM
When working as an orchestral player I valued intervals enormously; tea-breaks and holidays too.
There's a tale about an orchestral hack who after death found himself in the Hell Symphony Orchestra. To his astonishment every piece played at the rehearsal went perfectly. But then the conductor began again, repeating the same repertoire. The same happened again and again. Eventually our hero asked "when's the interval?". The answer ? THERE ISN'T ONE.
From Nicky Paxton
Posted on January 6, 2013 at 12:42 PM
Thank you for your amusing story, David. I voted for intervals, but actually I use notes' names when playing notes on a stave; it's when I get into the ledger lines that I start playing by intervals.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on January 7, 2013 at 3:12 AM
I can read three clefs but I try to finger the notes in my head and form my hand in patterns
From Roy Sonne
Posted on January 7, 2013 at 5:05 AM
I believe that when we achieve a high level of musical literacy as well as fluency on our instrument, there are a lot of semi-automatic processes working. We have an awareness of note names and intervals although we are not consciously thinking about them for the most part. When we play the violin the eye-to-hand coordination is almost instantaneous. We see the notes on the page and our fingers go to the right places with a minimum of intervening mental steps. Similarly we form a mental image of what the music should sound like. I can almost always look at a piece of violin music and have a clear image of what it sounds like as well as the physical actions of playing it. Of course, when I actually pick up the violin to play it, the result is much richer than my mental idea, because so much of our artistry resides in our muscular memory.
From David Beck
Posted on January 7, 2013 at 7:36 AM
I agree that "when we achieve a high level of musical literacy as well as fluency on our instrument, there are a lot of semi-automatic processes working."
A beginner will associate a note with a fingering on a string, but later pitch "relationships" will develop. Sometimes there's "perfect pitch" but most learn to guess how a tune will sound by looking at intervals. It takes time to realise where the semitones are !
Someone like myself who has suffered a University Music course, demanding "keyboard work", will choose from a variety of strategies when viewing noted music. One begins to "hear" harmonies. If I look at or try to write a piano part I will imagine the action of the fingers, and similar processes come into play when scanning or writing material for violin, or, for that matter, other instruments.
As Roy Sonne suggests, reading music becomes a more complex process as experience accumulates; and the same applies to writing too.
Do you recall the days when you still moved your lips when reading ??

From Theodor Taimla
Posted on January 7, 2013 at 10:40 AM
I don't usually think about the notes at all. For the guitar I have tabs, but for violin, viola, cello (I play all three of them) I just know where the open strings are located and after that I just remember where the first, second and third fingers go. Fourth finger is the next string anyway.

For different clefs, the open strings are just in different positions. Violin and alt celfs aren't so bad because open strings are in the spaces. The bass clef is really hard for me right now because the open strings are on the lines.

For piano I usually find the first note by name(takes some time depending on the clef) and the rest are just intervals)

From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on January 7, 2013 at 1:38 PM
I "see" the notes. When the signature is C#, F#, the first thing I see is Purple, Orange-creamsicle. It took me a full year and under the very watchful and diligent eye of my instructor to actually relate what I saw to the name of the note.

---Ann Marie

From Charlie Gibbs
Posted on January 8, 2013 at 12:44 AM
I voted "note names" because after 50 years of treble clef I associate notes with positions on the staff automatically, with enough brain cells left over to then translate to the instrument I'm playing. However, my crash course in viola has me associating positions on the staff with string and finger positions (e.g. the open G string is the bottom space on the alto clef staff). I can use either chord names or Nashville numbering system when playing bluegrass fiddle or mandolin (both rhythm chops and improvising solos), and when playing guitar I think in terms of chord shapes while sometimes using a free finger to pick out melody notes or fills.

Crossovers can be tricky. Last night on the viola I played from memory the melody to Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, which I normally play on mandolin. That was a brain-twister. But what the heck, it keeps me young.

From Annette Brower
Posted on January 8, 2013 at 3:34 PM
I voted note names but I really use a combination of note names and intervals. For me, in most situations, it would be difficult to seperate the two. I read a "B" and "D" but also simultaniously know it is 1 1/2 steps. Intervals are even more essential on a shift. I don't have perfect pitch so knowing I am shifting to a particular note is not as helpful and the required travel distance.
From Royce Faina
Posted on January 8, 2013 at 4:38 PM
My parents and I were told that I have relative pitch which is why I could play-by-ear as a child and I do so to this day. I began learning the violin and reading music from the Public School Orchestra Program at age 10, joined choir at age 15 singing tenor/contralto which I was taught solfege and music theory. At this time I began learning the bass guitar reading the bass clef regularly. This introduced me to guitar tablature and after H.S. graduation I spent 2 years as music major in Jr. College. I later played & sang in amateur & semipro metal bands in the 1980s. Reading & ear playing are often at hand but what is & isn’t listed are tools in the figurative tool box to be used when needed.
From Mark Roberts
Posted on January 11, 2013 at 4:32 PM
I have no idea, I play several instruments and clefs and some work better than others.

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