What Makes a Good Note Reader

June 23, 2020, 9:33 PM · As I think about my music reading skills, I realize they have gone through very interesting phases. I started in the fourth grade in elementary school where playing by ear and reading music were taught simultaneously. Another system was used by many of my orchestral colleagues. They were taught in a Suzuki class in which their ears were developed first, followed by lessons in reading music. Both methods had done their job of laying a musical foundation. At that point I needed something more, though. I needed to to troubleshoot, to become very nit-picky about the details. The next method I would use would be my own. I needed to figure out what was missing and fill in the blanks.

reading notes

During those early childhood years in my musical life I was also learning to read words. The advantage there was that I spent many more hours and lots of classroom time learning something that was essential and expected.

Also, every word I learned had a built-in association. Cow, dog, apple, run…How quickly that jump-started the learning process.

Notes Have Meanings (and Feelings) Too

When I read notes, however, it opened up the world of feelings, fingerings, and bowings. An added bonus was the game-like experience of notes on the page going up and down. (There were no video games then. Entertainment was more primitive.) Some notes went higher, others lower, some skipped, some sounded like a folk song I grew up with.

What makes notes more difficult to read than words? The meanings of notes are not that obvious. (The irony was that, years later, when emotion and music were intertwined, I would appreciate how much one little note could mean.) It would help if the teacher sang the song for me, or if I sang it myself. Such a simple exercise would become the bedrock of reading notes – teaching me that the fingers shouldn’t move until the notes had gone through my mind.

Fortunately, in spite of music being an “abstract” language, its notation couldn’t be easier. It was based on half-steps, whole-steps, and arithmetically straight-forward rhythms, while the spelling of English words and their grammar often cause confusion. Before I dive into the pitfalls of reading music, I just want to take a moment to appreciate its clarity.

The Ingredients that Make Up Note-Reading

  1. Intervals. How my ears heard intervals would determine how well I read music. I should hear the music before my fingers touch the violin. If I hear a half-step, that’s what I’ll play. Reading music doesn’t happen in a vacuum, where written notes on a page are isolated smudges – they’re a mirror for what I’m hearing. Unfortunately, it’s easy to confuse whole-steps and half-steps. Caution is always better than guessing. Woodworkers say “measure twice, cut once.” Musicians should say “Don’t even think about lifting that finger yet."

    Exercise: Sing a melody to yourself and name the intervals. Don’t decide too quickly. Start with small intervals, then add thirds, fourths, and fifths. Think of a fourth as two whole steps and a half step. This will improve your reading because you’re keeping track of where you are on the fingerboard.

  2. Muscle Memory.I hadn’t appreciated the role my fingers played in reading music. From the moment I placed my four fingers on four strings, I opened up the world of muscle memory. Like the game of Concentration, or Match Game, pitches and written notes made my fingers automatically go to the right spot on the fingerboard, more or less.

    The pitches in my ears and the notes on the page pointed my fingers in the right direction…most of the time. Playing the right notes a certain number of times gave me the confidence to be more patient about identifying the notes that were giving me trouble.

    To make my reading better, I needed to stop more often when there was confusion about where I was going to place my finger. Stop before the mistake happens!! Creating a muscle memory that’s incorrect is hard to get rid of. I had to think a couple of measures in advance, maybe even from the beginning of the phrase. Thinking ahead is such a handy device, even if it does feel a bit awkward. The more I included thought with my playing, which is kind of an oil and water thing, the less clunky it would be.

  3. Playing by Ear. For a violinist, most reading mistakes take place above first position. It gets complicated to think that the note D on the A string can have different fingerings in first, second, and third positions. It is taxing on the brain if I intellectualize it and try to rote-remember the differences. When there’s an easier way, why do it in the more difficult manner?

    Instead, I played by ear and let it work together with reading the music. I heard the intervals and played the appropriate finger. Thereby I strengthened all aspects of reading music – ear, muscle memory, and intervals. Beats rote any day!!

What Reading Music Taught Me About Learning the Viola

When I started learning viola 15 years ago I found it very frustrating to learn new fingerings for notes I was overly familiar with on the violin. I kept wanting to know the names of the notes in alto clef, not realizing that that was what was holding me back. It got easier when I simply figured out the first note of a passage and played the rest by ear. A very beautiful thing with my mind happened after that. It sorted out the details without any help from me. Muscle memory started snowballing and before I knew it, I was organically playing the viola. I have a huge amount of respect for rote learning, but it needs to partner with the other gifts the mind is capable of.

Be As Good a Reader As You Can Be

  1. Take time every week to improve as a reader. It’s the bedrock of what we do, even when we memorize music. Good reading helps us memorize better because we’re absorbing the music and the rhythms more accurately.
  2. Learn your intervals. Intervals are pretty straightforward to learn but a little tricky to differentiate. Sometimes a half-step sounds like a whole-step and vice-versa. Emotions play tricks with our brains when it comes to hearing pitches.
  3. Learn new muscle-memories every day. The mind loves them. Be careful to play the right note – muscle memories are forever.

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June 25, 2020 at 03:26 AM · Your experiences match mine. I have had similar experiences as yours with muscle memory and playing by ear. And interestingly, in college, when I played viola for a while, I had the same experiences as you about wanting to over-intellectualize the process with names of notes, etc. That hampered me. Instead, when I found a note, as you did, and let it happen, it did!

The notes on a page, etc. are only a tool. They aren't the music.

How this process all comes together is fascinating to me.

June 25, 2020 at 05:00 AM · Michael, you’re right about the notes being just the tools. No wonder it takes a lot of experience to unite them with the music. That’s another reminder that we should keep developing our ears.

June 26, 2020 at 12:11 PM · Piano is how I honed my reading skills. When you have to play four or more notes at the same time, one line becomes kind of easy. Also piano teachers tend to emphasize it more. Being asked to sight read at a piano lesson was not uncommon in my childhood.

June 26, 2020 at 02:35 PM · Paul, I’m happy when my violin students have played piano before because they can picture the intervals by seeing it on the keyboard. Also, sight reading is so essential to becoming a good reader because the ear doesn’t help out as much. It’s uncanny how quickly a child will play by ear after he’s heard something once. It just makes reading that much harder.

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