How do you read music?

August 6, 2022, 1:00 PM · I have wondered about this for a long time: How do other string players read music?

To help explain what I mean by this question I will start by describing how I read music when playing my instruments.

When reading music when playing violin my mind immediately translates the printed note to a location on the violin (latitude & longitude) up to 5th position (i.e., less than 4 ledger lines). For higher notes and "8va" I have to mentally translate the note to its location. I have known the treble clef note names at sight as far back as I can remember and the names may pass through my mind when playing them - if there is time.

I do the same thing when playing cello and viola. However, for cello when I first started in 1949 (10 years after my first violin lesson with music in front of me) I had no cello music so I read some of my violin music an octave down. The next day my Dad brought me some cello music and I was reading up through 4th position the next day and ever since (my cello lessons started a month later). I never really thought about the bass or tenor clef note names (cello music also includes treble clef - so those I knew). It was not until I had been playing cello for 50 years that I started to play a bit of 2-hand piano that got me to a closer at-sight acquaintance with bass clef note names and that has had a slight effect on what my mind does when playing cello.

I was almost 39 when I bought my first viola in 1973 and every time I played it (for at least the next 30 years) I had to think about fingering the alto-clef notes in relation to how I would finger them on a violin in a different position. I probably played viola a total of 100 hours in my first 40 viola years (including about 10 public performances). Then I bought the Suzuki viola books (#4 - #7, as far as the series went at the time) and working through those in one week seems to have given me the same sort of viola brain that I had earlier as a cello brain location but no instantaneous note-name recognition.

So, in summary, I read music by directly relating the notes on a page to what finger will go where (when and for how long). The actual interval relationship to surrounding notes seems to come automatically.

Do other people do it that way, or do they think the note name first? Or some other way?

Replies (30)

August 6, 2022, 1:18 PM · The thought processes go so quickly that it's actually hard to tell what comes first. For a long time I thought I translated directly from the note's position on the staff to where it was fingered. And maybe I do see where a hand frame goes on the staff. But in recent years I've started to realize I'm still probably thinking of the note name first, especially for entrances after rests, or notes in ledger lines. When there's a leap to a high entrance, it still helps me to write in the note name in order to avoid counting ledger lines.

On the other hand, within a fast passage, I'm relying much more on intervals than on identifying note names and probably have to stop and think for a moment to identify the actual note. In a fast passage, I'd probably be quicker to identify the key or scale the passage is based on (even with a lot of accidentals modifying the key signature) than the note I'm playing at any given moment. So maybe it's a combination of strategies that my brain picks from.

For reference, I have been almost exclusively a violist, having switched from violin after only a year and a half of self-teaching. It does take me a little time to adjust to reading on violin, but my adjustment on violin is mostly getting used to having an E string and no C string. I know I'm not using shortcuts to read treble clef. That said, most of my musical training is as a pianist and composer. I could already read alto clef somewhat fluently on piano before starting to learn viola. The only clef that has ever given me difficulty is tenor clef, and that's probably because it looks like alto clef and makes me want to read as if in alto clef.

August 6, 2022, 2:36 PM · I translate the dot to position on the fingerboard, I never think what the note is, I could tell you if you asked, but I associate the dots with positions, apparently lots of people do this.
August 6, 2022, 3:06 PM · I agree with Albrecht that the process (mechanism!) is too fast to analyze, and if I try to slow it down so I can analyze it, then it might well be a different process! It's a tantalizing question, though, Andy.

I also had to spend more time than I thought would be necessary to build the kind of "viola brain" needed to sight-read decently on the viola. I attributed the difficulty to age alone (I was 50 when I started playing the viola). Eventually I did learn to read, but not completely. And especially, what I find hard to sight-read on the viola are higher notes with ledger lines. Maybe that's just because I have less experience with those. But I noticed something: When I see a "G" in Alto Clef -- the G that is close to half-way up the fingerboard on the A string -- that note sits on top of a ledger line. But the violin "G" that's just a little beyond the middle of the fingerboard on the E string -- that note is cut through by a ledger line. Now, I realize these notes are not in the same octave. But they're roughly in the same location, and that's what you have to do when you sight-read. You have to locate your finger to the right place. I can't prove that this is the issue that is troubling me, but my gut tells me that it contributes. I could just be making excuses for myself -- heaven knows I do that often enough.

After thinking about it for a while, I'm pretty convinced that note-names are part of the mental process for me. It would be interesting (albeit sad and disturbing) to find a violinist whose language center (and therefore the ability to translate a dot to a note-name) was switched off by disease or injury (hopefully only temporarily), and see if they could read music just as well as before. That's the kind of thing that would have interested a neurologist like Oliver Sacks. A common thread that runs through his writings is that there are significant advances to be made in understanding mental function by closely analyzing cases of truly regrettable pathology.

August 6, 2022, 3:33 PM · I know originally as a Suzuki student I translated the dot on the staff directly to the finger used to play it (notes on lines are odd, notes in spaces are even:) ). But I'm not sure if my brain still works this way with different positions and ledger lines. I've often found that when a passage is especially finger-tripping, it helps me to just write in the fingerings above the notes, even if the entire passage is in first position. These are cases where I can play the passage slowly, but can't get past a certain bpm on the metronome no matter how hard I try. It's like my brain doesn't have time to digest the notes on the page so instead of thinking "this note is a d, now I need to put my third finger down on A string" I can cut out the middleman and just look at the numbers, allowing me to play the passage much faster. Not a very useful hack for memorized rep, but extremely useful for getting through fast passages in orchestra music when there's little time before the performance to let muscle memory do the work.
Edited: August 6, 2022, 5:35 PM · I conjecture that somewhere towards the foundational level, I see the first line as a 1 and associate it with the 1st finger, and then see the third line as another 1 and associate it with the 1st finger, and then I see the top line as yet another 1 (which is going to be the same distance from the nut for the most common keys I play in). My guess is that I'm grouping the stave by strings in 1st position some way.

Or something.

I think working at etudes and harder repertoire asks me to think more in terms of finger patterns, so that if I'm sight-reading, I can group ahead so that I can use 2nd and 4th position more readily without it feeling really unnatural.

It all kind of takes itself apart, and when I'm on my game, I'm probably seeing intervals, regardless of the string or position I'm in. I almost never think in note names, although for the sake of really matching my intonation with open strings, perhaps I sometimes should a bit more.

Lot's of sight-reading is good practice!

Edited: August 7, 2022, 4:01 AM · Playing violin my "left brain" automatically identifies note names and values while my "right brain" goes straight to strings, fingers and positions. A paltry 40 years after starting to play viola my right brain still seems to do all the work while the left brain plays catch-up. Much more recently I discovered a switch in the right brain that goes effortlessly between alto and octave-bass clef. I still have to stop to think what the notes are called but most of the time remain happily ignorant of that.

Of course I don't know for sure that it's one hemisphere or the other that's active but I do think there's some validity in using these terms to refer to functional separation. Paul seems to be talking about very much the same phenomenon but clearly our brains don't all work in the same way.

Edited: August 7, 2022, 4:11 AM · For a rather long time as a child, teenager, I read notes=fingerings, which makes you vulnerable, because it ties you to being very aware which position you are in, and the weakness comes out in positions you are less familiar with, typically the even ones. Many of my fellow violinists in the amateur orchestra admit to me they read like that. Actually, they sound fine, and once a passage is practiced well, it doesn't matter that much. But with me, when I got better and practiced scales and etudes a lot in many different positions, and more advanced music, I slowly evolved and got better, and I think I can now largely say I really read the notes themselves, so to speak, I don't read any fingerings. The translation of notes to fingers now happens in parallel by another process. So yes, violinists can multitask ;-)
August 7, 2022, 1:28 PM · As one who is steeped in Doflein, I mentally translate the printed music into key, then positions and attitudes (that's how the fingers arrange to play the half and whole steps on each string). Next comes accidentals if they are present. Then note values, slurs/ties, shift requirements and crossings, and then where the ring-tones are to be heard/listened for. Next, bowing markings and suggestions. Finally dynamics and expression.
Edited: August 8, 2022, 11:00 AM · My opinion is; Learn any new clef the same way you learned your first clef, straight, without transposing. Connect the spots with the note names A, Bb, etc, at the proper octave, not with the finger number, because as soon as you are past the beginners books you learn that every note can be played with multiple combinations of strings, fingers, positions.
Most Violists will not have any trouble reading treble clef because they started on violin. I would much rather prefer a different clef over trying to instantly recognize a note with more than 3 ledger lines. Maybe it's an eye-sight or mental issue.
For first violin orchestra parts I prefer the 8va notation over multiple ledger lines.
About 500 years ago, somebody made the mistake of putting the Viola in the Alto clef. That was probably done because in church the Violas were doubling the Altos in the choir. The rarely seen mezzo-soprano clef ( middle C on the 2nd line from bottom) would have been better.
The older edition of collected Bach Cantatas use the C-clefs all the time for the Altos and Tenors.
Sometime during the Renaissance music period they experimented with a staff of 6 lines. I suspect that that caused too many sight reading errors, so they pulled back to our standard 5 lines.
Edited: August 8, 2022, 10:44 AM · When I read music while playing violin, it's very mechanical. If I see an "F" above middle "C" on the page, I immediately think 2nd finger D string. There are no letters involved whatsoever. If I'm in 3rd position, then I automatically think 4th finger G string. And so on.

In positions higher than 4th or 5th, I need to think it out a bit. Those positions aren't nearly as instinctive. But it works, because I always have the option of practicing the music to remember it.

When it comes to reading piano music, I have a terrible time. There can be so many notes above or below the staff, and I haven't a clue where they are on the keyboard.

Let's see, the note that I want to play is three notes below two octaves down from A above middle C. Hmm. I think that it's this key right here. Plink.

Definitely not the stuff of which sight readers are made. Consequently, it takes me a long time to learn a piece on the piano, and to play it through requires memorizing the piece.

But memorizing a piece has its advantages. In memorizing a piano piece, I take it from the laborious, "now where is that note," to being completely mechanical, similar to what I experience when playing the violin.

August 8, 2022, 12:27 AM · When I started I already knew how to read notes (from my days playing the treble recorder) so the note names were all there (it was the same clef of course) before i even took a violin in hand the first time (I also knew how to read rhythms; this gave me quite an easy start).

Then I developed quickly a direct link between finger/string and placement on the staff. Then arrived the third position and I was in trouble. It took me weeks to read and play comfortably in in third position. My teacher made me read whole etudes aloud: "A, 2nd finger, C# 4th finger" etc. until I was fluent. The same happened all over again when second position was added to the repertoire.

Starting with fourth position all of a sudden it became easier. I seemed to have acquired a flexibility I had not had before.

Nowadays--as best as I can tell--I seem to associate note positions in the staff directly with places on the string and derive fingerings from there. In other words I think directly that I am playing the note with finger X, the position follows from there. Maybe the is not true but it is the best I can do in self observation.

August 8, 2022, 5:55 AM · This is very interesting. I would be fascinated to hear from any v.comer who is a neuroscientist (Where are you, Elise Stanley?) on what science can tell us about how we read music.
August 8, 2022, 7:35 AM · Not much I'm afraid, at least the last time I looked 14 years ago. There is some evidence for the left brain/right brain thing, the right side auditory cortex being more responsive to musical sounds than the left at least in relatively untrained people. We found some evidence this in the EEG (Jones and Byrne Electroenceph Clin Neurophysiol 1998). Nothing to do with reading music though. I wouldn't be surprised if there have been quite a few functional MRI studies since then but it's hard to read (and impossible to play) with your head in a scanner.
August 8, 2022, 9:11 AM · I do not think about note names when sight reading. The note position on the staff translates unconsciously to a finger action on the board.

For the past few years, I have noticed I can usually take in an entire measure in one glance and play it while I scan ahead to the next measure.

I think most people can, more or less, process different sensory perceptions independent of each other with a little practice.

I cannot say the same when viewing viola music written on an alto clef. If I transcribe it to the mezzo-soprano clef, then my violin brain can easily kick in and hit the proper notes when playing viola.

Perhaps if I were 60 years younger, I might attempt to learn sight reading for the alto-clef.

August 8, 2022, 2:23 PM · Hmm. My mechanism is totally different. Notes translate into mental pitch for me. Sometimes when there are ton of ledger lines, I will write in the note name, but that helps me hear the note in my head. I read groups of notes as an auditory pattern in my head. My brain translates 'this auditory pattern' into 'your hand goes here' pretty automatically. So I don't especially have to think about the shift and fingering when I sight-read music in conventional tonality.
Edited: August 9, 2022, 11:55 AM · Intervals - see them, hear them, finger them.

Absolute fingerings only work in 1st position, then they become a hindrance.

Ledger lines aren't too difficult after a while - flute music uses them exclusively, never 8ve. You can hear the intervals and the melody after a while and don't need to do much thinking. That's what practice is for.

How do you transpose, is the next interesting question. We were once asked that at school. Only the flautist, our best musician, was at the stage where she could transpose automatically by fingering all the intervals.

August 9, 2022, 3:18 PM · A lot of my note processing has moved to a subconscious level. That makes it even harder to explain just how I play. I tend, though, to think of a note in terms of where it is on which string. Playing it from a different position just means using a different finger. For example, D on the A string is always in the same place, but in first position it's under my third finger, while in third position it's under my first finger. The G below it is in the same place next door on the D string. And so on...

Where it gets really interesting is when I get lost. I'll look at a note on the page and not be able to figure out what it is or how it fits into the chord pattern. But my fingers will continue to move - and as often as not, they land on the right notes. ("Oh, that's what it's supposed to sound like.")

If I'm totally lost, knowing the intervals will help me get from one note to the next. Practising scales really helps here.

I've had times where a small piece of my mind will detach itself from the bulk of my brain that's playing the music, and sit back and watch my fingers moving as if I'm watching another player. It's a bizarre feeling.

August 10, 2022, 11:39 AM · This is becoming interesting, Lydia. There seem to do be two possible pathways: Reading a note causes a reflex that physically produces a note. Or: Reading a note causes an anticipation of pitch which in turns causes the reflex.

I am pretty sure I go with the first way, even though I do anticipate the pitch as well (it seems to branch out sideways somewhere).

Of course all this comes with the common caveat: It is really hard for our brains to understand themselves.

August 10, 2022, 11:52 AM · If I don't anticipate the pitch, it's hard (for me at least) to play in tune. My memory of the fingerboard is pretty much entirely pitch-associated.
August 10, 2022, 1:22 PM · It is interesting. My sight-reading depends hardly at all on any prior awareness of the pitches and intervals coming up. One might suppose the different approaches could be due to how one was first introduced to music, but that doesn't work in my case since I was trained as a choirboy (and choiryouth) concurrently with my first 6 years learning the violin.
Edited: August 10, 2022, 1:55 PM · What Lydia says makes sense to me. I really think building robust audiation skills is key to playing in tune (but also improvising). The more of the music you can represent internally, the more "hooks" you have to connect with your fingers. Steve, I'm curious about your experience - Perhaps this isn't totally necessary, or somehow this occurs on a really subconscious level.
Edited: August 11, 2022, 12:38 AM · Reading back it appears we tend to fall into one of two camps (how strange, to divide into two camps!), the red camp mainly relying on visuo-motor connection between what we see and where we put our fingers (naming of notes being optional) and the blue employing inner audiation of pitches and intervals. I can well understand the musical benefits of the latter but I don't think it's a skill that comes naturally to everyone.

Thinking of factors that may cause players to do without audiation, maybe the involvement of a third area of the brain could actually have a slowing effect on the process? Those of us who do a lot of sight-reading (I'm thinking also of second violinists and violists whose material is often non-melodic) may have discovered that it's possible and even desirable to skip the middle step of audiation and leave the work entirely to the visuo-motor system.

The game changes completely when we play music we already know and I suspect audiation enters the process for everyone. Consciously "hearing" the next note is (or should be) an essential element of phrasing.

Pianists have much less need of audiation (discuss?) which may be how they can learn to play fistfuls of notes so fast. As he recently described it to me, at least one very skilled sight-reader works not by identifying individual notes but by translating the patterns on the page into configurations of the hands. In relatively simple music there may time to audiate the chords with advantage to phrasing.

Edited: August 11, 2022, 1:04 AM · Haven't played piano seriously for 40 years but I'd say the fistfuls of notes mostly depend on how used you are to harmonies and arpeggios and chords, i.e. hand shapes. Each key sig has a best fingering and handshape for its scales and arpeggios. You see that a passage is basically in E major, so you naturally reach for the relevant notes, or rely on scale practice if you have a scale passage. Partly it's ears - you look ahead in the music and hear and see that it's going for B7, so your hands adjust accordingly. I played piano for a ballet class for a year or two and often that was sight-reading. The mums were impressed, but a lot of it was a fudge - just stick to the rhythm and select the most important notes on the fly.
August 13, 2022, 11:51 PM · After reading the responses I realize I have a strange way of playing. When I started out I played slow and easy pieces so to translate the notes I associated the sound that would come out of the written music to a feeling in my mouth. For example, a G on the D string would be a sharper swallow feeling. A B on the A string was a push against my teeth at the front of my mouth. The more I did this when i played I started associating the look of the note with rhe feeling in my mouth that would then translate to the finger board. As I've gotten into harder and faster music this strategy is used less during performance but is handy when learning slowly. When things get high up as I practice it's more about how i breathe for each note and where I force the breath from. For a D in 5th position it's a breathe that is harshly forced to the roof of my mouth. A B towards the highest part on in of the E string it tends to be a breath seemingly forced from my chest, specifically around the area my heart is located. It's worked really well for me over the years but like many others the older I've gotten it seems as though it just comes out.
August 14, 2022, 1:27 AM · That's wonderful! I'd say you have a kind of synaesthesia in which two areas of the brain are functionally coupled to an unusual degree but I've not heard of this one before. It makes considerable sense because the gustatory area of the cerebral cortex concerned with the mouth and the sense of taste lies adjacent to the primary auditory cortex, on either side of the Sylvian fissure.
August 14, 2022, 3:53 PM · I read pretty much as Lydia described.

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