How do you read music?
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 ;-)
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Intervals - see them, hear them, finger them.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I read pretty much as Lydia described.
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