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Written music can show you how to play a piece of music that you've heard, remind you how to play a piece that you don't have memorized, or teach you a piece you've never heard before. Here are some suggestions for getting started.


This is the first module in the course Reading Music , which is an introduction to common notation . This module includes:

Reading music involves both skill and knowledge. In other words, you need to both understand how it works and also practice doing it. You won't improve without the practice, so learning how to read music will take some time and energy. The understanding is also important, however; if you don't understand clearly how the symbols you see are related to the sounds you hear, you can end up practicing incorrectly, which wastes your time and may result in bad habits that are difficult to break. You may be able to save yourself some time and frustration if you understand clearly what your goals as a musician are. In case you are not certain about your goals, the next section is a list of common reasons for wanting to read music. You can read through the list to see which ones describe you, and follow the links to the suggestions that will be most useful to you.

Why do you want to read music?

What is the best way to learn to read music? That depends on what you hope to be able to do. Some musicians may be better off concentrating on ear training rather than music-reading. Others will need to learn how to read music very accurately, so that they can play a piece of music exactly as written, regardless of whether they have heard it before, and regardless of what other people are playing. Some musicians just want to be able to use written music to help them figure out difficult pieces or remember long ones. Others would find a tablature or a shorthand notation more useful. You may already know which of these goals applies to you. If not, read through the following descriptions to see which one sounds the most like your goal.

  • Play a written part in an ensemble - In many music genres, the composer (or arranger) writes specific parts for the various instruments in an ensemble . The parts often fit together in very precise and complex ways, so performing them correctly requires that all group members be able to read music accurately and independently . Classical Western genres, such as symphonies, piano sonatas, and string quartets are the most obvious examples, but playing in jazz "big bands" or in the "horn section" of a popular band may also require good music-reading skills.
  • Play whatever is put in front of me (with or without a little practice) - Learning long or complex pieces by ear and playing them from memory is time-consuming and difficult for most musicians. If you want to be able to learn new pieces quickly and build up a large repertoire of music that you can play well, it will be very useful to learn to read music accurately and independently .
  • Sing a written part in an ensemble - If you want to sing as one member of a section , you may be able to do it by ear, learning your part by listening to the other members of your section. Developing your music memory and ear-training skills may be more useful than learning to read music. However, if you have trouble memorizing pieces, have trouble distinguishing your part from other parts, or need to take a leadership role in your section, you may find it useful to learn how to use written music as a guide and memory aid . Learning to read music independently (i.e. without hearing it first) as a vocalist requires a great deal of practice and ear-training. (See following paragraph.)
  • Sing a written part as a soloist - The vocalist who sings solos, or is the only voice singing a particular part in an ensemble, or who needs to lead a vocal section, may find it very helpful to learn how to use written music as a guide and memory aid . Vocalists who have developed a very accurate ear can learn how to read music independently , without hearing it first, but this is an advanced skill that takes much time and practice to develop. Learning to read music accurately and independently is harder for a singer than for an instrumentalist. Musical instruments provide strong visual and physical cues (such as piano keys or flute fingerings) that are associated with specific pitches. Vocalists don't have such strong cues. They must rely on their ear to tell them if they are producing the right pitch, so it is often a good idea for vocalists to begin by focusing on ear training .
  • Sing whatever anyone puts in front of me - Sight-singing is an excellent exercise for any musician. However, as explained in the previous paragraph, it is a advanced skill. If this is your goal, you must pursue both ear training and reading music accurately .
  • Sing or play in a popular-genre band - In many genres of music, the written music is typically either a lead sheet or a piano reduction , rather than separate written parts. Typically, band members are expected to create and play a part that is typical for their instrument, given the rhythm, harmony and style of the music. Band members who need to do this may find it more useful to learn to play by ear in their favorite styles. Lead sheets and piano reductions often include simplified notations such as chord symbols, so learning these alternative notations can help you get started more quickly than learning common notation. The typical instrumentation of small bands (for example, guitar, drums, and bass, with just one or two solo voices or instruments) makes it fairly easy to create parts that do not clash with each other. However, the larger and more complex the group gets, the more useful written music is to ensure that parts fit together well. In any genre or style, members of large groups may need to be able to read music accurately and independently . Typically, there are standard ways to create a part for a particular instrument in a particular genre, but if you want to get more creative, you may also be interested in learning to improvise .
  • Improvise music, or improvise a part - Many kinds of popular, jazz, non-Western, and fusion musics feature improvisation . If you are most interested in these kinds of music, you may want to begin by focusing on ear training . However, some of these music styles also require that performers learn to read music accurately and independently . For example, many jazz forms call for ensemble members to take turns improvising solos, and to play written parts when not soloing.
  • Decipher pieces that are too complex to learn by ear - If you are happy playing by ear most of the time, and the main thing you want to do is play some pieces that you cannot learn by ear, you may not need to spend a lot of time learning to read music accurately. If you know what the music sounds like, but simply cannot figure out the notes or chords, you may be able to use written music as a guide and memory aid . Or you may be able to use an alternative notation to help you decipher difficult parts.
  • Compose or arrange music - Written music is a very useful aid to remembering and working on compositions and arrangements, as well as sharing them with others. Even if you are comfortable preserving and sharing your work in the form of recordings and lead sheets, some of your fans may prefer written parts! Learning to read music accurately and independently will be worth the time and effort.
  • Play music from other traditions - Common notation was developed for use with Western music , so Western genres are what it represents most clearly. It is often not ideal for writing other kinds of music, particularly music that uses very different approaches to scales , tuning systems , harmony or rhythm . You may be better off concentrating on ear training or on an alternative notation that was developed for the music that interests you.

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Source:  OpenStax, Reading music: common notation. OpenStax CNX. Feb 08, 2012 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10209/1.10
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