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On Reading Music

“Will my child learn to read music in your lessons?” This is the question I hear more than any other from prospective students’ parents. The answer is YES. I find there are many misconceptions about reading music among laypeople and even among music instructors. In this post I will share some of my insights into music reading. Some are based on my nearly 20 years of teaching, and many are based on the writings of music learning researcher and author Edwin Gordon. Please understand that I can be considered an expert in music reading. I once accompanied world famous violinist Joshua Bell in a recital with only one day’s lead time to learn the music. You’d better believe I was reading! I read every week in my responsibilities for my church job, both choral scores and lead sheets. Often I must learn music very quickly when I’m asked to play orchestral piano with the North Carolina Symphony.


By reading, do you mean “sight reading?” If you’ll allow me to answer a question with a question, what reading is not done at sight? “Sight reading” is typically defined as playing music upon its first viewing. It’s an odd definition, considering many of the mental, visual, and kinesthetic processes that happen when reading music are the same whether it’s the first viewing of the score or the hundredth. What are the differences between experiencing the Harry Potter books for the first or the third time? It’s all reading.


Do you use sight reading anthologies or examinations to develop reading skills? Sometimes I do. Their effectiveness is limited without an understanding of notational audiation (discussed in the next paragraph). I’ve seen students work diligently through reading anthologies and prepare for reading exams, yet reading music remains a struggle. In a way that reading a Harry Potter book is not at all a struggle. Clearly there is something missing in that approach.


What is notational audiation? Audiation is “hearing and comprehending in one’s mind sound of music not, or may never have been, physically present.” Notational audiation is “audiation of what is seen in music notation without aid of physical sound.” (Edwin Gordon, Learning Sequences in Music, 2012 edition) When we read a Harry Potter book, we see words, visual representations of sounds we heard and used long before any attempt at reading. Musical notation is more like pictograms than words but the path to understanding them is similar.


Are there shortcuts to fluent music reading? Yes, but the timeframe and path might not be what you expect. The shortcut is to acculturate students to a large vocabulary of tonal and rhythm patterns in a tonal and rhythm context. This is analogous to learning a large vocabulary of words in a language context. This is the shortcut, but the process can’t be rushed. You wouldn’t think to put a Harry Potter book under a child’s nose after they first say “mama.” With the right preparation of vocabulary acquisition, followed by making connections between vocabulary and notation, then around age 12 or 13 it clicks. Reading happens. And it happens with understanding, not with a struggle.


I have to say I’m a little perplexed sometimes that parents tend to ask about the goal of music reading and very seldom ask about performing or other functional skills like playing by ear, improvising, and transposing. My experiences playing by ear have been some of my most enjoyable. Maybe it’s because music reading requires printed scores which are salable, whereas musical understanding resides in a student’s brain, and that’s not for sale! Whatever the reason, music literacy has unquestionably been useful in my professional life and a music education would not be complete without fostering it.

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