How do we read piano music?

THURSDAY, February 20, 2020

Is reading music different for piano than for other instruments?

Yes, because piano music requires reading two different clefs, and the names of the same lines and spaces are different in both clefs. It is extremely confusing visually and so is the biggest problem in learning to read piano music.

The only other instruments that require reading two different clefs at the same time are other keyboard instruments such as organ and harpsichord.

How should you learn these lines and spaces?

First, you need to understand what proficient musicians read, and what reading piano music is. The average person thinks that this is all about names, and nothing could be more wrong. Names are secondary, although we do need them for various reasons. True reading at the piano is much faster than naming anything. The bottom line is that we see spots on the page, called notes, these notes are called lines and spaces notes.

From that we see in our minds which keys need to be pressed and for how long. It’s a lightning fast process. For the most part we only use names to talk to each other about what we are playing and how, but never for actually reading music.

Letter names are a horrible way to find the keys…

By learning the letter name of each line and space you guarantee yourself years of confusion, because there are only seven letters representing 88 keys on a full-sized piano. If you know that the name of a line or space is D, there are seven or eight of them, all in different places.  You have at best a 14% chance of finding the right key. On a test, a score of 14% means failing.

Fixed do is just as bad…

The same problem happens when do re me fa sol la ti do are linked to the white keys. “This is the syllable system” or “fixed do”. You still have a 14% chance, at best, of using a syllable to find a key.

If names don’t work, how do you find the notes?

Pianists use a mapping system. They link the line or space on the page to a key. For instance, when I see any line or space, I know what key links to it. I see in my mind what key is supposed to be played, and it is instant. I don’t think about names or syllables. No experienced pianist does.

Now, because I am very very very fast at reading, I can name the notes faster than most people can play them, but I still see them and play them at a speed beyond naming. It is very much like reading this text here. If you read well, you are not thinking about anything.You are not thinking about letters, or the names of letters, or how they build words. You are not sounding out the word. You just know them and it’s instant.

You simply read the words, and you read them faster than you can speak them. For all of use who read well this is as fast as lightning, and we take it all for granted. If reading is not that effortless, there is a reading weakness, and 40% of American high school students have reading weaknesses. It is the same for lines and spaces. Most pianists continue to have music-reading weaknesses after years of lesson, but that is because they were never taught properly how to read.

Which names are better? Letters or syllables?

There are pros and cons. For those who associate the syllables with pitch, singing the syllables may help them hear the pitches, and they have a nice vocal sound. So for people in chorus, you can argue that syllables are useful.

However, I can sing or hum anything just with “la, la, la”, and some of the most amazing singers you will ever hear simply used scat syllables. For me names just get in the way because I can hear music perfectly in my head, and names just slow me down.

Perhaps the greatest scat singer of all time, Ella Fitzgerald, could sing anything as well as any sax or wind player. She did not, by the way, read music, and she did not use scat syllables of pitch. She used them for rhythm, and because it sounded great.

Why use letters at all?

I’m faster with letters because that’s what I learned, but as I said before these letter names have nothing to do with how I read music, or how my students should do so. They just get in the way. But we need language to talk about music, so we need labels. I’m slower with syllables, but they work fine, so I could have switched over if they were superior.

We need letters for chords, and chord symbols are terribly important. No musician says, “Play a sol seven chord.” No one. Ever. We call it a “G7” chord, and it is written that way. Letters are universal for jazz and pop, and since some countries use letters for everything, they are superior for most things.

Why use numbers for lines and spaces? Are they necessary?

In the beginning, yes, and numbering lines from 1 to 5 is pretty much universal. We say, “play D, line 4, in the treble.” So we use these numbers for reference, because there are seven D’s. We have to know which one, and without those numbers we are back to a 14% chance of communicating.

But do we need them to read music?

Yes and no. In the beginning, yes, because you have to have some kind of system for locating notes. You can’t just find them, without a plan, not at first. It takes time and practice to develop links between the lines and spaces and the right keys. Learning them can take a couple of months, or much longer, depending on age, talent and work. In the beginning using a system helps you get to know what you are doing, and anything that gets you from the lines and spaces to the right keys is useful.

But later you don’t use them or need them to read music, any more than you need to spell each word as you are reading this text to know what the words are. In fact, as an advanced music reader you don’t want to think about anything because it becomes a translation and slows down reading.

Why use a chart?

It’s simple. In the beginning it is horribly difficult to remember where the lines and spaces go, which keys they are linked to. No matter how smart you are, you aren’t going to master this in a week or even in a couple of months. It’s a process, and some talented players get it surprisingly fast, but even for them it takes time.

The Flipit Chart…

I designed it decades ago, and I use it to accelerate reading. Using it I’ve taught hundreds of people to read piano music, including many people who had previously failed and assumed that they could not do it. It works the same as training wheels on a bike, or a second blade on ice skates – or a tee in tee-ball. None of these things are meant to be permanent, and none of them stop people from riding a bicycle, or hitting a pitched ball, or playing hockey.

The idea is to start out finding the lines and spaces by matching them to the correct keys. Then you find a system that allows you to get very fast at this. You absorb the whole thing, then gradually you just know where all the notes and keys are. It becomes instant, and once you have it, it’s in place for a lifetime and is then lightning fast and automatic – like speed-reading text.

What is the most difficult thing about reading piano music?

It’s the two different clefs. Each line and space in both clefs goes to a different looking key. The 1st line of the treble clef is E or mi, but the 1st line of the bass is G or sol. Every line and space is like that, and until you get past this problem, reading music is schizo, and that one difficulty will stop fluid reading completely.

It’s a bit like reading two languages at the same time, but not quite the same thing. The logic is the same, but every line or space has two answers and two keys and two different positions. Perhaps it’s a bit like reading two different languages, where exactly the same letters have completely different pronunciations, and you have to map the brain to keep it all straight. If you try to learn two languages at the same, it might be horribly confusing trying to remember that the same letters in those two languages all have different rules of pronunciation. Yet those of us who know more than one language switch back and forth effortlessly without thinking about it or worrying about it.

It’s like that. That’s what pianists do with the two different clefs. One is one world, the other is another world, and those two worlds work together perfectly. But for most people it takes years for this to happen.


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