Why Do Musician’s Learn to Sight Read Music?
Probably a very close second to the question, “how do I get my child to practice,” is the question,”when will my child learn how to read music?”
It’s a great question for two reasons:
1. It highlights what so many parent’s believe to be essential to making music.
2. It is one of the most misunderstood and confusing parts of musical literacy. Because, in part, it’s in fact quite complicated with many, many, variations on notation to learn to read. In other words…there isn’t actually just one version of written music.
Let me be clear and totally transparent right up front, I am not a great sight-reader. Yup, lemme just call it like it is, it is one of the weakest parts of my music fluency. As a college student, studying piano with the wonderful Don Betts, I drove him to no end of frustration because I could not read Bach, Chopin, Debussy, with the same level of accuracy as many of his other pupils. I could read well enough to learn a piece, but as soon as possible, I always would memorize it. He would give me a hymnal and assign me an hour a night of just reading songs. One after another, I would slog through with my metronome clicking away, different tempos, never looking down at my hands. It was tough and painful and I slowly improved. But I never grew to be a great reader of that type of notation.
BUT…if I never became a great sight-reader of notes, how is it that I went on to have a career as a pianist in New York City?!
Well…there in lies the answer to the first question: Is note reading essential to making music? Yes & no is the short answer. It actually totally depends on the genre (style) of music that you ultimately want to play or explore.
Here is one of the most important takeaways from this article:
Every style of music requires it’s own unique reading skill set. There does exist some overlap…but not always & so while you can make some safe choices (like studying note values -quarter notes vs half notes, etc.- and how to interpret written rhythms)…some styles of music requires almost NO reading.
While I can’t cover every genre in this post, I’m going to cover the reading requirements of contemporary music because that’s what we teach @ Brooklyn Music Factory. Contemporary music is basically the pedagogical term for Jazz, pop, rock, blues, country, etc. Simply, most music being performed & recorded today that isn’t classical music
Contemporary music is considered a folk music meaning that it developed through an aural tradition. It grew and changed and blossomed separate from written documentation. In other words, it was and in most cases, still is an ‘ear before eye’ art form. Artists that play contemporary music will rely more heavily on their ear than any other tool in their tool box. The study of the music is done primarily with the ears not the eyes.
BUT…this does not mean that this music has not been documented in written form, it has. The written form, though, can often times look quite different from a Bach sonata or a waltz by Mozart.
The most common form of music notation used in contemporary music is called a lead sheet. Here is a picture of one that Brooklyn Music Factory student’s just read on a private lesson gig recently. This is Rihanna’s, ‘Stay.’
There are a few important details to notice:
1. It looks radically different from a Bach two-part invention.
2. It has only one staff instead of two staves like in classical piano literature.
3. It includes chord symbols. What?!
4. It includes lyrical and rhythmic cues.
5. It seems pretty naked…ie. it doesn’t give a whole of direction for the different instrumentalists.
6. There are in fact, notes & rhythms to be read in the intro but otherwise the player is meant to create the accompaniment.
To be clear, the lead sheet you are looking at is meant for an intermediate sight reader and above. Our beginning musicians (with some exceptions in the drum and guitar department) are working primarily on just being able to read notes and rhythms. For years 1-3, Brooklyn Music Factory musicians have a goal of recognizing and reading quarter, half, and whole note rhythms (drum students also have to read and play eighth notes). Depending on the instrument, students are learning to read single melodies (in both hands on the piano) and very basic chords.