Reading between the lines - the joy and necessity of sight reading

MIDI notes and musical notation

MIDI notes and musical notation

* Free Download - Music Theory Cheat Sheet 1 *

This week there’s been uproar over Charlotte Gill’s Guardian article (“Music education is now only for the white and the wealthy”) and the subsequent responses have been numerous, most notably pianist Ian Pace’s widely supported letter in opposition - Ian actually bought me a drink once after I page-turned for him, so I’m clearly biased on anecdotal grounds alone.

Much has been written about this article by those more articulate than myself, but one facet that resonates with me is the difficulty that many people ascribe to reading music, specifically sight reading.

Sight reading is an absolute joy and one of the most valuable skills a musician will ever need; however, it has a terrible reputation and is feared/loathed by many. When it’s tackled head on, with dedication and practice, it’s indispensable. Its most obvious strength is in the amount of time it saves - to be able to see a piece of music and understand the actions required to be able to hear it performed is crucial in this day and age, possibly more than ever due to increasingly reduced funds available for recording.

Being able to sight read is the musical equivalent of being able to read a book without needing to look up the meaning of every single letter (as reflexive as that analogy feels) - the dots themselves build phrases, the phrases build sentences, the sentences build pieces. To this end I often think it should be viewed as just ‘reading music’, and should be treated as one would learn to read. An exercise I’ve done with classes is to get them to write out short melodies then pass them around the class for others to sing, making musical short stories to be shared around and explored.

The notes of the bass and treble clef, ascending - taken from Music Theory Cheat Sheet 1

The notes of the bass and treble clef, ascending - taken from Music Theory Cheat Sheet 1

In an age where budgets are what they are, to be able to show up for a rehearsal and play the notes one first or second glance is utterly essential. Then you can focus on making music, rather than just deciphering dots. With students, musicians and composers increasingly writing using programs such as Logic, Mainstage and Cubase (i.e. “DAWs”) and increasingly becoming MIDI dependent, being able to translate the various MIDI blocks into formal notation can be an utterly essential for communicating what they, as artists, are looking to achieve. That being said, I tend to find the support for conventional notation in such programs to be slightly lacking in areas that would be much more beneficial (i.e. the thumbnail itself isn't perfectly aligned as I couldn't work out how to align the MIDI notes and actual notation together - such a simple visual connection would be of huge benefit!)

At its most basic notation is a matter of lines and spaces - a blob of ink travelling up a page going from line to space to line to space, the higher the blob, the higher the note. The blob names follow the alphabet, and there are common mnemonics to use as scaffolding. When we’re comfortable with being able to play the notes then we can look at the rhythm - how long or short any given note is. After that comes dynamics - the volume the note should be played at, tempo - speed - and expression - an indication of how something should be played - and that’s the foundation right there.

To start doing my bit to help with the reading of music I wanted to share the first of my “Music Theory Cheat Sheets” - this goes over the most common:

  • Note names in Treble and Bass Clef
  • Dynamics
  • Rhythms

Please click here to download.

Music mnemonics for treble and bass clef - taken from my Music Theory Cheat Sheet 1

Music mnemonics for treble and bass clef - taken from my Music Theory Cheat Sheet 1

There are also increasingly more music education apps for helping with improving sight reading - the excellent Tinycards app (by Duolingo) has an abundance of notation related cards/games to play around with, and Leeds College of Music have made some more advanced rhythm games to be played in-browser.

Notated music is still the quickest, most efficient and most accurate way of prescribing exactly notes should be played and when, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Going forward I want to do more to help destigmatise sight reading - for something so valuable and genuinely rewarding, it is typically vilified and feared and I’ll be looking to ways to help communicate, simplify and support its learning in the future so that everyone with the urge to read can do so. This is music literacy at it’s most fundamental, aside from, you know, listening to it.

Copyright © 2020 Richard Jackson. All rights reserved.