Reading music is one of the most important skills to develop because it gives you independence! Learning to recognize notes means you are able to access anything that interests you, immediately, without the need for an ‘interpreter’ or teacher. This article covers the pros and cons of different approaches to learning notes. It explains how to be even more efficient in your learning by developing supporting skills. It also covers the limits of notation and where you take over in personalizing your performance.
You think you have it bad?
Let’s face it, taking that first look at a piece of sheet music is bewildering. It might be encouraging to know that the way music is notated today has developed over hundreds of years. Also, that the system we have today has become standardized due to its accuracy and clarity. Take a look at this historic notation (and heave a sigh of relief, I know I do…)
This is an early 16th century setting of the Kyrie by Jacobus Barbireau. It was the vocal music of the time. If you are interested to know more about the development of music notation, check out this article, How Was Musical Notation Invented? A Brief History or read on to discover the value of reading music which is harder than you are yet able to play.
The following song, Let it be, is found on the Skoove advanced piano course. Even if you are not ready to play the song, the Skoove app provides the opportunity to listen along while following the blue highlight. Doing this, you learn to connect sound to symbol. The more natural this connection is the easier it becomes to read music.
Remembering Piano Notes
There are different ways to read music and musicians draw on all of these at different times. When learning to read notes, it is productive to use the following three approaches in combination. Through diversifying your learning in this way, you ultimately achieve fluent reading more quickly. The 3 approaches to master are:
- note recognition and landmark notes
- interval recognition
- pattern recognition
Note Recognition and Landmark Notes
This approach involves leaning to recognize all the notes of the grand staff. It is rote learning and due to the size and nature of the task, most teachers and students use mnemonics to aid memorization. Perhaps you are familiar with some of them already? Take a look at the following image and then match up the mnemonics with the note names.
- the mnemonics start from the bottom and move upwards.
- they apply to just lines or just spaces.
Bass Clef Lines – Great Bears Don’t Feel Afraid
Bass Clef Spaces – All Cows Eat Grass
Treble Clef Lines – Every Green Bus Drives Fast
Treble Clef Spaces – FACE
If you are still becoming familiar with the keys on the piano, read, Should You Label Your Keyboard.
The Pros and Cons of Note Recognition Reading
Pros – you can work out any note at any time, even out of context. This makes it a great approach to use when working out the start note of a section, doing some music theory, double checking accuracy or saying to a music partner, “let’s take it from …”
Cons – It is laborious and time-consuming. This makes it a very inefficient method to use when reading while playing. For that, there are better methods coming up. Long term, this method alone slows down reading at sight. It can also slow or prevent students from moving to reading intervals.
Recognising landmark notes has become a popular approach. Rather than remembering all the notes, as above, remember 4 landmark notes on each stave. This is much easier to do so accuracy and speed increase. From this strong foundation you are then able to read adjacent notes using the interval method (coming up next).
These are the landmark notes to learn. Aim to recognize the note and play it on the piano.
The Pros and Cons of Landmark Notes
Pros – this is quick and easy to learn. It supports finding your way around the keyboard. It encourages a form of reading which enhances the development of sight reading skills.
Cons – it can be difficult to trouble shoot. For example, when you play something that doesn’t sound right, you want to double check what you are doing but what if the questionable note is not a landmark note?
This is a more intuitive way to learn to read music. It is used in combination with the landmark note approach. Start by identifying the first note (using one of the above approaches). Next, follow the shape of the music, does it move up or down, does it move by step or skip? Now, move to the next note based on its relationship to the note you are playing. All this can be done without needing to name the note you move to. It feels like giving your fingers permission to respond to the shape of the music.
The Pros and Cons of Interval Recognition
Pros – this approach is what it is all about, it is the first step on the path to fluent reading. It encourages learners to zoom out and not read each note in isolation and that is why it supports reading at sight. If you can’t remember the name of a note immediately you can still play it based on where it is in relation to another note.
Cons – at some point in your learning, you will end up on the wrong note, and then a whole phrase might be a note too high or too low. Your ear will alert you to this, but it is important to listen actively. It can take longer to learn to recognise single notes and their place on the keyboard, but the payoff, far more fluency in reading, is worth it.
Check out, Understanding Piano Intervals, for more tips on reading by interval recognition.
Practice Time – reading by interval
Use Only If, to practice reading by interval. The Skoove app will wait for you to play the right note, so there is no rush, in these early stages take time as you learn to recognise the size and feel of the gaps between the notes.
If interval recognition is the first step on the path to fluent reading, then pattern recognition is the next. Consider how you read text. When you see the word ‘note’ you take it as a whole, you don’t read N – O – T – E and then gradually blend the sounds until they make ‘note’. The same applies to music.
Once you can read from one note to the next using interval recognition, it is time to start challenging yourself to take in the pattern of 3 or 4 notes at a time, thus forming little musical ‘words’.
Practice Time – pattern recognition
Love Me Tender II is a good place to start, aim to absorb the pattern of 1 full bar. For example look at bar 3, the pattern is, stay on the same note, play 2 notes descending (going down) then 1 note ascending (going up). The Skoove app will listen to your playing and give you instant feedback. As you develop confidence choose a more complex piece or begin reading chunks of notes in both hands at the same time. This is how the professionals read music.
Which is best?
Hopefully it is clear that each approach has its advantages and that the skill is in knowing which to use when. Awareness is key, even if you are not ready for pattern recognition, knowing the day will come can motivate you towards reading by interval and pattern. For some further reading, Learn to Read Piano Sheet Music Faster offers more opportunities to practice and explore these methods.
This empowering concept says that as well as learning, in this case, to remember piano notes, there are all sorts of related supporting skills available to enhance your learning. Very often a plateaux in note reading is due to gaps in these supporting skills.
Identifying these skills provides a broader, more connected learning experience. Here are 4 to get you started:
- Keyboard Geography
- Sense of Key
- Active Listening
- Heightened awareness of the fingers
This means knowing your way around the keyboard, for example, knowing that if you start on middle C and play 3 notes going upwards you will land on F. The aim is to work this out without looking down.
Practice this when you are learning scales, it brings a playful element to the process. Stop randomly in the scale and name the note you are on without looking at the keyboard.
Sense of Key
This refers to the tonal language of your music, or if you prefer an analogy, the topic of your conversation. Understanding Piano Scales is a great introduction to key if this is new to you.
Key sense is important because fluent music readers dont just remember notes very quickly, they draw on key knowledge to predict the most likely notes to occur. The simplest example is that a piece in G major is highly likely to end on a G.
You might not yet have the knowledge to support this level of ‘prediction’. However, the benefit it offers has kept many students engaged with learning the theory of key in music.
This is always worth mentioning because it is a vital skill for musicians. Unfortunately, between processing new information and coordinating finger movements it is easily overlooked.
Practise this by looking at the first 4 bars of the song below before listening to it. To what extent can you imagine how the music will sound based on the notation? The Skoove app will only start playing once you click start so take all the time you need to experiment with this. At this early stage it is enough to consider the rhythm and general shape of the music. The learning does not lie in the accuracy of your imagined sound but rather in the process and what insights you gain from it.
Heightened Awareness of the Fingers
Directing awareness is often all it takes to make learning connections. For interval reading to work, fingers must automatically land 1 finger per note. This sounds simple, however, at first it feels quite unnatural, fingers spread out and cover more than a five note span.
If you have been grappling with accuracy in reading or are finding progress slow, this could well be part of the reason.
It is not only about remembering piano notes!
Whilst notation is important and reading it provides autonomy, it is vital to remember that sheet music is a limited representation of the final personalised performance. Intention, emotion, communication, connection, none of these are notated.
Don’t give notes. Give the meaning of the notes.”
Pablo Casals, cellist.
Imagine you are giving a speech in a foreign language. You dont know the topic or content of the speech but you have been taught the basic rules of pronunciation in that language. You may be able to make yourself understood, more or less. However, incongruent tone, inflection and rhythm would impede your listeners’ understanding. Now imagine that you have taken time to study the language, to traslate every word and the speech is on a topic close to your heart. When you deliver it your impact will be greater. This is one way to understand the limitations of just reading notes.
As you learn, set aside time to become very familiar with your song and what you want it say when you play it. Always revisit old favourites to develop your expressive playing skills.
To read more about interpretation and how you can make the notes on the page your own, visit Seven Essentials of Artistic Interpretation.
To me, these lyrics raise spirits and the music is beautifully soothing. What does the song mean to you? What expressive elements will you use to enhance the impact of your performance? The Skoove app provides opportunites for you to practice each hand on its own. This means you can ensure that the left hand is beautiful too.
Complimentary ways to learn
Reading music is a hugely valuable skill which is well complimented by learning to play by ear and to improvise. Explore these too, as part of your musical journey to become a rounded pianist. This article is a great place to start, Play by ear.
As you begin to put these ideas into practice, remember, there is no complete wrong or right way to learn. Rather, use this article to inform yourself on the possibilities and varieties available so you can choose which works best for you at different times, and in different contexts.
Happy Note Reading!
Kyrie by Jacobus Barbireau – Wikipedia
Grand Staff and Piano Keyboard – Piano Keyboard Guide
Landmark notes – Shoko Piano Studio