Mar 08

Reading Music

I’m often astonished at people who put so much emphasis on reading music.  It is of course very important, especially at an academic level, but it’s not THE most important part of music-making by any means.

I would place it about as important and pointless as being able to read in a foreign language before you can understand what any of that language means. And here’s why.

My wife teaches English at a prominent bi-lingual school here in our home town.  She deals with children who are learning English as a second language and they all do a very impressive job of it.

Recently we were up at a school concert and a Spanish boy I have seen before was chatting away in English to another boy.  He turned to leave and headed straight towards a toddler playing on the floor.  The toddlers parent had seen it about to happen and averted any major damage. It turns out this boy has quite severe difficulties with his vision and has a very restricted view of the world as we unaffected people see it.

So how does he match the other children in his class’ level of English when he clearly can’t see the exercises in the same way as the others. He can’t read a book with the same ease afforded us with no sight issues. They make provisions for him to help him, but he manages the work in his own way and doesn’t lag behind in any significant way.



Now here’s the thing.  This guy also plays the piano, and he plays quite well. There is a completely different set of rules about learning a second language to playing the piano, obviously, but there are also crossovers.

You need to be able to remember not only vocabulary, but also the grammar, how its used, when to use it in the same way you would need to memorise a tune, its phrasing and dynamics.

Most of us will deny the existence of a fantastic memory, but all of us do have  more physical RAM than any computer.  The problem lies in the processing speed to get that power organised and usable. Brain to hand coordination is the key and we can develop that by trying to pick out a tune, and we don’t need to be able to see to do that in the same way we don’t need to see to learn a second language.

In this sense music is the perfect vehicle for exercising your brain.  Most modern non-“classical” music – a phrase I despise, but feel obliged to use as common vernacular dictates – is normally nicely arranged into 2, 4 or 8 bar phrases. It has an equally simple and constant beat and uses limited sequencing of chords.  This makes the patterns often repetitive and therefore easy to grasp and remember.

We have all seen children picking “Jingle Bells” off the keyboard, using their ears to tell them when to pick a higher note or a lower one.  This is playing by ear and we can all do it in some small way with little or no training.  When you start making small steps in finding melodies its natural to want to put the other hand into play and find an accompaniment that suits. It then becomes a challenge that many people are happy to take on.

Probably the most famous blind pianists in popular culture would be Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles.  There are many, many more equally good ones but for brevity those two are household names that have made a living playing the piano, and  neither can read from a page – they have had to rely on instinct and their ears. The pianists pianist,  Art Tatum was partially sighted and is rightly revered for his prowess on the piano but he started life picking out hymns on his mothers piano aged 3.

I believe that playing by ear FIRST is a great help when it comes to learning to read music because it means you are learning to identify the coded message written on a page that you already have the answer to.  People like that kind of challenge in the same way we might tackle a crossword puzzle and if you go into it with this mindset,  having a good ear AND being able to read music can be a powerful combination.

Unfortunately, I have met a number of people over the years who can ONLY read music and this makes for a very laboured performance, devoid of much real feeling for the music.  It makes the person inflexible and can cause difficulties when it comes to improvising anything. It removes the spontaneity and ability to change tack on a whim, particularly in a group situation.  The only good thing it brings is consistency but that’s only part of what’s required of a good musician.

Don’t be scared to buy an instrument thinking that you need conventional lessons to enjoy it.  Buy it to play for fun first, and if it piques your interest enough that you are curious about learning the written form of music and theory – then great.  Hopefully you don’t live in a dictatorship that forces you to be a proficient sight-reader.  You should always have fun with your instrument – instruments are made for pleasure and to give pleasure to other people – how you go about it is really irrelevant.

I’m planning an article soon to discuss some aural exercises I used to love to do as a boy.  I found them exhilarating and lots of fun and you are also learning while you play them.  Why not subscribe to my RSS feed or email list to catch this when it is published?

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