Learning How to Read Music – Introduction

Do you have a dream to play a musical instrument, sing or write songs? Learning how to read music is a critical skill set that you will need to be a successful musician. Some compare it to being literate. I would agree with that assessment.

Believe it or not learning how to read music can be surprisingly easy and fun. You just need to have a little motivation, a good plan and some encouragement as you learn.

For over forty years I have been involved in music, most of those years earning an income, though meager at times, as a musician. I have taught literally hundreds of students. Some who were very young students and, surprisingly, some who were quite elderly.

The Sad Story

Many years ago I became acquainted with a very talented saxophonist. He was quite young at the time and he could virtually play anything he heard without the aid of written music. At the time I remember thinking “What an awesome gift”! I still feel that way today.

You can imagine my surprise when I found out Tom (not his real name) had no clue how to read music.

Toms burning desire was to become a professional musician. He had all he needed to become a highly successful musician with the exception that he could not read any music.

All of his musical friends told him that being able to read music was a critical skill that he needed to develop in order to achieve his musical dream. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

Tom didn’t think that advice was so reasonable and he totally rejected the ideal. That was many years ago and you have probably guessed the outcome. To date he cannot read music nor has he ever made any serious effort to learn. He has yet to achieve anything close to his dream and potential.

In Texas we have a saying that goes like this, “With that kind of attitude you could ruin an anvil”

Toms’ story is disappointing and sad. But the real tragedy was his attitude about learning. I later found out that he had great difficulty learning in traditional ways.

The Good News

As a teacher I have thought many times with the resources we now have available online for specialized learning, Tom could easily have been motivated to learn the musical skills necessary to achieve his musical dreams.

This article is an introduction to a series of articles I’ll be writing on “Learning how to read music”.

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Singer Songwriters

There have been many singers who did not write their own songs, over the last few decades. Some would be considered superstars or famous. There also have been songwriters who were not good singers. Some sang their own music they had written but they never became known as great singers.

Then there are singer/songwriters. They are not necessarily better or worse than “mere” singers or “mere” songwriters. They are, however, throwbacks to yesteryear, decades or centuries ago. Way back when, folk-ish singers had to write their own music and there were no computers, radios, or concerts within their reach from which they could learn or copy another’s music. They had an instrument, such as a guitar, lute, or other portable chord making thing and they played it as they sang.

To be clear, even though singing and songwriting are related, they are multiple skill sets. Most songwriters play keyboard and/or guitar well. They play well enough so as to be able to write chords and rhythm patterns which make stylistic sense. There are patterns on piano and there are strum or pick patterns on guitar. In addition, there may be fills and embellishments used by songwriters to enhance a song. Further steps would be orchestration and/or arranging which are still other skill sets.

The melody of the song and melody writing is another separate skill set. Writing melody and chords are sometimes learned or enhanced by having the knowledge of music theory. There have been many good or great songs written by people who only play by ear, know what they hear, know what they like and it doesn’t make the song suffer at all. What if… what if a person gets stuck in the process? A lack of knowledge can cause a person to get stuck because melody writing and harmonic technique will only be as good as experience plus knowledge in those areas.

Some songs have one chord or two and most have more, but there are tendencies of many progressions. A I-IV-V progression is found in thousands of songs but the interesting thing is none of the songs have the same melody lines at all. II-V7-I progressions are interesting and can completely change a song. So can II-V7-III-Vi. Then there are chords way beyond major and minor and these all can open up what feels like an entire universe of sound.

The more you know, the more you can do. How long does it take to learn chord formation? That would be a great first step. I once taught a non-musician all chords in every key in 3 hours. I could call out a chord and she would play it with little hesitation. Is it worth the time spent to be able to do this? What if it took 8 hours or a week? Is it worth spending the time to improve?

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Songwriting Starting From The Ground Up

Your experience with songs may be that you have heard songs on radio, YouTube, iTunes, or other media. You have developed preferences in what you like. You may like one style more than others. You may like only one style. You may like all or most styles of music. Now, you want to write a song or songs and maybe you have already given it a try. Maybe your song didn’t turn out like how you wanted it to. Maybe it did, but you’re not sure where to go from here.

Without hearing your song or your song idea, there is no way to evaluate it, so let’s explore songwriting from the ground up. Somewhere in the process, we will hit your level and move up from there. Perhaps there are also some blanks to fill in along the way. If you knew everything there is to know about cars and driving, except for where the brake is and what the brake does, you will run into a “problem” eventually.

To listen to a song in its entirety can be overwhelming when you start to analyze it, if you haven’t done that before. There is a lot going on at once and throughout the song. There can be singing of lyrics and the accompaniment. The words and the music are two components, but those have many sub-parts, so to speak. If we back up from what we hear and get a broader view of the song, we’ll see some things we might not have noticed.

The title is repeated within the chorus, too. You might listen to the song and count how many times “killing me softly” is repeated. That part, the title and the line of that song is often referred to as the “hook”. It has the hypnotic effect of repetition to anchor itself in your mind after you have heard it a few times. It is common in popular, country, and jazz songs that there will be a hook. We’re not looking for a formula at this point in time.

There are styles. In Baroque style writing there are “rules” but they are part of what makes Baroque what it is. To go outside the rules would result in altering the style of Baroque music. It is not a bad thing to know or to learn just as ballet is not a bad thing for a hiphop or jazz dancer to know, however, one may not be essential as a prerequisite to the other. There are commonalities between ballet and other dance. There are also commonalities between Baroque music and modern music. We will investigate these soon.

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