Learn to Read Music: Down for the Count

If you can read these lessons, you can read anything
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At the risk of restating the obvious, you can read music now. That’s just a fact, and I will fight anyone who disagrees. [Ed. Note: I won’t actually fight anyone.] And if you can read these lessons, you can read anything—you just might have to sit with the chart a while. As you stare at new piece, you should instantly take in your time signature (how many and what type of beats per measure—usually 4/4 for rock, pop, blues, country, etc.). You should suss out what your key signature is, because once you know what your key or tonal center is, you can go to a familiar position and find your notes much more easily. Then you have to tackle the actual notes and rhythms, and you should start slowly, but in some semblance of steady time so you can work the whole piece up to speed. If you do all these things, you can read some very complex charts. So let’s do that.

Ex. 1 isn’t super complicated, but it’s not totally easy either. It is inspired by one of my favorite solos of all time, one that wasn’t played on guitar, but it wasn’t played on the instrument most people think, either. First, we’re in 4/4. Next, what key are we in? Three sharps, right? What’s the rule for sharp keys? Go up a half-step from the last sharp. I’m trusting you to figure that out.

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Now look at the notes in the first two beats. You know what they are, but let’s think about how we count them: We have an eighth-note, two sixteenths, and then two eighths. Count that “One-and-a-two-and.” Beat three is a sixteenth-note triplet, or three evenly spaced notes in the space of an eighth-note, followed by an eighth. Beat four is two eighths. There’s no one way to count all that, but I say “diddley-and-four-and.” Next is a rest on one, two sixteenths starting on the and of one (“and-a”), and eighths on two, the and of two (which has a tie to the first half of beat three), and again on the and of three, on four, and on the and of four. So for bar two, you should be saying, “(rest)-and-a-two-and… and-four-and.”

If you’re finding this all a little mind-numbing, you’re not wrong. But knowing how to count rhythms is crucial to reading. You don’t do this when you’re jamming with friends, because then you’re feeling the groove. But if you ever want to extract a groove from the written page—which is a very worthwhile endeavor, I assure you—you better have your “one-e-and-a-two-e-and-a” kung fu down, and down cold.

As you move forward through this classic solo, you’ll see that bar 3 starts with a sixteenth-rest on one, and then seven sixteenth-notes. How do we count that? Did you just say, “e-and-a-two-e-and-a”? You’d be right! Then four eighth-notes. Easy freaking peasy! “Three-and-four-and.” So, all together now: “(rest)-e-and-a-two-e-and-a-three-and-four-and.” The next bar is the same rhythm. Yes! Notice that double bar with the two dots at the end of this bar, bar 4? That’s an “end repeat” sign, and it’s telling you to start over from (in this case) the beginning. If you were supposed to repeat from somewhere other than the beginning, there would be a mirror-image “start repeat” sign at that point. There’s also a bracket thing with a “1” in it over bar 4. That’s called a first ending, and it means you play it the “first” time through, but after you repeat from the beginning of the tune, you skip over it and go right to the following bar that has a bracket with a “2” in it—that’s a second ending. That bar has a lot of notes, including some scary looking thirty-second notes—four evenly spaced notes in the space of an eighth-note. Take it slow. You can figure it all out.

What else do we see in this chart? There are chord names above the staff. Those show you what the underlying harmony is, in case you wanted to play rhythm behind this melody. They’re also a great help when finding your notes. If you know that the chord underneath the melody is an E, like in the second half of bar 1, the melody itself—and where you find it—makes a lot more sense.

This is music, folks. This is you internalizing notes, rhythms, and harmony, but this is also you externalizing this great info, by virtue of dealing with it on papyrus, and not just in the acoustic space. That is an awesome thing. You are the keepers of the standard notation flame and for that, we thank you.

So what is this amazing solo? Email me at mblackett@musicplayer.com and tell me everything you know about this chart. There will be prizes for the first few. The prizes might be underwhelming, but still.