Learn to Read Music: No Stopping!

Completely demystify notation with this lesson.
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Hello again, my musically literate brethren and sistern. Last time around we examined a super-cool chart that had a little bit of everything in it. We talked through counting the rhythms out loud, as well as using every bit of info on the page to make finding the notes easier. Those clues included the key signature and the chord names above the staff. When you put all those things together, we can demystify notation like Ex. 1. Two sharps, right? A descending melody that starts on the top line of the staff, composed of three eighth-notes and an eighth-rest, followed by four sixteenths that ascend. What else do we see? A Dmaj7 chord for the first two beats, and an A7 for the next two. You should be able to grab all these notes in at least two positions, and you should be going there instinctively. Same with the next bar.

Side note: It should go without saying that you know every note on the guitar neck cold. If you don’t, don’t worry. Just learn them. There are diagrams all over the Net that clearly illustrate this. There are only 12 notes, and they keep repeating and they always go in the same order. Etch them in your brain. It will make everything easier.

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Now look at Ex. 2. Go ahead and get your bearings. Look at the key signature, the chords above the notation, and the notation itself. Figure out what’s going on, and start playing. But here’s the catch: You can’t stop. Set a metronome (don’t tell me you don’t have one… there are tons of free ones online). Set it to a very slow tempo, like ridiculously slow. Then count yourself in, start playing, and do not stop no matter how many mistakes you make. I’m serious. If you stop, you will always stop. And you’ll never get better. But if you keep going, you will improve as a reader ten times faster. Fix the mistake the next time through, or the time after that. Believe me, to master any chart, you will need to run it multiple times, so just keep going.

Think about it like this: What would happen if you stopped playing every time you made a mistake on a gig? Kind of disastrous, right? Obviously, when you’re sitting at home by yourself, the stakes aren’t as high, but the “fake it ’til you make it” factor is the same. Want to improve? Then trust me on this. Read with a metronome, no matter how slow you set the tempo.

Still don’t believe me? Fine. Take it from Carl Verheyen, who—unless your name rhymes with Tommy Tedesco—is a better reader than you: “When I wanted to get my reading chops in shape,” he says, “I got together with a guy who I was taking some classical lessons from. We met five days a week, two hours a day, and we would shed reading stuff: duets for clarinet, flute, trumpet, violin—any chart in the treble clef that didn’t look like an exercise. The only two requirements we had were a coffee pot and a metronome. The reason you need a metronome is because as you’re reading along, if you come to bar 28 and it has something hard, you stop and go, ‘What the heck?’ But a big part of reading is to train your eyes to keep going, even though you screwed it up. Then go back and see what happened, but don’t stop in the moment, because the other players aren’t stopping. I got to be a pretty good reader that way.”

From Verheyen’s lips to the sight-reading goddess’ ears. So, here’s what I want you to do: Apply that concept to Examples 3 through 5 here. But don’t stop there. Find charts anywhere you can and do the same thing. Make them fun. Don’t feel like you have to read something just for the sake of it—although that will still help you. But get a Chicago tune or a Beatles song or vocal chart from Hamilton and read that sh*t! If you do, here’s what I promise you: You will become a better sight-reader, and quickly (duh). But you will also become a better player. I can’t explain exactly why that is, but I think it’s because you’re getting into a different part of your musical brain, and you’re getting a deeper understanding about the relationships between notes and rhythms. After woodshedding these concepts, staring at the page, and turning those dots into music, when you shut all that off and just play a rock tune at your next gig, you will experience something extraordinary. I always have. More music just adds up to more music, and more musicality. That is all we know, and that is all we need to know.