Reading Music: It Happens in an Instant

How to get better at recognizing and assimilating the tremendous amount of information in just about every single bar of written music you’ll encounter.
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When it comes to reading music, the most important things are to do it regularly— like every day, if you can—and to set a tempo and don’t stop or slow down. Some other things we’ve discussed so far have to do with all the info you should take in whenever you’re faced with a piece of music. Again, there is a tremendous amount of information in just about every single bar of written music you’ll encounter, and you should be getting pretty good at recognizing it and assimilating it almost instantly.

Take a look at Ex. 1. Within the first two seconds (seriously), you should be able to grasp the time signature (4/4, like most of the time), key signature (one flat, Bb, which means key of F, right?), tempo (120 beats per minute—think the theme song to 60 Minutes), the underlying harmony (there’s a Dm chord symbol there, telling you we’re dealing with the relative minor of F major, or D minor), the feel of the piece (see that word “Freely”? That means you can play this at the designated tempo but somewhat, uh, freely), and the fact that we have an incomplete bar that starts it all off, which we call “pickup notes.” Wow! Can anyone really take in all that data in a just couple of seconds? Yep. For good readers it takes even less time. Like the Terminator, as a good reader you see everything, and it happens instantly. Think about an art critic who can look at a canvas and tell right away that the painter is influenced by impressionists, favors burnt umber hues, tends towards broad strokes, and has an overarching theme of melancholy and obtuse poignancy. Okay, so I just made most of that up, but that is the level of comprehension that is expected of you when you look at a chart. And isn’t it a good feeling?

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Full disclosure: I can’t do all of this. Okay, that’s not true. I can do it if I do it slowly. I’m a really good reader, but I am not a great sight reader. But I could be, if I just did what I’m telling you to do. This stuff works, and it works every time if you really apply yourself. Like with Ex. 2. Dig in. What is going on in this example? You tell me. One thing that bears repeating: The accidental in bar 2, the Gn, like all accidentals, holds true for the remainder of the bar (unless you see a sharp sign (#), which would overrule it). When you get to bar 3, the key signature once again reigns supreme (unless another uppity accidental comes in and shakes things up). Also, that cool-sounding Italian word “adagio”—along with the tempo marker of 76 bpm—means to play this slowly, or “at ease.”

Jump into Ex. 3. There’s a lot going on here. Repeats, accidentals, syncopation, single notes, double-stops, triple-stops, etc. But you know what? It’s just notes. It’s just rhythms. You have everything you need to decipher this. And what’s more, it’s very similar to a passage that you probably already know, so there’s a cool payoff to reading through it. What is this riff?

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Moving on. Dig into Ex. 4. This is like going to the gym. You may not like doing these sets of reps, but do them anyway. You will emerge stronger (after the debilitating pain, of course). Find your notes and count it out. I count bar 1 like this: “one-e-and-a…and three and four-e.” Don’t let the ledger lines throw you. You know these notes. Likewise with the accidentals. In fact, once you suss out this passage you’ll gain an understanding of what blues-rock patterns often look like, because we blues-rockers love to throw in notes like flatted thirds and sevenths that are outside the major-scale key signature. In this case, that adds up to a variation on a great riff. Recognize it?