ear training

What does it mean to "Read Music"?

Lofty title, I know.  Bear with me, as this will be a brief primer of deeper material to come.

I have trouble with the term "reading music", as no one really agrees on what it means.  When a teacher says that they teach their students to "read music", most of the time this translate to "they can look at notation on a staff and identify the letter names, sometimes with accidentals".

I don't consider that reading.  That's like looking at the opening to the constitution and saying "that's a w, and then an e, then there's a space, and a t followed by an h and a e", even being able to say "We the people..." doesn't mean you know what it MEANS.

When I think of "reading" English, I don't think of sounding out and identifying letters, or even of saying words correctly, I think of looking at symbols (writing) and HEARING the words inside your head and KNOWING what those words mean.

To translate to music, this would mean a "reader" can see the symbols (notation) and HEAR what it will sound like (audiate) and understand the MEANING of the sounds (pattern/tonality recognition)

I know, big words, and I'm not defining most of them, did I mention I need you to bear with me?

Music literacy encompasses so much, but at the end of the day I believe the most essential skill is audiation.  When you visualize, you create visual input in your head when it's not present in reality.  When you audiate, you create aural (sound) input in your head when it's not present in reality.

Let's try an experiment to see if you can audiate:

"Sweet Caroline...."

If you heard "BAH BAH BAH" in your head immediately after reading those words, congratulations!  You're audiating!

When I say that my students are learning to "read music" or develop "music literacy", the measurable skill I am referring to is audiation, to ability to create sounds in your head without them being present in the real world.  When they see a sequence of pitches on the staff, they have the tools to decode those and know what they will sound like.  Not what the letter names are, but the actual musical sound, because we are reading music, not letters.

I think knowing letter names is important, and I do cover it as well, but I think 90% of students forget this skill the minute they are out of our classrooms.  What they won't forget (at least not immediately) is the increased skill in ear-training and music reading that result from proper aural training.

Here's the core of it:  We don't have time to teach everything.

If my students can learn only one thing while in chorus, it's going to be how to hear.

The best tool that I've found is handsign solfege, with a movable do

I have never seen letter names help a musician without years of lessons learn how to actually hear and reproduce pitch without an instrument.

More to come, stay tuned!

Why Many Professional Musicians Discount Solfege

"All those weird words just get in the way, just look at the notes and sing them!"

It is very common in discussions of ear training and music teaching to find professional musicians who feel that all forms of sight singing training relying a syllables (solfege, numbers, letter names, etc.) is a waste of time or even detrimental.

There is a reason for this.

When you have spent your whole life speaking only one language, say English, and then try to learn another language, say French, you go through three steps for each new word or phrase:

1) Hear/See the French word

2) Translate it to the English word

3) Discern the meaning

For example:

You see the word "chat"

You translate that (in your head) to "cat"

You see the image of a cat in your head

Mastery of language doesn't come until you can see/hear "chat" and immediately see the image of a feline in your head WITHOUT the intermediary step of thinking the English word "cat"

There are many philosophies of language education, and of music education as well.  Many language teachers agree that it is helpful for some students to learn how to translate the foreign language into their native tongue.

This is where solfege (or any sight reading method) comes in:

You see the note

You translate it to a syllable (do, re, mi; 1, 2, 3; A, B, C)

You hear the pitch in your head


You hear the pitch

You translate it to a syllable (do, re, mi; 1, 2, 3; A, B, C)

You see the notation in your head

The problem is that many professional musicians learned music without an intermediary step (Like learning French without knowing English) so the process of translating makes no sense to them, and seems like an unnecessary extra step.

If you can see a pitch and immediately hear it in your head, or hear a pitch and immediately know what the notation is, then these systems weren't created for you.

They are for those of us who grew up without the language of music, and could use some assistance translating it. Want a free lesson in solfege and music reading?  If you live in the Boston area you can come to my studio, and if you don't, I do online lessons around the world via Skype, the first lesson is always free!  Let me know in the comments, or check out www.ChristopherGKeene.com