Learning to Read Music: Why It’s Easier Than You Think

With Notes on Modern Notation Vs. Tablature
by Tanah Haney

I have, in my perusal of many method and repertoire books for harp, come across several books that use tablature prominently or even exclusively. This is presumably because the arrangers feel that tablature is easier for a new musician to learn than notation. There are also some teaching methods that focus exclusively on aural learning and imitation with beginning students, especially young children. While I would never argue that one approach was superior to another, or that one way would work best for all musicians (hence the “versus” in the sub-title is a bit misleading), I prefer teaching beginners note-reading early on for a number of reasons.

I should point out that my students always start with hand position, exercises, and fun things to do with the harp, all done by imitation and by ear, before venturing into note-reading. Ear training, memorization, active listening, interpretation, and other essential musical skills also remain a central part of the learning process throughout. However, I usually introduce note-reading fairly early on, with all ages, for reasons which I will outline below. In essence, I would argue that reading modern notation is not nearly as difficult as many people think, and can in fact be quite intuitive – the key, as it were, is all in the approach.

First of all, I would like to challenge a central myth or stereotype that has developed around note-reading. While the basic structure of modern notation might seem very mechanical, even mathematical, reading modern notation is neither a “cold” nor “unnatural” experience, and need not be approached mechanically. Rather, in its best form it is a learned intuitive process whereby one can get a sense of a piece of music by learning to recognize patterns. Pattern recognition is hard-wired into the human brain (ever see a face or other picture in the grain of a piece of wood, or a wallpaper pattern, or a cloud?), and musical notation is one of the many ways that we can use this instinct to our advantage.

There is a lot of relative information that can be gained instantly by looking at modern notation, even if you don’t know the exact name of every note. When the sounds go “up”, the notes go “up” too; when the sounds go down, the notes go down. When there is a gap between notes on the stave, it represents a gap between strings or keys. Intervals such as thirds, fifths and octaves are recognizable on sight after a bit of practice. Young children can learn very quickly to recognize repeated patterns in written music, especially if they are first taught relative sight-reading. Relative sight-reading is a skill that can be attained well before the student has memorized all the different keys, or even all the note letter-names. Particularly helpful are beginner harp books that start off by colouring the C’s red and the F’s blue. (Some modern methods have even gone so far as to develop a colour for every note, an approach which can be used with a wide variety of instruments. )

There are many comparisons made between reading music and other basic learned skills. One analogy that readily suggests itself is that reading music is like learning to read any written language. In some ways, reading music is indeed like learning to read words – at first a beginner may have to go over one word at a time, sounding out the letters, but eventually a reader can skim an entire page quickly and get a general sense of what is written, or can read carefully and glean multiple meanings from the words – similarly a good musical sight-reader can get a sense of a song just by glancing at a few lines of music, and when studied carefully, a piece of written music can be interpreted on a number of different levels. By extension, playing from modern notation is similar to reading out loud – one has to translate a visual pattern into sound, while constantly scanning ahead to see what is ahead.

That said, while reading words is a very specific process (one, for instance, would not normally look at the word “cat” and read the word “tree”), reading music is more organic, in that the visual patterns can be grasped more holistically (one can, for instance, see a series of broken chords and know instantly that it is a progression of arpeggios in a given key); it can also be quickly translated into a different “mode”. For instance, a good relative sight reader can read a tune line written in C major, and translate it into D major on sight, especially when singing, where the flow between reading a note and the production of sound is not impeded by the physical necessity of putting fingers to keys, or bow to string.

For the harp especially, I find that approaching sight-reading as a way of recognizing patterns that correspond to patterns on the harp itself, and to audio patterns (what our ear hears), is a very accessible way of learning to play music using visual cues. Details of theory (such as the circle of fifths, types of scales and chords, different clefs) can then be taught at a pace that suits both learner and teacher, while the essential basics of reading music will already be in play.

Now we come to tablature. While tablature may indeed be easier for someone who comes to the harp (or other instrument) from guitar or lute, and while some people might find it easier to grasp without the assistance of a teacher, I would argue that it is in fact a less intuitive process than note-reading.

For instance – tablature requires you to either read every letter-name of each note, or to play by using the finger numbers, which are usually included under each letter-name. Note reading, on the other hand, creates obvious visual patterns that can be read even across the room – a musician can glance at a page and say, oh, that’s a C major chord, or that’s a quick run of eighth notes starting on G, or that’s a portion of a scale underlain with slow broken chords. Tablature, on the other hand, is not nearly so visually obvious. While some of the skills developed in using tablature can translate to note-reading later on (learning how the letter names of notes correspond to the notes on your instrument, for instance, or the fingering for a certain passage), these skills can just as easily be taught by beginning with note-reading right from the start, and/or through imitation.

There are also some harp-specific notations that I find make more sense on a staff than on tablature. Brackets can be indicated on tablature, for instance, but I don’t find them as instinctive as brackets under a sequence of notes on a staff. Nor do I find that the visual structure of tablature is as representative of the (usually diatonic) patterns of the harp strings. Notes on where to flip levers to get an accidental, where to put harmonics or effects like sur la table, are also much easier to see when placed on a staff.

Finally, students that are more auditory or imitative learners are just as likely to have difficulty with tablature as with notation – in fact, I think it would be much easier for someone who finds visual learning challenging to learn basic patterns (such as runs, triads, note values) on a staff than from tablature. The key really is in the approach – if teaching notation is approached in an intuitive, organic way that draws on the strengths of the student, while being supplemented with equal focus on the other necessary skills (auditory, tactile, memory, etc.), there is no reason why anyone should not be able to learn to read modern notation (barring the obvious, such as extreme visual impairment – blind harpers like O’Carolan, of course, would have learned exclusively by ear and tactile imitation).

6 thoughts on “Learning to Read Music: Why It’s Easier Than You Think

  1. Hi Marianne – I assume by string number format you mean music that tells you which strings to pluck in which order? (as oppposed to tablature which gives you the note letter names). I haven’t come across that personally, but you might want to try contacting companies that sell the same type of harp that you play. Often they will known where to get music for the specific harp in question, and may even have some in stock (if it’s a store that sells music as well as instruments). Good luck! And feel free to post an update here if you find what you’re looking for.

  2. Hi

    I have a 12 string harp that I would like to play…I just cannot read music. I play the piano by ear. I would like to find out where I can get some sheet music for the 12 string that is written in string number format. I have seen it somewhere on the net but I just cannot find it. Thanks

  3. Hi Duckie – Wrist injuries are tricky, you’d have to be very careful. A good harp technique means you play with a straight wrist, but it’s easy to make mistakes when you’re first starting out. I would definitely recommend making sure you have a teacher who is strong on technique (and so can keep a close eye on things as you’re learning), and be sure to get some advice from your doctor and/or physiotherapist to make sure you’re not going to aggravate the problem.

  4. I have a question. I have been thinking about learning the harp. However, I fractured my left wrist a few years ago. Playing the piano irritated it and I was forced to stop. Do you think the harp would irritate it as well? It mainly happens when I bend my wrist outward (my left wrist to the left)

  5. I have seen the video from Marion Le Solliec playing “Nothing else matters”.
    I love it very much and so I want to ask if it´s possible to receive the notes from her arrangement.

    Kind regards

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