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. )