“Music can change the world because it can change people.” ― Bono
SKILL #1 - SO SIMPLE, YET SO IMPORTANT!
It's no secret that there are lots of musicians out there who struggle with sight-reading. In fact, it can be so frustrating, that many give up on it all together and just try to play by ear. Don't get me wrong, playing by ear is beneficial, especially when it comes to creativity. The problem is, it should come after you've mastered sight-reading! Why? I'm sure you've already experienced the answer to this question, but let me refresh your memory:
• You struggle leaning new music
• You have trouble understanding new concepts, like phrasing or how to easily identify chords
• You are limited in your ability to improvise
• You feel you’re just not as good as you think you could or should be, but you don’t know why
• You’re just so frustrated, you want to quit altogether
Sound familiar? Well, I’m here to tell you, by doing these simple exercises, you are about to drastically improve your sight-reading skills! Not only that, if you commit to doing the exercises, you will open yourself up to a whole new world of music. A world where you can participate fully and let your creative energies flow!
There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to do something but you lack the tools or the knowledge on how to do it! Many of you have had some type of musical training, be it lessons as a kid, or even a college degree in music. But something is missing and the time to fix it is now!
How much time have you spent understanding the importance of the musical alphabet? You have, more than likely, heard about it or you may just know that 7 letters are used (ABCDEFG). But that’s not enough! Understanding the musical alphabet is the key to understanding all other concepts in music. It’s the foundation on which many other concepts in music are built. A deep understanding of the musical alphabet leads you to the staff, scales, key signatures, melody lines, expression, harmonies, and chord structures. Not only that, if you have a working knowledge of the musical alphabet, and all these other concepts open up to you more easily, you finally get to enjoy the experience of music. You get to move beyond the technical stuff and allow yourself to be creative, whether that’s in performance or composition.
So now that we have a better understanding of why the musical alphabet is so important, let’s get started on the first step to mastering the musical alphabet.
1. You can do these exercises anywhere, you don’t need to be on an instrument
2. Create flash cards to quiz yourself or get a friend or loved one to quiz you.
3. Study in spurts…a few minutes here, a few minutes there. You’ll have this down in no time!
SKILL # 2 - APPLYING THE MUSICAL ALPHABET TO THE STAFF
The next step at becoming a speed reader is to apply the musical alphabet to the staff...of course, only after you've mastered step #1 and you've memorized the musical alphabet forward, backward, and you've skipped around naming the letter that comes before and after randomly picked letters.
Applying this information to the staff, believe it or not, will now be simple. All you need to do is apply a clef sign to a staff as a starting point. You may be thinking, wait a minute! I've tried learning this way before and I've even tried to attach a saying to the lines and spaces like "Every good boy does fine" and "F-A-C-E" face, and it didn't work! I'm here to tell you, the method I am showing you now WILL work and you'll be reading the staff, like a champ, in no time!
Let me show you how it works. Let's first pick a clef and place it on the staff. We'll start with the treble clef, since that's the most familiar clef to most people.
SKILL #3 UNDERSTANDING INTERVALS
Learning to identify intervals is one of the most important skills you can learn in your study of music. Sadly, it is probably one of the most neglected topics. Without it, it’s difficult to understand how scales are formed, or how melodic and harmonic structures are created and interpreted. Even the formation of chords becomes a problem. And if you struggle to understand any of these, it’s more than likely your foundation in music is lacking a solid understanding of intervals. But all is not lost! Here is a quick and easy way to get intervals under your belt. Let’s begin by first defining what an interval is and then how we identify them.
An interval is a number given to a set of notes and it calculates the distance between them. Here’s an example: C up to G is a 5th. Why…because G is 5 notes above C or 5 notes away from C. Let’s break it down. I’ll use the musical alphabet to explain before moving onto the staff.
Here are two sets of the alphabet: A B C D E F G A B C E D F G
Counting C up to G we get: C D E F G. Notice there are 5 letters total, therefore this is an interval of a 5th. You must count your starting and ending pitches. Let’s try another one. How about A up to D?
Look at the musical alphabet and count: A B C D. There are 4 letters there so this would be an interval of a 4th. A up to D is a 4th. Let’s go the other way and count down to a pitch. We know that C up to G is a 5th: C D E F G. But what about C down to G? Let’s count it: C B A G. Here we see the interval of a 4th.
It doesn’t matter what letter you start on or whether you go up or down. Just be sure to include the first and last letter in your counting.
Here are a few for you to try:
B up to G
D up to F
C down to A
F down to B
Now let's apply this to the staff.
Now that we’ve looked at intervals on the staff there are two things you need to do to master this 3rd skill of sigh-reading. First, you must memorize the number of lines and spaces between each interval as they are listed in the graphic above. This shouldn’t take you long if you spend some time with it. You want to be able to visualize each interval with your inner eye.
The second thing you will need to do is remember that not all notes on the staff need to be counted. There are two ways to sight-read. One is to read each note individually. While this is important to be able to do, it can slow you down considerably. The second way is to play by intervals. You simply look at the distances between notes and, since you have memorized what each of these distances means, you are able to play more easily. This is especially true for the smaller intervals from 1 to 3. But the best way to improve your sight-reading is to combine the two techniques. Let me show you what I mean.
NOW IT'S YOUR TURN
If you struggle with sight-reading, put this method to the test. Give yourself a week or two to practice the 3-skills listed above. Remember, you've got to do it daily to give yourself a fair shot at mastering the technique. Give us a progress report in the comments below.
Training the Inner Ear. If I asked you to sing an interval of a 6th...could you do it? Next week I'll be posting some quick tips on how to use your inner ear to hear intervals.
Laurie Ann Lally, is a professional music educator, with more than thirty years of teaching experience. She has her a Master’s in Music Education from Boston University, and now specializes in developing and teaching online music courses to both undergraduate and Master’s students, at Rutgers University. Laurie has also studied 13 years privately with Marcel Farago, a now retired member of the Philadelphia orchestra. Her studies included, piano, theory/composition and cello.