If you want to read music but doubt whether you’d be able to or not, you’re not alone. Making sense out of those lines, dots and strange symbols (aka. musical notation) can be daunting. Most people who can read music learned as kids and continued to practice, so what about everyone else?
Can anyone learn to read music? Absolutely anyone can learn to read music with the right approach and some practice. Learning to read music is not hard – anyone who can read the alphabet of everyday language or read numbers already has the tools to learn how to read music.
If you read other articles here at School of Composition, you might have come across the idea of brain plasticity as we mentioned it a few times. Brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to form and strengthen neural connections. And it does so to learn new things and to become more effective at a task. This shouldn’t be news. It is thanks to brain plasticity that with practice we get better – that’s all there is to it.
How Adults Can Learn to Read Music
Reading music involves looking at symbols written on paper or on screen and interpreting what they mean. You do this everyday with other characters, signs and symbols.
- So if you can read the English alphabet (or any alphabet for that matter) and the words they form, you can learn to read music.
- Since you can understand written numbers and the symbols that come with them (such as plus and minus), you can learn to read music.
- If you can spot a road sign and take it as an instruction for what to do with your car, you can learn to read music.
So you see, you already have the tools you need to read music. You’ve been reading and interpreting letters, numbers, signs and symbols all your life. Musical notation is just another set of symbols that you can learn through some practice.
I know what some of you will be asking:
But Matt, I learned how to read letters and numbers when I was a child. I’m all grown up now.
That’s OK, if not better. Sure children’s brains are meant to soak up new information at remarkable rates. But as an adult, you have years of experience and maturity you can tap into when learning something new. For example learning how rhythm works requires some basic fractions, which are second nature to adults but not to children.
And don’t forget about that brain plasticity I mentioned at the beginning. That doesn’t ever stop – the brain is malleable and eager to learn at any age.
Of course, the right kind of practice with the right kind of exercises and good feedback (from a friend or a teacher) you can learn better and quicker. That’s what we’ll dive into today, as well. But first, I want to prove to you that reading music is not difficult. Anyone (yes, even YOU!) can learn how to read music.
Proof That Reading Music is Not That Hard
Even if you’re a complete beginner to reading music, you probably know that musical notation involves a set of lines, dots and other symbols. Taken together, the written lines, dots and symbols represent the music we can hear. Musicians who read music, can interpret them on an instrument or in their head.
How Reading Music Works
1. Up and Down
Musical notation is little bit like a graph with two axes. It shows us what goes up or down (high or low notes) and it shows us when and for how long those notes should happen (rhythm). So look at these two notes side by side. Which note do you think represents the higher note?
Of course, the higher-sounding note is represented by the higher-written note, so the answer is number 2! Let’s try another question. This time we have 3 written notes. Which one note represents the lowest sounding do you think?
Of course, the lowest-sounding note is represented by the lowest-written symbol, so the answer is number 2! Simple (and fun), right? Now let’s look at the notes from a different angle.
2. Moving Forward
All music moves forward as it unfolds in time so musical notation has a way of reflecting that too. This is part of the vast topic of rhythm and it’s all about when notes are played and for how long. This will take some practice but even with a little bit of instruction you will be able to see it.
Below is a series of 7 written notes – the notes are the same in that they don’t go up or down. The difference is in how long they are played for. You see, that first note (a simple oval shape) is the longest, the one note after it is shorter and the four after that (with the shape filled in black) are even shorter still:
Notice that the way I wrote the notes in the picture above is so that the longest note has the most space after it. That gap gets shorter for shorter notes because the next note is due in less time. (This is not always the case in written music as it depends on the formatting but it’s interesting to see it anyway at this stage.)
You will learn exactly how long or short the notes are as you get into details. My point for now is that if you can see the differences between these written notes you are already reading music at an elementary level.
3. Other Nuances
So now you have an idea about how music notation works and how you too can learn to read it. We can go into even more detail and it’s still not that hard! What’s the difference between the following groups of notes?
The difference is a simple one: the notes on the right have dots while the ones on the left are grouped by an arc (known in music theory as a slur).
So while the notes are the same, the symbols around them (dots vs. arc) are different. Let’s say these notes are meant to be sung – These symbols tell the singer reading the music that the notes should be played a certain way. The one on the left requires the notes to be played smoothly, in one breath. The one on the right requires the notes to be played in 4 separate breaths so that they sound detached from one another.
While the notes and their rhythm are the same, the effect is completely different.
One last quiz for the day. Here are two short musical extracts. What’s the difference in the way they are written?
It probably didn’t take you that long to notice that there are letters and shapes underneath the notes. The job of these symbols is to instruct the musicians about what is known as dynamics. That’s the term we use to talk about how loud or soft notes are played.
As you learn what these symbols mean, you’ll know that the first one started off softly and got louder by the end. The second one started loudly, went soft, and then got loud again.
I hope you can see that reading music is not that big of a deal – it’s a set of symbols that represent sounds.
Is it hard to learn to read music for some people?
If you tried to learn how to read music before but found it too hard, it probably was not your fault. Very often we music teachers and authors forget what it’s like to be in the student’s shoes. We often forget how overwhelming it can be to learn all the nuances. It’s easy to expect a little too much rather than gently guide the student towards their next step.
I hope that our discussion above of how music notation works has convinced you that it’s not that hard to read music and that you too can learn. It’s a matter of looking at the written details and interpreting what they mean. It’s a matter of mastering every step with practice. Really, it comes down to having a good method (more on that later!).
How long does it take to learn how to read music?
It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years to learn how to read music. It depends on many factors:
- Where you are starting from (starting from scratch will of course take longer)
- Where you want to go (if you’re goal is to read complex music fluently in an instant, it will obviously take longer than simply learning the fundamentals)
- The quality of practice (Do you have good exercises to practice with?)
- The amount of practice (Can you dedicate 30 minute a day to learning or just 1 hour a week?)
- The method you use and the feedback mechanism (Do you have a good step-by-step method to learn from? Do you have a teacher to guide you through the exercises?)
All these play a role in how long it will take you to learn to read music.
Can you forget how to read music?
Ok, so you’ve gone through the process of learning how to read music but years have passed. Or perhaps you’ve been practicing for a while and life got in the way. Can you forget how to read music?
Yes. You can forget how to read music. Brain plasticity works both ways – what you practice, you become better at but the skills that you don’t practice, fade away. The brain does this because it needs to be effective at helping you cope with everyday life – why keep valuable brain space for a skill you’re not using?
However, re-learning how to read music will not take as much time as it did the first time. In my experience, students who come back to music after a while pick it back up much quicker. It seems that the skill is never completely forgotten. And even if you are different and you can’t remember how to read music at all, you know that once you were able to. If you have done it once, you can surely do it again!
Once more, with the right method you can do it again even better and even faster!
Learning How to Read Music, the Right Way
The best way to learn how to read music is to follow ONE method (not several), practice daily and get feedback on your exercises.
By choosing a method, I mean you should pick a book, a course or a program at a school and stick to it till the end. A good method for learning to read music should have simple lessons to learn one thing at a time, exercises to practice that one thing, and a feedback mechanism to make sure that one thing is understood.
Let me briefly introduce my book: How to Read Music in 30 Days. It has helped thousands of people learn to read music and it can probably help you too. In full disclosure, there are several books out there for learning how to read music. However, I wrote this book because my students misunderstood lots of concepts or struggled to keep up.
The ‘How to Read Music in 30 Days’ book
How to Read Music in 30 Days is a step-by-step method that takes you by the hand and shows you how to read musical notation from scratch. If you have some prior musical training, it might help but it isn’t actually necessary.
The book is set up into 30 lessons (called ’30 days’) and each one focuses on one particular aspect of musical notation. This way anyone can learn how to read music at their own pace, one step at a time. Every lesson consists of explanations, examples and exercises.
To help you along your journey of learning how to read music, you get:
- 100+ exercises (with access to the answers)
- 150+ examples
- Access to audio examples
- Listening challenges
- And a final test
Exactly what you’ll learn and how you’ll learn it
How to Read Music in 30 Days consists of 3 fundamental sections:
1. Note values & Rhythm
Rhythm is all about when notes are played and for how long. In this section we learn all about:
- Note values and how they related to each other
- The beat and pulse
- How the 4 elements of rhythm work together
- Basic time signatures, simple and compound time signatures and how use them
- How tempo affects music
- And a lot more
2. The Musical Alphabet and Pitch
In this section we learn about the 7 notes of the alphabet and how they work in music. With the examples and the exercises, you’ll understand:
- How the alphabet of music is laid out
- Where, when and why sharps and flats come in
- How the musical staff (you know, those 5 lines of musical notation) work
- Why we need those interesting looking symbols known as Clefs
- How to notate pitch the right way
3. Expression Marks
These are symbols that give life to the notes. They tell musicians how the notes should be played and sounded. In this section, you’ll learn all the most important expression marks such as:
- Bar lines and repeat signs
- Piano-specific signs
And if at any point you have a question or need something clarified, I’m just an email away. Contact me using the form on this page.
I hope you can see that reading music is not actually that hard. All it takes to understand what all those signs and symbols mean is a little practice. Make sure you get a good book or course to guide you step-by-step and follow through till the end. It’s definitely worth dedicating time to developing this skill. Reading music will open up a whole new world of possibilities for you!