To Read or Not to Read? Part 3 – Some Practical Pointers

So, if you have been following this series so far, the chances are that we have convinced you that it could be worth your while learning to read standard notation. Let’s get down to method. How is it best to approach this task given little or no previous knowledge of the subject?

Think back to how you learnt to read and write – the first step was probably learning your letters a b c d e f g…. You learnt to write the symbols and say the sounds that went with them.

Next you probably moved on to simple words … C A T = Cat B O Y = Boy

Then you progressed to sentences … T H E B O Y S A T O N T H E C A T ….

And before you knew it you were reading paragraphs, chapters … stories … whole books or, in my case, comics!

The process of learning to read music follows a similar path. First you learn to read individual notes (the videos below will help you do that).Then you get used to reading phrases. Then you find yourself stringing together whole lines of music. Finally you gain the confidence to read whole tunes straight off the page.

There are two distinctively different levels of skill to aim for as regards reading music: The first level is simply to understand it and be able to interpret what the various symbols mean. Also, of course, you need to be able to find the notes on the fretboard. This stage is all that is necessary to reach for most guitar playing needs.

A much more demanding level of ability is the ability to sight-read music on the guitar. This means the ability to play a piece of music, previously unseen and unheard, at first go, straight off the page.

The difference between these two levels is at least 100 hours of practice! There are some tips available about how to sight read, but there are no real short cuts. To continue with my comparison with the process of learning your letters, you can’t expect to get from The Boy Sat on the Cat to War and Peace without a lot of hours of reading books in between! And, ideally, each of those books will gradually improve your reading skills as you enjoy reading them.

It will make the process of learning to read standard notation a whole lot easier if you first learn a few movable scale patterns. The two most valuable patterns to learn are the Major Scale and the Natural Minor Scale patterns.

When I teach sight-reading I start by going over the basics. Here are three short videos to explain these:

How to Read Music Part 1:

How to Read Music Part 2:

How to Read Music Part 3:

Next, according to the particular musical tastes of the student I get them to find a source of written music. One of the best sources is The Complete Works of the Beatles, but, if preferred, the songs of Simon and Garfunkel or even Jon Bon Jovi would work just as well. What you are looking for is music with strong melody lines. The kind of tunes that once heard, you find yourself whistling or humming along to days later!

Start with songs in simple keys like C major, G major or F major or A minor, E minor or D minor. For each song start by following this list of actions:

1. Scan through the song to find the highest note and the lowest note.

2. Based on this, decide on which position of the major (or minor) scale is going to work best on the guitar. Note that the song may well cover more than one octave. Pick the position with the easiest fingering.

3. Practice the scale a few times up and down in the chosen position.

4. As you play the scale, try calling out loud the names of the notes as you play them. First in ascending order, then descending order. Be sure to take account of the key signature (the number of sharps or flats, which is shown at the far left of the staff on each line).

5. Next, test yourself by writing out a list of the notes in the scale in a random order and then trying to go straight to each note on the list. This helps you get the note names into muscle-memory.

6. Now forget the guitar a minute and read through the music calling the names of each note out loud as you go. Again, be sure to account for the key signature.

7. Now play the song through on the guitar, concentrating on getting the pitch of each note correct. Don’t be too concerned with timing at this stage.

8. Repeat this process until you begin to get a feel for the melody and have ironed out any tricky bits (awkward fingerings etc..)

9. Now play through again paying attention to timing. Make sure you give each note and rest its full time value. Accentuate slightly the first beat of each bar, preferably in time to your foot tapping or to a metronome.

10. Once this is all sounding musical, add the finishing touches. Take account of any dynamic markings (softer or louder), tempo instructions (slower or faster) or other detailed instructions that appear on the written music.

11. Finally, check to make sure you are progressing through the sequence correctly – taking account of repeat marks, codas and dc. or ds. Markings.

12. After all that, you can start adding feel, style, flair and all that other stuff that polishes your performance into a beautifully played piece of music!

Work through as many tunes as you can like this, gradually taking on harder and more complex tunes as you gain confidence.

Soon the checklist above will become automatic and, after many hours, redundant. By that time you will be sight-reading music on the guitar.

I hope you found this little series of articles interesting. Not everyone will agree with my approach to teaching guitar and the integration of standard notation into that process and I hasten to recommend exploring the views of other experienced teachers and professional musicians on this subject as well.

Happy Playing!

Nick Minnion

Lots more lessons, articles and videos by Nick available at his main websites:

For guitar players:

For guitar teachers (or aspiring guitar teachers:

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