The Art and Science of Decoding Written Music

music layers example editedFor some of us, reading music is second nature, as easy as reading our native language. But for others of us, music notation is a code to be broken, a mystery yet to be unlocked.  Now any language, when written down, is reduced to patterns of ink on the page.  When we read English, for example, we have been trained from a young age to assign meanings to the various splotches, and we then interpret them as letters, words, phrases, paragraphs.  

Reading music is, in fact, a very similar process.  We interpret the symbols to represent various aspects of sound, reading left to right in a representation of time passing.  Over the past 400+ years, music notation has been developed and honed (quite elegantly in my opinion) to express complex and unique sounds in a flat, 2-dimensional format.  And yet, when we read the music on the page and decode it properly, we find layer after layer of information.  Let’s unpack these layers.

Mechanical Layers

The first three layers of ink on the page (once you get past the title, composer, arranger, copyright and so forth) indicate mechanical facets of playing or singing the song. The first two layers, note names and note types, tell me which notes to play and when, relatively speaking. Where the note is on the staff gives me the pitch, and the type of note (whole, half, quarter, etc.) gives me the duration. The third layer is still mechanical but relative to the specific instrument. This could be either the fingering, if playing an instrument, or the lyrics if singing. Each of these facets is either a yes or a no, a right or a wrong. It’s either a “G” or an “F”, either a half note or an eighth note, played with the 2nd finger or the 3rd. Black and white choices.

Expressive Layers

The next three layers are expressive, and their interpretation is left to the musician. This group would include articulation (staccatos, slurs, accents), dynamics (louds and softs), and tempo (overall speed of the music). For example, playing a staccato note means to play it in a short, detached manner that is relatively light and released very quickly, like pulling your finger back from the hot stove. But exactly how short is that in terms of seconds? I don’t know. Depends on the piece and on the musician. Or playing the music forte (loud, strong) – how loud is loud in terms of decibels? Again, it depends. Playing forte in the piece that has a range of dynamics from pp (very soft) to f (loud) will be much more pronounced and strong-sounding than in the piece that ranges only from mf (moderately loud) to f (loud). Contrast is the key, and it is all relative. These are stylistic choices, not mechanical.

Still more layers

Beyond these, there will often be symbols related to the “roadmap” of the music; repeat signs, double barlines, endings and codas all indicate how we are to travel around the page. Some songs are played simply from start to finish, like walking down the sidewalk. Others may have the musician leaping from section to section, fitting 6 pages of sound onto one piece of paper. Personally, these go from interesting to challenging to irritating pretty fast!

And finally, there may be prompts on the page for specific instrumental techniques. For the piano, it may be pedal markings; for the trumpet, it could be an indication of which mute to use; for the cello, a special technique like spiccato may be desired. Often, the music will contain instrument-specific markings that bring out unique characteristics of that instrument.

Learning to Read

If you are just starting out as a music reader, go to your local music store and find a beginner’s book for the instrument you prefer.  Then start with the mechanics.   And as you practice, let me suggest these steps:

1) Say the alphabetical note name aloud as you play each note.  Saying it will make it much clearer than just thinking it.

2) Count the beats aloud as you play.  Again, using your voice to reinforce the rhythm really works.

By doing these two steps, you are determining what to play and when to play it, and making yourself say what you are doing as you do it causes you to sharply focus your efforts.  The general rule of practice that I have found to be true is this:

      If you can say it while you play it, you know it. If you can’t, you don’t.

It takes time and effort, but it is so worth it!  It is remarkable how consistent and reliable a language written music continues to be after centuries of use.  And whatever your level of musicianship, even at a beginner’s level, you can decode the symbols to find layer after layer of music under your fingers, opening up new musical experiences with every page. It really is amazing, and a tool that I rely on every day.

Is music reading a tool in your toolbox? If it is, how do you think about these layers of ink, how have you become more proficient at reading and decoding it?

I’d love to hear your perspective on this, reading music is an art and a science that most of us want to improve in!  And as always, if you have any other questions about music, music theory or its practical application, please comment below or email me at [email protected].  Thanks for reading, and invite your friends into our conversation!

© 2013 Steve Case