Learn to Read Music

Learn to Read Music
(Source Unknown)

All musicians, excepting blind ones, need to learn to read music if they are to make the most of their ability. The entire history of Western music is available to those who have mastered this skill. Yet for so many, reading music remains the single biggest obstacle to learning music.
It certainly was for me. I even had an incompetent piano teacher (famously, I think) fire me because I couldn’t learn to read music. (I’m at long last more competent at sight reading than she was at recognizing musical talent, to say the least.) She literally told my mother, “Take your money every week and throw it in the garbage! Albert will never be able to play the piano!” Much as I’d like to, I won’t name names, although I presume she is no longer with us (or at least, one hopes, has no internet access).
What Mrs. [expletive deleted — her name really is an expletive!] failed, astonishingly, to notice is that music is sound. Nowadays, far too much emphasis is in fact placed on simply learning to read music, while neglecting this simple fact, and training the ear ought therefore to be favored above training the eye. I don’t have statistics on the percentage of exasperated piano students whose flashbacks to stereotypical “mean old bat” piano teachers smacking their wrists with a ruler have cost them years of psychotherapy, though I can assure my readers that learning to read music need not be this painful.
Reading music should be thought of much like training a muscle. No one enters a gym with an Olympian physique for the first time. The rest of us may feel intimidated by the pros, but two things are important. First, they had to work very, very hard to attain that level of fitness. Secondly, and most importantly, they’re still working out. To a certain extent, learning to read music is like learning to ride a bicycle. However, the human mind and body function according to a strict use-it-or-lose-it principle, and that ought to compel us to practice…
That said by way of introduction, here are some practical, general tips that will help you learn to read music with greater ease. (Be sure to subscribe to this site, as specific tips and exercises are added regularly.)

Practice regularly
This should be so self-evident that I needn’t mention it, yet it continues to amaze me how many music students don’t make time for regular practice and then wonder why they’re not improving quickly. (Yes, people actually pay me to tell them to practice.) Good practice habits are absolutely essential if you wish to learn to read music or undertake any serious musical activity. In learning to read music, above all this means practicing regularly. Clearly, regular practice will bring results far more quickly than will intermittent work. Make a commitment to practice sight reading at least five days a week. It’s useful to start practice sessions with reading music. This will quickly grow into a habit. As progress is cumulative only with regular work, 10 minutes a day is all most music students need to learn to read music proficiently. By working consistently, with proper practice habits, you’ll astonish yourself with how fast your music reading skills will improve. Improvements on improvements will accelerate your progress. It’s like getting compound interest on your sight reading skills!

Practice with a clear mind
Like all music skills, it is perfectly normal to be able to sight read well one day and less well the next. The mind must be receptive, and a tired mind can no more learn to read music than it can do any other activity that demands concentrated effort. Foreign language learners are well aware of this phenomenon. Some days you might be fluent and on others you can barely get the words out and you end up making a fool of yourself. Those are the days you get to tell your friends about (I certainly have my share of embarrassing stories), but in music it simply doesn’t work this way. Never practice on fatigue.

Focus first on rhythm
Music of any complexity can always be broken into its constituent components. In reading music, this means first and foremost that rhythm must predominate. A valuable warm-up exercise to sight reading is simply to tap the rhythm while counting out loud. (It’s best for this exercise not to be done with the metronome!) The simplest way to do this is with a single line, either melodic or accompanimental. If you’re working with polyphonic music, or if the accompaniment has a different rhythm from the melody, it’s incredibly valuable to tap one voice in each hand while counting aloud. Only once you’re confident with the rhythm should you proceed to actually reading the pitches. Indeed, if you can’t accurately tap the rhythm while counting evenly, it’s impossible to expect to be able to read the music at sight! It is surprising how many music students continue to struggle with learning to read music but who never bother to first learn to tap the rhythm accurately. Much of the battle can be won by that alone.

Use appropriate material
The right material is essential if you wish to learn to read music and to sustain that effort over a long enough period to become proficient. Imagine a personal trainer forcing a weak body to push the crushing weights that professional athletes lift! While this analogy might sound extreme, in my experience this is certainly part of the reason so many music students struggle with reading music — they see a tall mountain and are afraid to take the first step. Since every student will be at a different stage of development it will be impossible to make specific recommendations here (although exercises targeted to your specific level — from rank beginner to experienced professionals — are in the works at key-notes.com!). There is no need to limit yourself to music stricly for your instrument. Song accompaniments can make for useful sight reading material, for instance.
It should be axiomatic that every aspiring music student must find the best teacher possible. Let your teacher know you’ve set a goal to learn to read music competently and ask him or her for appropriate material regularly. Work with your teacher to select the proper material as mentioned above, find a volume of music at or just beyond your level, and set a goal to read through the entire book. Use a bookmark to mark your progress. Read a little each day until you’ve finished, then select the next volume.

Separate reading material from repertoire
Avoid at all costs the very bad habit of continually sight reading pieces you’re learning! Truly sight reading music can only be done once per piece, since the brain will already begin absorbing the musical information. A key distinction is that reading music favors rhythm even at the expense of some wrong notes, while actually learning a piece must be absolutely precise in all aspects. Therefore, repertoire pieces may be sight read once, and fresh material must always be sought out for sight reading work.

Develop proprioception
(Keep your eyes on the page!)
When learning to read music it is imperative to keep your eyes on the page, not on your fingers or instrument. This is one of the most difficult tasks for many students, but it is the major hurdle to be overcome. The technical term for the essential skill required in sight reading is called proprioception. Proprioception is a sort of “sixth sense,” an awareness of the body in space. Athletes and dancers, for instance, have highly developed proprioception, and musicians need to develop this skill as well. There’s really only one way to develop proprioception in learning to read music, and that is to keep your eyes focused on the music rather than your hands.
On the piano, there is a simple exercise you can do that will help you to develop this “sixth sense.” The piano keyboard has two groups of black keys per octave, one consisting of two black keys and the other three. By orienting yourself by means of the black keys it’s possible to find any key relatively quickly. Try closing your eyes and challenging yourself to find all the D-flats, then all the E-flats, working your way through all the black keys. Then practice finding the white keys blindly by first feeling their relation to the black keys. This, by the way, is how blind pianists are able to play.

Know harmony
If you’re versed in harmony and know all your scales and chords, learning to read music can become relatively easy. Once you can immediately recognize all the key signatures and know all the notes within each scale, you’ll be able to feel your way within a given key. Sight reading music well demands the integration of many musical faculties, including full knowledge of the common harmonies and all scales. This is why genuinely musical material, rather than random notes as some misguided electronic methods use, is essential for learning to read music. Good musicians are able to recognize harmonic and rhythmic patterns and to anticipate what comes next. In this sense, reading music is exactly like reading language — a context is necessary.

Read the following paragraph, for instance:
“I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit a porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Amzanig huh?”

Since we know our own language so well and because we have a context (i.e., the words form whole sentences and the sentences make sense), we’re able to understand the paragraph. Learning to read music works exactly the same way: We learn to recognize patterns and make inferences based on subconscious expectations.
Since we know our own language so well and because we have a context (i.e., the words form whole sentences and the sentences make sense), we’re able to understand the paragraph. Learning to read music works exactly the same way: We learn to recognize patterns and make inferences based on subconscious expectations.
Yet imagine how difficult it would be to have to read a series of nonsense syllables! Instead, we learn to read music as well as language by practicing with patterns of notes and words that we come to know. Sight reading methods that use random notes are therefore to be ignored for any but the most superficial tasks.

Read by intervals, not note names
Reading music is simultaneously absolute and relative. That means that the brain recognizes not only the absolute note names for each clef by memorizing them, it also should recognize the intervallic relations between notes. To aid in reading music, each clef has two notes that serve as references for the eye. By convention, C is common to all clefs. The treble clef is also called the G clef because the spiraled symbol is centered on the G above middle C. Therefore, C and G are the two reference notes for the treble clef:

The bass clef is also called the F clef because its two dots are centered on the F below middle C. Thus, C and F are the reference notes for the bass clef:

Like the treble clef, the C clefs (soprano, mezzosoprano, alto, tenor and baritone) also use C and G as their reference notes. Most piano students have never encountered the C clefs, and essentially only alto and tenor clefs are used nowadays for a handful of instruments, including viola, trombone and bassoon. Here is the alto clef:

It is a very good idea to familiarize yourself with all clefs no matter which instrument you play. The goal is not to learn the absolute note names for each clef, which will only confuse you, but simply to be able to find any note in relation to its closest reference note. Thus, for instance, if you understand that the C clef symbol is centered on middle C, you’ll immediately know that the note directly above it is D, no matter which of the five C clefs you are learning to read.

Practice with others
If you have the opportunity to work with other music students, by all means take advantage of it. If you don’t yet have this opportunity, make it. Reading through music with others is one of the best ways to learn to read music, since you’ll be forced to stay in rhythm. I often play duets with my students to help them acquire this skill. You can play with any combination of instruments and accompany singers. The more variety, the better.
Work according to these suggestions and you’ll be surprised at how rapidly you progress! Best wishes in learning to read music and in all your musical work.
Watch this video on sight reading

Home || Articles || Common Misconceptions About Learning Piano | Silent Night, Horrible Night | When You Needed an Inspiration |

Links

Exam Boards and Overseas Music Instituitions

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM)
visit this link to know more about ABRSM exams.
Trinity College London
the second most popular exam board
http://www.tgexams.com/

London College of Music
http://www.uwl.ac.uk/lcmexams/Welcome.jsp

The Australian and New Zealand Cultural Arts Limited (ANZCA) Exam Board
For more contemporary music exam options
http://www.anzca.com.au/html/s01_home/home.asp

Music Institutions in Singapore

School of the Arts
http://www.sota.edu.sg/

Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts
http://www.nafa.edu.sg/

Lasalle College of the Arts
http://www.lasalle.edu.sg/

Singapore Raffles Music College
http://www.srmc.edu.sg/

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music
http://music.nus.edu.sg/

Music Shops and Retailers

Yamaha Music School
Sells brand new yamaha pianos
http://sg.yamaha.com

Cristofori Music School
Sells brand new Cristofori pianos as well as other brands, and a wide variety of 2nd hand pianos
http://www.piano.sg

Robert Piano
This shop sells brand new Kawai piano as well as other korean and german brands and used pianos. They also carry Steinway and Bosendofer pianos. This is also the music school to go to to register for Trinity College London exams.
http://robertpiano.com/

Gramecy Music School
This shop specialises in strings rather than piano. But they do carry certain brands of piano like Wilhelm Tell
http://www.gramercy.com.sg/

Synwin
This shop also specialises in strings, but the also sell Reuben piano
http://www.synwin.com.sg/Scripts/default.asp

Music Essentials
This shop also specialises in strings, but this is the shop to go to if you are looking for music books and publications (especially diploma level scores) not found in regular stores.
http://www.musicessentials.com/

Piano Master
This shop carries brands like Atlas, Hailun and Petrof, but they also sell 2nd hand pianos
http://www.pianomaster.com.sg/

Chiu Piano
This is the shop to look for if you want to buy high-end german brand pianos
http://www.chiupiano.com.sg

Renner Piano
This is the shop to go to for cheap piano books and accessories. They also carry certain brands of piano like Ellington and Steinberg & Song and also used pianos.
http://www.renner.com.sg/

Online Music Retailers
http://www.ensemblemusic.com.sg/

Music Learning Resources

Music Games for Children
http://www.creatingmusic.com/
http://library.thinkquest.org/15413/games/games.htm
http://www.metronimo.com/uk/
There are actually more music games available for iPad and Andriod nowadays, so I’m going to do an article on that soon. So do follow this site for more to come!

Music Theory Learning Resources
Ricci Adams’ Musictheory.net – a great site to learn music theory and ear training.
http://www.musictheory.net/
Another music theory blog site.
http://www.mymusictheory.com/

Sheet Music Download
http://www.imslp.org/index.php?title=Main_Page
http://www.music-scores.com/
https://everynote.com/
http://www.sheetmusicarchive.net/

Musicians’ Networks and Resources

Singapore Music Teachers Association
http://smtasingapore.com/

Sound Junction
http://www.soundjunction.org/default.aspa

Inside Music Teaching
http://insidemusicteaching.com/

| Home | Announcements | My Profile | FAQ | Fees | Articles | About Exams | Contact Me | Links | Gallery | Resources | Student Concerts | Student’s Achievements | Marketplace | Sitemap |

When will my child be ready for the Grade 1 exam?

When will my child be ready for the grade 1 exam? This is the most common question that I get from parents. Here is a detailed description of the skills that one needs to attain before attempting the grade 1 exam. Hope that it clears all your doubts.

Early Beginner
Pieces Able to play a single-line melody using both   hands alternatively
Technique Able to play with legato (smoothly), staccato   (detached) and two-note slurs
Sight-reading Able to read notes from C to G in treble clef and   C to F in the bass clef in middle C position
Rhythm able to clap and play(after hearing or reading)   simple rhythms including crotchets, minims and semibreves
Aural (pitch) able to differentiate between high and low   sounds, loud and soft, going up and going down
Mid-Late Beginner
Pieces Able to play both hands with a RH melody with a 2   or 3-note block chord in the LH
Able to play both hands with a non-chord harmony   in the LH
Able to play in at least 2 different fixed   positions C, F, G position
Technique Able to do simple finger turns, finger stretches   and finger substitutions in exercises
Able to play a melody with RH legato and chord   changes in the LH
Scales Able to play at least 2 scales in one octave,   separate hands
Sight-reading Able to read notes from one octave below middle C   to one octave able middle C or in both C and G positions and able to   sight-read in these positions
Rhythm Able to clap and play rhythms including quavers   and dotted rhythms
Aural (pitch) Able to differentiate between steps and skips in   sound
Grade 1 (before   registering for exams)
Pieces Able to play a melody both hands with a broken   chord accompaniment in a fixed position (at least 2 different types of broken   chords)
Able to play a piece with the melody both in the   LH and RH
Able to play a melody both hands with a   combination of 2 or more different positions using finger turns, stretches   and finger substitutions
Technique Able to play both hands with one hand legato (usually RH) and one hand staccato (usually LH)
Scales Able to play at least 2 scales in two octaves, separate hands
Sight-reading Able to read notes in all lines and spaces of the   treble and bass clef
Able to sight-read intervals (must be able to tell interval at first sight, not count)
Rhythm Able to clap and play simple syncopated rhythms
Aural (pitch) Able to differentiate between the first 3 tones of each major scale (Do, Re, Mi)

*LH = left hand, RH = right hand, BH = both hands, SH = separate hands

*For grade 1, it is not necessary to have all the skills listed as some will be taught while learning the exam pieces, but student should have at least most of the skills. For each level, student should be able to play at least 3 pieces from that level fluently (performance standard) – that means accurate notes and rhythm, even speed and tone, and confident playing.

*Note that the requirements stated above are only requirements for a secure pass in the Grade 1 exam, not a distinction.

You would have noticed that I did not state down the amount of time required for a beginner to be ready for the grade 1 exam. This is because the amount of time varies greatly between different children. This is not only due to how fast each child learns and how much he/she practices, but also how much parental involvement the child receives from the parent, especially for young beginners. I personally have six year olds who took less than a year to be ready for grade 1 exam and older children who took years to be ready for the exam. ABRSM suggests 1.5 years to be ready for the exam, but this is only for an average child starting at around primary school age who has sufficient practice and parental involvement.

ABRSM Marking Criteria

The following tables illustrates the basis of marking within the board result bands. Each piece will be assessed independently using the principle of marking from the required pass mark negatively or positively, rather than awarding marks by deduction from the maximum or addition from zero. In awarding marks, examiners will balance the extent to which the cumulative qualities and abilities listed below are demonstrated and contribute towards the overall result.

Marking Criteria Pieces2

Marking Criteria Supporting

What you need to know about exams (ABRSM)

Exam Registration

The practical and theory exam are conducted as two separate exams and students are registered for these exams separately. Practical exams are usually held in February to March or July to September but registration starts as early as half a year before the exam. You can register for exam through a music school, a private teacher, or by yourself – simply go down to the ABRSM exams office during the registration period to register for exams or send in the completed form. If you already had registered for exams before (as an applicant), you can register for exams online.

ABRSM Representative Office

Singapore Symphonia Co Ltd

4 Battery Road #19-01

Bank of China Building

Singapore 049908

Registering as an applicant and/or a candidate

An applicant refers to the person registering for the exam. An applicant can be a music school, music teacher, parent, or yourself. A candidate is the person represented by an applicant for an exam. So, if you are registering for exams yourself, you can both be an applicant and a candidate. If your teacher is registering for you, you are the candidate and your teacher the applicant. All correspondences of the exam are sent to the applicant only and any changes with regards to the exam can only be made by the applicant.

For more information about exam registration and fees, visit http://sg.abrsm.org/en/exam-booking/fees/

Exam Results

Practical exam results are usually released about one month after the exam whereas theory results are released after two to three months as they are sent to UK for marking. The marking schemes for both exams are as follows.

Marking Scheme

Practical Exams

Practical exams are marked out of a total of 150, with 100 marks required for a pass, 120 for a merit and 130 for a distinction.

There are four parts in the piano exam.

  • Prepared Pieces
     Candidate needs to play 3 prepared pieces from a set list.
  • Scales and Arpeggios
    Candidate needs to memorize and play out scales and arpeggios.
  • Sight-Reading
    Examiner will provide an unseen short piece for the candidate to play.
  • Aural
    Candidates are tested on pulse or rhythm clapping, echo singing, and for grade 4 and above, sight-singing and general questions after listening to a short piece.
Practical Exam Marking Scheme
Category Passing Mark Full Marks
Pieces 1   Piece from List A 20 30
1 Piece from List B 20 30
1 Piece from List C 20 30
Scales and Arpeggios 14 21
Sight-Reading 14 21
Aural 12 18
Total 100 150

Theory Exams

Theory exams are marked out of a total of 100, with 66 marks required for a pass, 80 for a merit and 90 for a distinction.

Pre-requisites

For practical exams from grade 1 to 5, there are no pre-requisites to taking these exams. Candidates registering for grades 6, 7 and 8 must have already passed one of the following qualifications:

• ABRSM Grade 5 Theory (or above)

• ABRSM Practical Musicianship Grade 5

• ABRSM Solo Jazz subject Grade 5

• Grade 5 Theory (or above) from any of these exam boards: Trinity Guildhall, London College of Music (LCM), Australian Music Exam Board (AMEB), University of South Africa (UNISA)

There are no pre-requisites for taking any music theory exam.

Important notes for students taking the exams:

• Do arrive 15-20mins earlier than your scheduled time. This will ensure that there are no last minute panics. Sometimes examiners might finish examining the previous student earlier so you might have to go in slightly earlier than your scheduled time.

• Do check the exam venue correctly. Different buildings and streets might have similar names.

• Remember to bring any form bring ID – student pass, birth cert, passport, IC, driving licence, etc.

• Remember to bring your exam pieces book for the practical exam and your own pencil and eraser for the theory exam

• Do bring a jacket to the exam room in case it is cold.

For those who have never took an exam before, here is a video of a Grade 1 exam

My Story

Minghui (Phoebe) has always been interested in music and piano from a very young age. She started singing at the age of 1.5,  picked up violin at the age of 6, and keyboard at the age of 10, but decided that piano is what she really wants, after being mesmerised by a recording of lounge pianist Jimmy Chan’s playing. After much persuasion, her parents finally relented and let her start piano lessons at age 11.

Phoebe has her fair share of struggles in learning piano. As she has been playing by ear before starting formal lessons, she has much difficulty learning sight-reading. However, her love of music allowed her to overcome obstacles in learning and persistence allowed her to achieve merits and distinctions in most of her ABRSM piano and theory exams.

After her graded exams, Phoebe went on to pursue and obtained an Associate Diploma in Recital in Solo Piano (ATCL) from Trinity College London and an Associate Diploma in Music Pedagogy (Class II) from Seimpi School of Music. She is grateful to her piano teachers Mr Law Wai Lun (composer in residence of SCO) and Mr Arkadiuz Bialak (former Lasalle teacher) for their guidance in passing her grade 8 piano and diploma exams.

In the meantime, Phoebe is striving towards achieving a Licentate Diploma in Recital in Solo Piano (LTCL) from Trinity College London. Besides practicing hard for her licentate diploma, Phoebe also attends workshops, seminars, masterclasses and concerts to ensure continued music learning and growth.

A dedicated and committed music teacher, Phoebe hopes to nurture students to not only obtain the skills and technique in piano playing, but also to develop a passion in music that can last a lifetime. Besides leading students to achieve merits and distinctions in their piano exams, Phoebe also organises student concerts every 1-2 years to allow students to hone their performing skills and for students to learn from one another.

Home || My Credentials | My Story