How do You Read Music?

Well, how do you read music? Western music notation is unique in having adapted essentially one and the same system to the task of notating for all musical instruments and voices. But does that mean we all read the same way?

French musical education would have it so. Until recently, French kids had to endure a year of solfège before being allowed to handle the instrument of their choice – or of their teacher’s choice. Yes! If you were a year late starting violin they “demoted” you to viola.

The thinking behind the solfège system seems to be that you should be able to sing what you see on the page before attempting to play it on your horn. And that means singing the notename (do, re, mi…etc) – stripped of its alterations (sharp, flat) – with each note. You have to be fluent at this useless exercise to become a music teacher in France.

(Note that this is not the same method as tonic sol-fa, which notates the notes of a major scale from the tonic of whatever scale it happens to be.)

You might wonder how something designed as a code for instructing performers got perverted into a circus trick for sorting seven-year-olds into passed and failed.

I ask the question, because when playing a logical instrument like wholetone panpipes, bass guitar or Jankó keyboard you end up much more reliant on recognizing intervals on the page, rather than on your note-name reflexes. Since the same physical move always produces the same interval you only need to verify the starting note and away you go.

Saxophonists can rely on developing simple reflexes that send the fingers to a certain position at the sight of a certain note. It almost becomes like copy-typing. This can even extend to enharmonic distinctions:  an A-sharp on the page suggests going for a cross-fingering while a B-flat has him going for the side key or crunching the bis-key.

Trumpet players, and especially horn players, will definitely have to pre-hear what they see, at least approximately, just to get their lips, those invisible tone partners, tensing to the right frequency.

So which is it to be? Copy-typing, interval seeking or the-ear-is-king? Violinists continually switch between all three modes to achieve accuracy, especially in the upper positions. That is, until they stop having to think about it at all. In fact, that’s what they all say. There comes a point when you stop thinking about it.

At the master level, attained after the statutory 10,000 hours of playing from scores, it all becomes integrated. You read gestalts, hear what you see, and have the whole action in place before you go for the phrase.

So if it all boils down to a sort of Zen thing, it could be time we all learned something about meditating. That could be the missing ingredient for the dot-resistant millions out there!

Follow me on Twitter @jazzpanflute

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About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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