How To Read Music: Two Different Ways


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Wouldn’t it be nice if you could sit down at a piano and play a song you like without having to read the music to do it? Maybe you’ve seen or even know people who are able to play music without the sheet music in front of them. If your goal is to play your favorite songs on the piano and don’t have a lot of interest in the Bach etude that you’re playing, understand this: In order to do one really well, you have to be able to do both. Let’s look at both ways of playing your favorite song.

The Sheet Music

The sheet music is what you are most likely working on in your piano lessons. Maybe pieces by the famed composers of old like Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, or more modern composers like Copeland or Debussy. This style of music, often mislabeled as “classical” music has to be played with exactly the same notes and exactly the same rhythms each time. Although you as the musician are encouraged to play it a little faster or slower, make some minor dynamic changes, and wait as long as you see fit on the fermatas, you can’t change the notes.

Musicians who learn an instrument largely based on practicing this type of music, as well as technical exercises, are considered to be classically trained. There are positives and negatives to this type of training. The biggest positive is the fact that a classically trained musician has an in depth understanding of her instrument and they know how to evaluate the smallest detail to make a performance better. They also learn to read music at the highest level and this skill is a must for any working musician.
One negative that is sometimes seen in classically trained musicians is that they don’t often receive a lot of instruction in improvisation and don’t have the ability to play music without it printed out in front of them. For styles like jazz and pop music, the ability to improvise is a must.

Chord Reading

The other way to learn music is by reading a chord chart or lead sheet. A lead sheet often has three pieces of information: The song lyrics, the melody written out using traditional music notation, and the chord symbols. For a pianist who is trained and has practiced reading chord symbols as well as musical notation, they could combine all three parts to play the song.

Chord symbols work like this: if a certain piece of music has a “C” written above the melody, that means that the entire measure (or until the next chord change) is based on the C major chord, C,E,G. That doesn’t mean that the pianist can’t play other notes but the bottom note in the left hand is most likely going to be a “C”. Within that chord, the pianist can improvise based on the song.

The advantage to this is that a pianist who is trained in this method can play virtually any song once they learn some basic improvisation and also learn their chords. The disadvantage is that other than ready a melody (one note at a time) the pianist probably won’t learn the technical skills to be a great pianist. Where traditional music reading often does a great job of teaching technique, chord reading comes in as the best way to learn music theory, the study of how music is constructed.

Why Not Mix Them?

That’s a great idea but before you get too proud of yourself for being an innovator, Bach and other pianists (actually Harpsichord players) of the Baroque Period thought of that. Using a system of symbols call figured bass, anybody claiming to be a keyboard player had to be able to read these figured bass symbols and improvise within the music based on the information from those symbols. Still today, every college music theory student learns how to use figured bass symbols which work the same way as chord symbols do now.

Ideally, a piano student will have a mix of both types of reading as both are important skills and will be used frequently. If you have only concentrated on one style of reading music, ask your piano teacher to work with you on both. The great thing is that one skill will help the other.

Want to learn to improvise? Click here: Improvise on the piano!

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