The Importance Of Reading Music

Learning an instrument can sometimes be an overwhelming experience, especially when, as a beginner, one discovers that they aren't just learning how to play, they're also learning how to read music. Despite this, here's why I believe you shouldn't ignore the reading.

During my time as a teacher, I've come across many people with different backgrounds in music, whether it's learning while at school and not picking up the instrument since; from scratch, knowing nothing at all; or they are a competent player wanting to dive deeper into the theory. No matter what level they are, in my lessons I always encourage the reading of music and understanding the theory behind it, whether that's by jumping straight in or explaining it in small bite-size chunks.

EAR TRAINING

But why learn to read at all? Isn't it possible to learn to play an instrument without reading music? Well yes it is and it's an impressive skill to have since the player has used their ears during the whole time they've been learning. Ear training is so important and to have that skill already is very good. Famous players like Jools Holland, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles learned this way (though the latter two had no choice). That's not to say that they didn't learn to understand how that music worked; why some notes sounded happy and others sounded sad; how a certain pattern of chords could create a wonderfully nostalgic atmosphere (eg Debussy's Clair De Lune). What even is a chord? We will inevitably start asking questions of what it is we are playing at some point in our learning.

Okay, so you've learned to play your saxophone by simply discovering all the notes on your own and, from there, you've listened to your favourite songs, figured out the melody, and can play it exactly the same. Amazing. Have you never wondered what that wobbly sound they do on those long notes is though? (it's vibrato by the way).

FINGERING CHARTS

Curiosity will get the better of us and if what's described in the above paragraph is the way you've learned to play, it's not as hard as one might think to join the dots together. Start from the beginning; all those notes you've learned to play, you probably have some memory of what they're called. That one with 3 fingers and the thumb down, that's a G. Now, what does it look like on the page? There are so many fingering charts all over the internet that there will be one you understand. I personally prefer a visual diagram of what finger to press, none of those horrible lines connecting to a drawing of a saxophone with random numbers and letters (LR3, SIB2, RX4... eurgh).

There's nothing wrong in writing the letters of the note underneath the music and/or writing down the number of beats a note lasts for above the line (stave). Yes, you'll rely on those letters and numbers more than reading the music at first but, over time, you'll realise you can read the music without needing them and it doesn't take as long as you'd think.

EXERCISE BOOKS

Finding a music book is always helpful as these can introduce you to the reading and theory one step at a time. The saxophone book I use is called Creative Saxophone by Kellie Santin and Cheryl Clark (there's also a Creative Clarinet version too) and introduces you to a few notes at a time and a new articulation or style of playing in each chapter, giving you exercises to play in order to get used to reading them. If you're not learning either of these instruments though, there will be other instrument specific books written in a similar style out there.

There are also theory specific books that focus simply on the notation rather than what instrument you play, like those by Eric Taylor - The AB Guide To Music Theory; First Steps In Music Theory, and Music Theory In Practice, the latter of which tests you on what you've learned.

DISCOVERING FAVOURITES

Ultimately, by learning how to read music and how the theory behind it works, we can discover certain aspects which we enjoy and are good at. I myself, it turns out, am very good at 'flutter tonguing', a technique I knew nothing about until it was shown to me on a page of music as a note with 3 black bars through the stem and sometimes a 'flz' or 'flt' written above the stave. It is done by, first without the instrument, rolling the back of your tongue, creating what I like to call the 'Dalek impression' and being able to talk at the same time. Then, while playing, try making the same movement of your tongue and you'll have the 'flutter' effect on your notes.

You might find out what that type of music you like playing is called, and what those effects you hear in that style are and how they're done. From there, every time you see them on the page, it'll add to the enjoyment, and soon you'll have a back catalogue of all your favourite songs in that style. Something you wouldn't have found if you hadn't had the knowledge, or at least would have found harder to discover.

It took me years to truly start thinking about what it was I was playing, how to take my ability that one step further, and I wish it hadn't taken me so long since it ultimately led to me improving my jazz improvisation and being able to write my own music too. So, whether you're a new player or an old one coming back, don't feel intimidated by this weird language, embrace it and your playing will be all the better for it.

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© 2020 Ed Brown